Catherine Ryon, 38, pulls the hood of a green rain jacket over her auburn hair as she steps out of her Honda Civic and into an April deluge. She splashes through the puddles accumulating on the gray sidewalk to reach the front door of a small bungalow near Colfax Avenue. Ryon’s a case manager at the Mental Health Center of Denver, which sounds like a desk job. Most days, though, she’s out making old-fashioned house calls like this for her 14 or so clients, all of whom have been diagnosed with mental illness and are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. (Approximately 34 percent of Denver’s homeless population reports living with mental illness.) Today, she’s here to visit Luke,* who’s missed some recent appointments with her.

Luke’s been on the streets for more than 15 years and is temporarily living in his mother-in-law’s basement. Ryon is trying to connect him with benefits, health care, substance-abuse treatment, and, of course, housing. The trouble is, where can he go? Someone like Luke might earn a $500 monthly check from disability and Social Security, hardly enough for rent and food. Ryon’s not sure Luke can hold a job—he struggles with depression and thought disorder—and if he could, in a catch-22, he’d likely lose his benefits, even if he made too little to pay rent. She helped him apply for Section 8 housing (a process that can take 12 to 18 months) and one place followed up with a request for more information, which is what Ryon is bringing him today.

About 10 minutes later, Ryon sighs as she slides back into her seat and rainwater runs over her slim shoulders. Luke is a no-show—again. “I think he’s just avoiding me,” she says and starts the car. She still has three client meetings today and doesn’t have much time to worry about Luke’s absence. Instead, she checks her phone before pulling away from the curb. The windshield wipers keep beating away the rain, and she drives on.

*Name has been changed

Erin Skarda
Erin Skarda
Erin is a Denver-based writer and the former digital editor for 5280.