"Being homeless is miserable," Nick says. "But I was one of those people who would not go to shelters."
Despite the dangers of living on the street, he didn’t want any homeless shelter to get in the way of his alcohol and drug abuse. But after years of being overwhelmed by alcoholism and repeatedly becoming homeless, his bad decisions finally caught up with him.
It was late in the evening on February 26, 2002. The cold rain threatened of snow, but Nick didn’t go to a shelter. Instead, he went to a local bar. He wasn’t allowed to bring his bags and sleeping gear inside the bar, so he left them outside. But when he came back out, all his belongings were gone.
Friends offered to let him sleep on their floor that night, but blinded by anger and addiction, he went to a liquor store instead. In a nearby park, he found a dry piece of plywood he could use as a blanket.
“When you’re homeless,” Nick explains, “you have to take care of your feet and let them air out at night, or else you can get lesions and foot diseases.” That night, he took off his shoes so his feet could rest and dry. With nothing but his coat and the thin piece of plywood for a blanket, he fell asleep on the cold ground.
Sometime in the middle of the night, he stuck his legs out from under the plywood while he was sleeping. The rain turned to snow, and the temperature dropped to eight degrees by morning. When he woke up, his feet were swollen twice their normal size. The pain was excruciating, but instead of calling an ambulance, he went back to the liquor store and bought more alcohol. Whenever the pain became too much to handle, he drank more.
Between the alcohol and the pain, Nick blacked out for most of the day. “I don’t remember everything, but I do remember the pain,” he says, “It was horrible. I could literally hear my feet cracking when I walked because they were frozen.”
He knew of the dangers of cold weather firsthand. Just a year before, a homeless friend had frozen to death on the street. But despite the obvious signs, Nick was in complete denial about what was happening.
The pain finally became so intense he collapsed at a bus station and called an ambulance.
In the end, Nick lost most of his left leg and half of his right foot to frostbite, but it wasn’t enough to slow his addictions. He used his disability benefits to finance his partying and drug abuse. Within a year, he was broke and back on the street.
“It was just insane,” he says. “I knew it had to stop.” At a detox center, he called Denver Rescue Mission asking if he could join the New Life Program. “You would think that losing a couple limbs would be enough,” he says, “but that’s not the nature of addiction. It will kill you if you don’t find someone to help you, and that’s what I found at the Mission.” His chaplain, John, became a great influence in his life and encouraged him to take the counseling he needed to work through the personal, spiritual and social issues that fueled his addictions.
Nick says he can’t imagine how hard it was for the staff at the Mission to look at him and see hope, but they did. And their encouragement inspired him to do the same and give back after graduating the New Life Program in 2010. “I’m so thankful for my new relationship with Jesus and the help I received at the Mission,” he says. “Though my addiction will always be a part of who I am, God is using it now to help others through me.”
Today, Nick works at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless as a Peer Wellness Navigator in their Path program, and in the spring, he’ll become a Peer Specialist. He helps people experiencing homelessness in a wide variety of ways, but for him, his job description is pretty simple. “That’s my job, to give people hope,” he says. “I try to share everything I learned at the Mission as best I can.”
During these freezing winter months, the Mission provides emergency shelter from the cold, warm meals to the hungry and hope to those experiencing homelessness in our community. And like Nick, they have the opportunity to step out of the cold reality of their hurts, hang-ups and heartaches and into the hope and encouragement offered in our life-changing programs. But it’s only possible because of your support.
Thank you for helping us keep our homeless neighbors warm and safe from the dangers of the cold, but more than that, thank you for helping us change lives and give hope to people like Nick today.