Around 5 a.m., Raymond Paul “Jack” Woods wakes up, twists open a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, and pulls a Pall Mall Red 100 from inside an olive-green bag that rarely leaves his side. It’s sunrise on a warm June day, and the dual ritual of a beer and a smoke commences his morning. The daylight hours will slip away, and by sundown, the 57-year-old United States Army veteran will give off the musty, sour scent that comes from unwashed clothes steeped in stale cigarette smoke and alcohol.
There are about 600 homeless veterans in the greater Denver area. About a third of them report having substance-abuse issues, and more than one-fifth are chronically homeless. Because of Woods’ service record, substance abuse, and poor health, he is a high-priority candidate for Veterans Affairs–supported housing, but he must wait until an apartment becomes available. The process can take a while, which means he’ll probably still be on the street tomorrow—and maybe six months from now.
Raised in Alaska, Woods was in the Army from 1976 to 1982 and spent much of his life hitching rides through North America on the tails of railroad boxcars. Except for an era of stability as a father and husband in the 1980s, he’s never fully settled in one place. In early 2014, Woods left Alaska and headed south to visit a brother in Texas. When his Greyhound bus ticket expired in Denver, he stayed. He made his way to Colfax Avenue, found a parking lot not far from the Capitol, and has been living and sleeping in the area ever since.
Here, Woods has found something resembling stability again. He watches folks coming and going at a nearby office building. He exchanges greetings with the priest at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Denver Police Department’s Ligeia Craven, who serves Denver as a homeless outreach officer, keeps an eye on the vet. When Woods isn’t at one of his usual spots—like when he spent three weeks in the hospital for double pneumonia at the end of May—she calls his case manager.
Later in the morning on that June day, Woods is joined by Reno, a 42-year-old from Breckenridge. They sit side by side and admire the window washers dangling off the 52-story Wells Fargo Center while working on a shared beer. When he’s in town, Reno hangs around Colfax and runs errands for Woods, whose strength and balance is diminished by multiple sclerosis. The pair caught a lucky break this morning: A delivery truck driver had some busted cases of beer and offered Reno and Woods several cans of Steel Reserve Alloy Series Blk Berry 211. After a few sips, Woods offers the rest of the too-sweet malt liquor to Reno. He’ll stick with his usual and a smoke.