Published March 16, 2014

Copyright by The Colorado Springs Gazette

Joe Rivera frequently spent his final days passed out in a stairwell near 31st Street and West Colorado Avenue as in this April 26, 2013, photo. Photo by Bill Vogrin

Side Streets: Joe Rivera’s tragic life, death illustrate complexity of Colorado Springs’ homeless issue

By Bill Vogrin

They are known as the homeless. Street people. Panhandlers, beggars, hobos, bums, crazies, drunks and junkies.

The labels make them easier to dismiss as subhumans and mere distractions.

To many they are harmless irritants who try to coax money for food, booze or drugs. They sleep in shelters, cheap motels, with friends and relatives, under bridges, in tents and on park benches. But most just call them “homeless.”

Many are troubled by their appearance on street corners and at parks across Colorado Springs. As their numbers grow, calls have gone out for a solution.

Joe Rivera was one of these folks. In fact, many of the labels applied to him.

And the tragic story of Rivera’s troubled life and recent death at age 48 illustrates how complex these people of the street are and how difficult, if not impossible, it will be to find a solution that provides shelters, treatment, day centers or whatever else is needed to help.

To look at the Coronado High School yearbooks from 1982 and ’83, it’s a surprise that Rivera ended up being a guy who cruised West Colorado Avenue every day for years, in sun, rain or snow, often pulling a red wagon with a bucket and squeegee, offering to wash windows for cash . money he would spend on liquor and drugs.

In the yearbooks, Rivera was pictured as a soccer player and the star of the basketball team.

Joe Rivera was a basketball star at Coronado High School and even earned a college scholarship. He is seen in the 1983 high school yearbook. But his promising future was derailed by drug and alcohol abuse. He died Jan. 21, 2014. Courtesy photo.

There was even a large photo of the young Rivera with a bushy head of hair standing calmly at the free throw line in his No. 34 jersey, contemplating his next shot.

Rivera was such a good basketball player he earned a scholarship to Trinidad State Junior College and the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo, as it was known.

But his basketball career never developed and gave way to jobs selling cars, first on a family-owned lot and then at car dealerships on Auto Row.

How Rivera’s life deteriorated into years spent drunk and even unconscious on the streets was pieced together talking to friends of his family, business owners and Colorado Springs police who came to know him.

I was among those who encountered Rivera along West Colorado Avenue where my wife, Gazette journalist Cary Leider Vogrin, owns a small business.

Even before her business opened, Cary met Rivera when he showed up at her store with his bucket and squeegee offering to wash her windows for cash. He was even a customer from time to time.

But the encounters became troubling over the years as his behavior became bizarre and even frightening.

His squeegee bucket became a prop to hide his vodka or Evil Eye or Pit Bull or whatever he was drinking.

And rather than a polite window-washer, he became a sometimes aggressive panhandler.

Over the years, he became a common sight along the avenue, standing with open containers of booze, urinating in the street or parking lot, brawling with other street people and collapsing unconscious on benches.

Toward the end of his life, Rivera would stagger up the avenue and sit in a stairwell near 31st Street. He would drink until he passed out, slumped over with his head smack up against the stone wall. Sometimes he stayed like that for hours as cars roared past.

Cary had heard many stories about Rivera. She began asking folks who knew Rivera and his family about him in hopes of helping him. What she and I learned was heartbreaking. And it resembled the stories other street people have told Cary as she has befriended them and sometimes reunited them with long-lost families. We both conducted interviews for this story.

To the casual observer, Rivera was only another “homeless” person. But the term didn’t accurately apply to him. He had plenty of family in Colorado Springs who took him in and tried to help him. And he had friends who took him in. Repeatedly.

His family declined repeated requests for interviews. I don’t blame them. They told me they want to remember the young, charismatic athlete full of promise and not dwell on his ugly life on the street.

Ghana Evans went to grade school and junior high with Rivera and recalls his friend as athletic, very friendly and competitive.

Joe Rivera in the 1983 Coronado High School yearbook.

“He was one of my best friends at school,” Evans said, describing how they practiced high jumping on an old mattress in the backyard and tried to imitate the basketball dunks of Julius Erving.

“He was very active, very athletic,” said Evans, who works at a gas station on West Colorado Avenue.

The friends parted ways when they went to different high schools. Evans joined the Navy and didn’t see Rivera for years.

Evans and many of his family and friends thought basketball would be Rivera’s future.

“I asked him one time why he didn’t stick with that,” said officer Bobby Jeffords, a 35-year veteran of the Colorado Springs police who frequently dealt with Rivera while patrolling the neighborhood as part of a dedicated west-side team.

“It was very sad. He said: ‘I got involved in drugs and alcohol.’?”

Instead of pursuing basketball, Rivera started selling cars and spending his free time drinking and doing drugs.

“Joe was a great car salesman,” said Linda Schlarb, who has owned Old Town Propane at 2725 W. Colorado Ave. for 21 years and is friends with one of Rivera’s uncles. “His uncle said Joe made more money than any kid that age should make and he started getting into drugs. Eventually, he got into trouble.”

Drug and alcohol abuse led to arrests, the first in 1985 at age 20, according to public records.

By the time he died Jan. 21, Rivera had gone to jail 35 times and received numerous summons for public intoxication, open containers of alcohol, urinating in public and other petty crimes, police said.

Friends and acquaintances recite a series of arrests, stints in jail and trips to rehab.

After one of those episodes about nine years ago, Schlarb said, Rivera started washing windows, pulling his bucket and squeegee in a little red wagon.

“But he was always drunk, so I wouldn’t let him wash my windows,” she said. “If they come in drunk, I won’t help them, and Joe would get rip-roaring drunk.”

Lori Daugherty of Olde Town Optical and Gifts across the street had similar experiences with Rivera before she closed her business.

“We used to hire him to do our windows,” Daugherty said. “And he did a good job.”

Then he started asking to borrow money. And he lied, telling Daugherty he wanted to buy a squeegee pole.

“We lent him the $40 to get the poles because we wanted to help him out because he was trying to get back on his feet,” she recalled. “He went right down the street . to the liquor store. That was the end of it.”

He never paid the money back and began begging for cash instead of washing windows.

“He noticed (others) were making more money bumming money and they didn’t have to work,” Daugherty said. “That’s when he started bumming and not working.”

Eventually, they banned him from their shop because he kept coming in drunk.

Other business owners also reached out to Rivera, said Martin Camarata, who operates Chip Monk Windshield Repair at 30th Street and Colorado Avenue.

“A lot of people tried to help Joe,” Camarata said. “But he was one of those people you just couldn’t help.”

Despite the problems Rivera might have caused, the locals on the avenue also shared a concern for his well-being.

Daugherty said she and her husband would call his mother when Rivera’s behavior became extremely bizarre.

“Everybody knew him, and even when he was at his craziest, you might say, he was just a fixture on the west side,” she said. “We kept trying to help him out so he could get back on his feet. When you didn’t see him, you kinda wondered: ‘Well, where the heck is he now?’?”

Camarata recalled giving Rivera rides to a family member’s home after he had a particularly bad fight or when he was passed out in extreme cold.

“A half-dozen times I’d pick him up in my Suburban, pile him in and drive him to his mom’s house,” he said. “She’d try to take care of him. Within a week or two, he’d leave and he’d be out there again.”

For boyhood friend Evans, it was a shock when he returned to the old west-side neighborhood after 10 years in the Navy and saw Rivera for the first time.

“I recognized him, and I had to sit,” Evans said. “I was surprised to see what condition he was in.”

And like others on the avenue, Evans rooted for his old friend when he came back from rehab sober and looking good.

“He was more sane than when he was drinking heavily,” Evans said.

That was the case last fall after his last stint in rehab.

“I hadn’t seen him in a while, and I asked him how he was doing,” Evans said, describing how they reminisced about their carefree days as boys playing sports in the backyard.

“He said he was doing better,” Evans said. “(But) I could tell he had been drinking a little bit already. I just told him I wished the best for him.”

Camarata remembers being encouraged at seeing Rivera sober, too.

“One day he walked up and it was the cleanest I ever saw Joe,” Camarata said. “He said hello. He looked me eye to eye, and he seemed like a different person. His brother told me Joe had been to rehab. He was a different man. I was so glad.”

But the sobriety didn’t last.

“It wasn’t a month later he’d fallen off the wagon,” Camarata said.

Given Rivera’s history, it was no surprise to Jeffords when, after only a few weeks, his sobriety ended.

“He was standing next to a liquor store, can of beer in his hand,” Jeffords said, describing how he and his partner were on patrol at the time.

“He tipped it up and we were driving by,” Jeffords said. “We stopped and we did write him up. Our thought was, the only way he’s going to get help is if he’s forced into it.”

Rivera was drinking a 24-ounce can of malt liquor beer. He received a $100 ticket.

Once Rivera got enough tickets, as the routine typically went, a judge would offer him the option of going to jail or back to long-term rehab.

“The only option we had was writing him up,” Jeffords said.

But there would be no more rehab for Rivera. Many who know Rivera believe he died after sleeping outside during severely cold weather in December and January.

Schlarb said Rivera’s family said he became ill from exposure to the cold.

“He got pneumonia,” she said, adding that family said his condition deteriorated and led to his death.

There was no autopsy available from the El Paso County Coroner’s Office.

His death didn’t surprise many but saddened those who came to know him.

“He was somebody’s brother,” Daugherty said. “He was somebody’s son. I just feel so bad for his mom.”

Camarata called his death a tragedy.

Schlarb said it was sad and a reflection on the family’s inability to get mental health professionals to commit Rivera for inpatient treatment.

“The family was trying to help him,” she said. “But the courts decided he wasn’t crazy enough to be put away and given medication. That, to me, is just wrong.”

Jeffords echoed the general feeling of sadness.

“I kinda miss the guy, actually,” Jeffords said. “The whole thing is just very sad.”

Perhaps the saddest thing is that Rivera’s is not an unusual case.

His history of substance abuse, mental illness and self-destructive choices is mirrored in many of the estimated 1,170 people who described themselves as homeless in the 2013 survey led by the Pikes Peak United Way. Of that total, about 300 described themselves as chronic homeless.

Many more live in shelters, motels, group homes and with friends and relatives but spend their time on the streets.

“There’s a lot more ‘Joes’ out there,” Jeffords said. “They are guys that have problems with alcohol or drugs. They were college students or professionals with great jobs and families who got hooked on something and it took them right down the drain.”

He described how he has been working with two guys recently who sleep under a bridge rather than go to a shelter or enter a program.

“There’s no magic out there to stop somebody like Joe from being self-destructive,” Jeffords said. “You can talk until you are blue in the face. You can tell them they are killing themselves. But you can’t stop them.”

I considered Jeffords’ observations, and it really bothered me. I’d like to think Rivera was an extreme case. But Jeffords convinced me he was not.

“Joe was definitely not a unique individual,” Jeffords said again. “There are a lot of Joe Riveras out there.”