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Homeless people face risk factors that could bring untimely death 

Dead at a bus stop

click to enlarge Calvin Reeves died at a Colorado Springs bus stop bench. - BRYAN OLLER
  • Bryan Oller
  • Calvin Reeves died at a Colorado Springs bus stop bench.
Calvin Reeves’ life ended at a Colorado Springs bus stop on Jan. 22 on a snowy, 12-degree night as winds howled at 40 mph.

Reeves went to sleep for the last time at Austin Bluffs Parkway and Academy Boulevard, 10 miles from the city’s 
shelters, at least one of which had plenty of room that night.

The 41-year-old, who loved playing guitar and listening to heavy metal, became a 2019 statistic, added to the 41 homeless people who died in El Paso County from January through November 2018.

We know that because, for the first time, the El Paso County Coroner’s Office is tracking those deaths (see below). Those who died were young and old. They succumbed to disease, infections, overdoses and, like Reeves, hypothermia. Others were killed or killed themselves.

“We had never actually kept that as a separate statistic,” Coroner Leon Kelly says. But he couldn’t help but notice he was seeing more bodies of homeless people on his autopsy slab.

“So I said, let’s do that. I want to provide this information to the public health and law enforcement people, so we can get a better idea of what’s happening to these people, what can be done to help these people. The things they’re dying from gives us insight as to why they’re in the circumstances they’re in.”

According to an autopsy report, Reeves owned little beyond the clothes on his back. Investigators found him lying on the ground in front of the bus stop with a pillow and blanket. He wore camouflage boots, two pairs of socks, a black coat, navy sweater and two pairs of sweat pants. In his pockets and a backpack, he carried a bus ticket, a blue comb, an empty cigarette pack, a metal wrench, a small flashlight, black marker, black gloves, $6.79 and a bottle of whiskey.

That he died in poverty and on a frigid winter night didn’t surprise his mother, Seena Phillips, who raised her son alone. Born in Pueblo, Reeves was always “exuberant,” she says by phone, and was a quick study on the guitar. But he had a lot of behavioral problems in school, so she encouraged him to take the GED at 15, which he passed, before enrolling in Pueblo Community College. That didn’t last, though. Instead, Reeves started playing gigs in clubs, though he was underage.

He suffered two broken legs in 
separate incidents as a teen — jumping from the top of a basketball hoop on a dare and getting sideswiped by a car while playing chicken in the street on his skateboard.

He was still in a cast when he and friends scaled a church roof as a prank, leading to a citation for trespassing.

Reeves married at 20 and moved in with his in-laws, Phillips says. The couple had a child, but later split up after Reeves became obsessed with the idea that his wife was cheating.

In the aftermath, he burglarized his wife’s place, leading to a stint in 
community corrections on a felony criminal mischief charge. There, he was diagnosed as bipolar, his mother says.

Aside from his heavy drinking, Reeves’ mother says he used drugs, including mushrooms, and went through rehab six to 10 times. It never stuck.

He bounced from job to job, working at Pizza Hut and KFC and later as a home remodeler for his uncle. He moved to California, Texas and Arizona but always returned, where he slept on friends’ couches before being kicked out.

“He could be very boisterous and belligerent when he was drinking,” Phillips says, “but he was not a violent person.”

Even she evicted him years ago because her new husband didn’t like him, she says. Later, when her ex went to jail on a domestic violence charge, she invited Reeves back, but he wasn’t interested.

At one point, she says, after a bout of drinking, someone hit him in the head with a baseball bat, injuring him so severely that he needed surgery. “He was different after that,” she says. “Things just spiraled and continued to spiral.”

The last time she saw him was about five years ago when he visited a neighbor in Pueblo. After that, she sent him Facebook messages, most of which he ignored.

On Dec. 5, Reeves posted on Facebook: “Cold as fuck here in springs feel like I’m on the show survivor. Live outside every night. Shelter sucks, gay homeless and homeless thieves. They fucking suck and I’m surprised I have not killed anybody yet.”

On Dec. 31, he wrote, “It’s death cold today if I don’t die in this I am one lucky mofo.”

Travis Williams, development officer at the Springs Rescue Mission at 5 W. Las Vegas St., is troubled that no one stopped to help Reeves. The mission had 110 open beds in its 450-bed facility the night he died. (The Salvation Army shelter didn’t respond to calls for comment.)

“All of us in this community have a responsibility to care for somebody,” Williams says. “How many thousands of cars drove by that night? Whatever the challenges were, some of those could have been overcome. We encourage people to seek shelter, seek out services from police and to save a life.”

One challenge was that Reeves had an aversion to shelters, but Williams says some reasons for that are simply myths.

“We accept people if they have a substance in them, if they have a pet, if they have mental health challenges,” he says. “Our basic tenet is, ‘Don’t do harm to yourself or others.’”

Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak Colorado Springs, which serves homeless youth, says she tries to bring awareness to the conditions homeless people live in. Urban Peak hosts Night Out to End Youth Homelessness each November, inviting citizens to experience a night on the streets. “On any night, there are hundreds surviving outside,” she says.

She notes the annual Point in Time survey in 2018, the most recent available, showed 1,551 homeless people, or .22 of a percent of the region’s total population. But the 41 homeless people who died last year comprise about 5 percent of the autopsies conducted by the Coroner’s Office, which Kemppainen says underscores the risk to life for the homeless.

“People who live homeless typically die earlier,” she says. Kelly’s database, she says, could help the community find solutions. “If we know specifically the reason these people came to their death,” she says, “that is something we as a country and a community — in temporary and permanent ways — can solve.”

For Reeves, death came in the icy clutches of a winter storm several hours after he parted from a friend at 6 p.m. He only had a few food particles in his stomach. As cars whizzed by, 2 inches of snow piled up on him.

“He obviously made a very bad decision [to not seek shelter],” his mother says. “I wish he would have reached out for help, because he had many people that loved him. I would have sent him a ticket to come here. But he didn’t, and so sadly my worst fear came true.”

Tracking homeless deaths

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When Coroner Leon Kelly decided to gather homeless death data, he began by defining what he meant by homeless: those who sleep outside or live in a car or shelter. He also included groups that aren’t included in the Department of Housing and Urban Development definition: couch-surfers and motel-livers.

“I didn’t want it to be just the people on the street,” he says, “because that doesn’t truly capture what these people are dealing with.”

As the database grew — he hopes to add the December findings soon — Kelly says it became clearer how someone in their 20s or 30s could die on the streets.

“You’re dealing with folks with significant substance abuse issues, less-than-adequate care for natural diseases, issues of access to health care, and environmental issues of living outside,” he says. “When you combine all that, this is the population that is ripe, unfortunately, to come see the coroner.”

Though Kelly says his data won’t yield “any great answers,” he hopes “it can give us a much better picture of what’s going on in these folks’ lives that’s affecting their health, their mental health state and their homelessness.

“This group of people in most of our minds are not sympathetic characters, and they’re easy to ignore,” he adds. “But these are human beings, too.”

His analysis found the dead included 34 men and seven women. Most were white. They averaged age 49, but the youngest was 23 and the oldest, 71. Five people died while living in vehicles.

Causes included suicide, murder, natural causes like heart attacks and infections, accidents — four were killed in pedestrian-vehicle crashes — and hypothermia, like Calvin Reeves.

Reeves had no drugs in his system but had a moderate amount of alcohol, which Kelly says made him more, not less, susceptible to the freezing temperature.

“Although it [alcohol] has the effect of making you feel warmer by bringing blood toward the skin surface,” he says, “alcohol consumption increases the rate by which you lose body temperature at the core. You want the body to hold onto blood to keep the core warm. It can make a homeless person feel better but it’s hastening hypothermia.”

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