Out on a cold night

Boulder County Cares volunteers help homeless people survive chill

She stands in the Starbucks on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall, well after the weight of darkness has sunk temperatures into the mid-teens. Lila Hess is her name, she says, although she can't prove it because someone stole her bag.

Lila -- she is known around Boulder by her first name -- wears a man's jacket that's much too big, over a sweatshirt with green-plaid "MSU" letters sewn on. Gray hair sticks out in random clusters from under a woolen hat.

Lila in Starbucks
Brett Heintz, a volunteer with Boulder County Cares, calls the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless from the Starbucks on the Pearl Street Mall. Heintz was trying to find Lila Hess, 75, a place to sleep on Wednesday as temperatures dropped into the teens. Sammy Dallal/Daily Camera

Her knuckles are gnarled with arthritis, and she lacks teeth. She was born in 1929, she says, in a voice you have to lean over to hear.

Brett Heintz and Peter Olivo are leaning over her. Both live in Boulder and work in the software business. Although they first met an hour earlier Wednesday evening, they wear matching jackets, like a couple in a ski-lift line.

Lila wants to go to Longmont. There, she says, is her "old man," who is her husband or her son, depending on the moment. Her old man hangs out at the McDonald's in Longmont. He camps out. Or stays in a motel, she says, although she doesn't quite know where.

Heintz, 31, and Olivo, 37, volunteer for Boulder County Cares. Tonight, they will save Lila.

Into the night

In December 1996, 37-year-old James Ray Oliver got drunk and froze to death in an abandoned ambulance across the street from the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. The next year, the Salvation Army, the homeless shelter, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office, Boulder police, the county health department and Boulder Community Hospital created Boulder County Cares.

It has an annual budget of roughly $30,000, said Amy Glenney, the organization's coordinator. That doesn't count donations like the 60 sleeping bags that have come in from anonymous donors this year, she said.

From 6 to 10 p.m. each night between Oct. 1 and April 30, the organization's volunteers hit the streets in a black Ford Explorer full of blankets and warm clothes to save others from Oliver's fate.

The organization has a small office in the basement of the homeless shelter. Heintz and Olivo began their night there, pulling on brown jackets with bright-yellow "BOULDER COUNTY CARES" lettering across the back and loading up on $20 sleeping bags and white tube socks.

Their first stop is Mountain View United Methodist Church in South Boulder. The church hosts the Community Table on Wednesday nights, a free-meal program offered four nights a week. It's about 6:45 p.m., and the crowd there has thinned to roughly 25.

Rosemary Campbell, Community Table's board president, pushes a tray of pies and chocolate cake, offering desserts to guests. Olivo and Heintz are also taking orders.

Matthew Barlow, 44, asks for two blankets and a pair of socks.

"I hate to sleep with wet socks," he says.

Barlow has slept outside for 20 years, and starts making campsites in different places in July, "like a squirrel," he says.

Last week, the homeless shelter was filled to its 120-person capacity from Sunday's snows through Thursday's deep chill, with 41 "turnaways" in total. Many of them would be sleeping outside.

To the mall, but not to shop

The Pearl Street Mall is one of the busiest stops Boulder County Cares makes. Volunteers find clusters of homeless people, mostly men, including some who appear to prefer booze to shelter even on dangerously cold nights such as Wednesday. They hang out there before dispersing to campsites they'd rather not disclose. Tonight, there is also Lila, at Starbucks.

Earlier in the evening, a Starbucks employee called the Boulder County Cares cell phone.

Lila had been there for hours, the employee said, and she was worried about what might happen to the old woman when the cafe closed.

Heintz calls the homeless shelter. Lila has been barred from the shelter for the night, for undisclosed reasons possibly having to do with her behavior, he learns. She needs a psychiatric evaluation before she'll be allowed to return.

Heintz and Olivo leave Lila in Starbucks for the time being to walk the mall, a nightly Boulder County Cares round. In front of the old County Courthouse, they find a half-dozen men and a woman. They take orders: socks, gloves, blankets, sleeping bags, a backpack. Heintz crouches to the ground and pours chili from an 80-ounce thermos into blue plastic bowls, all of which he brought from home.

"They help us out all the time," says Cisco Montoya, 43, pulling on a pair of new cotton gloves. "Without them, we'd all be freezing."

One of the men, with a thick white beard, doesn't identify himself but answers to "Santa Claus." He is helping Montoya drain whiskey from a bottle.

"He's lucky to be alive," Heintz says later.

Last winter, Heintz says he found Santa Claus passed out facedown in the snow near the bike path at Baseline Road and 28th Street, in the company of only a dozen half-eaten donuts and a jug of milk.

Montoya is angry about the 10 illegal-camping tickets he has received in the past two weeks from Boulder police. An officer rousts him and others from "good" spots like parking garages and even the band shell at 13th Street and Canyon Boulevard at 6 a.m., he says.

A large man with thick glasses, earmuffs and a purple knit cap walks up slowly, lugging what looks like bedding. He is a homeless shelter turnaway, having lost "the lottery."

If the shelter is over capacity, everyone waiting takes a number, and the highest numbers lose.

"Can anybody suggest a place to sleep that's dry and out of the wind?" he asks.

To the hospital

Back at Starbucks at about 8 p.m., Olivo and Heintz grab the necks of the beaten plastic sacks holding Lila's belongings. She doesn't want to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, but she knows a man in a store near the Boulder bus terminal who lets her sleep on the floor, she says.

They drive around the block, and Lila lights up at the sight of the Shell station on Canyon Boulevard. That's it, she says.

The man behind the counter says he doesn't know what she's talking about.

Lila rides along to the western end of Canyon Boulevard, waiting in the car as the volunteers descend into a flood-control drainage ditch. They call out: "Boulder County Cares! Anybody home?"

Nobody is "home," but the crates, thermoses, crumpled blankets, backpacks and cardboard boxes pretending to be futons mean someone will probably sleep there later.

Back in the car, they convince Lila that going to the hospital is the best of her options. Heintz checks her in; Olivo returns to the homeless shelter to bring a man to the Alcohol Rehabilitation Center on North Broadway.

"It's tough. You don't think about having homeless in Boulder, but clearly there are," Olivo says as he drives up Broadway. "I like this program because we're clearly making a difference."

He picks up Heintz at the hospital at about 9 p.m. Lila, Heintz says, will be taken to the shelter after she's evaluated.

They make the rounds to "campgrounds" they're familiar with. They holler out to the bushes around the Labor Ready office at Table Mesa and Tantra drives, the local homeless population's most reliable income source. They cruise through parking lots east of of Baseline Road and 28th Street.

They traipse through the snow at "Hole in the Wall," a stand of cottonwoods west of Pearl Street and Foothills Parkway. Six inches of snow pillows folding chairs of a disused campsite.

The chill presses into fingers and toes like a vice.

"This is the coldest night I've ever done this," says Heintz, a two-year veteran.

What to do with Lila?

A cell phone chirps. Lila, says the person at Boulder Community Hospital, has passed her psychiatric evaluation and must go.

"I'm very concerned about her. She's homeless. She's 75 years old," Heintz says into the phone.

Ann Noonan, clinical coordinator at the Addiction Recovery Center, later says hospital emergency rooms will release patients unless found to be "profoundly psychotic, unable to care for themselves or a danger to others."

"We've only got one shelter, and they have rules to keep it safe. You end up with folks with no place to go," she says.

The shelter still won't have Lila. The following day, Greg Harms, Boulder Shelter for the Homeless' executive director, says he can't comment on Lila's case, or even confirm whether she had been at the shelter -- shelter policy, he says. In general, he says, clients can be barred for anything from drunkenness to not doing their chores.

Lila is not an entirely unknown quantity. Boulder County Cares' Glenney says she has known Lila since Glenney started working with homeless people in 1998. Lila has been on and off the streets ever since, she says.

"Lila is one of, I'd say, 20 people who are in a similar situation," she says.

Because of alcoholism, mental illness or other reasons, they don't fit anywhere, she says.

The voice at the shelter suggests to Heintz that, as a last resort, they bring Lila in. She can't stay, but they'll give her food and warm clothes and perhaps call Boulder police for a "welfare check."

A welfare check probably wouldn't have helped Lila either, Sgt. Carey Weinheimer of the Boulder police says later.

"We have some legal authority if they are gravely disabled or a danger to themselves or others," Weinheimer says.

After Lila's evaluation at the hospital, a call to the Addiction Recovery Center yields no fruit, either: Lila is sober.

The other option, as Heintz sees it, is a parking structure.

"I don't want to take her to a garage to sleep," Heintz says.

The Lazy-L-Motel

At about 10 p.m. in the Boulder Community Hospital waiting room, Olivo calls the Lazy-L-

Lila at the Lazy L Motel
Brett Heintz, a volunteer with Boulder County Cares, right, shows Lila Hess, 75, how to use the TV remote control as Peter Olivo, not shown, pours hot chili. Sammy Dallal/Daily Camera

Motel in South Boulder. It's the cheapest lodging he or Heintz can think of. For $45 bucks plus tax, there's a room. They agree to split the cost.

The man behind the counter looks skeptical. Posted below the credit card display is a handwritten note with the words: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason.”

Room 119 is temperate, but feels tropical against the cold. Olivo offers a basic course in TV remote .

As he leaves, he asks Lila, "Can I talk you into a hug?"

He can.