Surviving at a crossroads | AspenTimes.com

Surviving at a crossroads

Charles Agar
Aspen, CO Colorado

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

CARBONDALE ” Wes Bright has made some hard choices in his 36 years. He’s been living outdoors since 2001, and most recently under the Highway 133 bridge in Carbondale ” a decision he said is about “freedom” and “not paying rent.”

But with the Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) recent bridge-widening project, “Property of CDOT” signs and fencing have forced Bright and a handful of other men out from under the bridge to camps on the north side of Highway 82.

And with the men more visible to passing motorists and local hikers, the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office is cracking down.

“Every time I get set up, I get busted,” Bright said. “We’re just staying where we can.”

Piles of cans, mounds of garbage and castoffs ranging from mattresses to tents and sleeping bags litter land marked with “no trespassing” signs on the north side of the road.

“As far as it being considered their home, it’s not,” said Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario. “We’ve had several crimes down there. … It’s not a place of residence. They need to go someplace else.”

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CDOT owns the bridge right of way, and construction workers told the men to leave before construction began in October.

“They just voluntarily moved. They went to the north side of the intersection to a drainage with cottonwoods,” said CDOT resident engineer Pete Mertes. “They took everything they have under the bridge and went over there.”

“This has been going on for a long, long time,” Vallario said, and he remembers many of the guys from his early patrol days.

“There’s probably a lot of alcohol issues going on there,” Vallario said.

But there are no restrictions on having an open container of 3.2 beer outside an automobile, Vallario said.

And, panhandling without any harassment is not illegal in Colorado.

And while there is a problem with homelessness state- and nationwide, Vallario said, “In my opinion, I think they choose to live that way.”

“I’ve 86ed them all,” said Bob Olenick, owner of the Red Rock Diner on the Carbondale side of the bridge.

“If they’re sober they’re fine. I don’t dislike any of them,” Olenick said.

But he’s had a number of police calls, and was once awoken by police at 3 a.m. when one of the men tried to break into the foyer of the restaurant.

“I’ve had to throw them out,” Olenick said, and the men have often frightened waitresses. “It’s just not what I want for my business. I just don’t deal with them.”

And Olenick is frustrated by the mess under the bridge and in the camps.

“It’s a disgusting mess they’ve made out there,” Olenick said.

Sami Boyle, a waitress at the Red Rock, grew up in Carbondale and remembers a revolving cast of characters at the corner over the years, everyone from a man known affectionately as “Bilbo Baggins” or “Top Hat” to “Grizzly Adams.”

“This is a new crew,” Boyle said.

“Some are nice,” said Reyna Apodaca, manager of the Cowen Center, a convenience store on the Carbondale side of the bridge.

But her night staff often have had problems and call the police. And the men befoul the store bathroom by using it as a shower, Apodaca said.

“They leave a big mess,” Apodaca said.

“It ain’t too bad,” Bright said with a smile, adding that his life out of doors is a choice. “I like to be able to pick up and go whenever I decide to.”

The men take turns panhandling at the busy intersection, usually holding a sign out for cars making the left to Carbondale from the downvalley side of Highway 82.

“I usually try to do something funny,” Bright said, citing a recent “happiness is a cheesebooger” sign. And panhandling earns him enough to feed himself and get what he needs. Drivers are “gracious” and always help out, he said.

He is not interested in homeless shelters such as the temporary program at St. Mary Catholic Church.

“It seems to me it opens a little late,” Bright said of the 9 p.m. start time at St. Mary Church, adding that on cold days it’s hard to stay warm until that late in the evening.

And he said the folks at Feed My Sheep, a Glenwood Springs facility, had no sympathy for him after he was injured by when his camp stove exploded.

He was hit by a car in 2006 and broke his femur, collar bone and ribs and still struggles with doctor bills.

The camp area has three or four regulars including himself, but Bright blames a few part-time visitors for all the trash and for getting the police riled up.

Bright said sheriff’s deputies regularly roust the men out and give them verbal warnings, but as long as “you behave yourself,” local sheriff’s deputies leave him alone, he said.

He’s spent some time in the Pitkin County Jail, saying, “It ain’t a jail; it’s vacation up there.”

A few local shops give him coffee, and though winters are cold, Bright has a good sleeping bag. And life at the intersection is about “hanging out and killing time,” Bright said.

“I know I’m not going to freeze clear through,” Bright said, adding he’s got the right sleeping bag and camp gear. “It’s a choice.”

In the past, CDOT officials put grates over box culverts facing the Roaring Fork River in an attempt to keep the men from sleeping there, CDOT officials said.

And when the bridge is complete, Vallario said his staff will continue to police the area.

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