Denver Panhandlers, Then and Now.


On the street they reach their hand out

It’s money they’re talking about

If the world is a stage,

They’re here to beg,

They have problems, of that there’s no doubt

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, travelled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I am back having adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record System (EMR) I can get along with. I spent the winter in Nome, Alaska, followed by assignments in rural Iowa. This summer included a funeral, a bicycle tour in Michigan, cherry picking in Iowa, and two weeks a month working Urgent Care in suburban Pennsylvania. I’m attending a medical conference in Denver.  Any patient information has been included with permission.

Most docs finish med school with crushing debts, I finished with great poverty skills and a 2 year obligation to the Indian Health Service (I stayed 5).

I did my pre-medical education at University of Colorado at Denver, at the time a commuter college with no dorms and no parties.  Paying for your own education brings out the student’s motivation.  My classmates had other employment and wanted better.

Lower downtown Denver at the time had just renovated its Skid Row around Larimer Street with specialty shops, but the bums, drunks, and prostitutes still frequented the neighborhood, occasionally drifting away from the pawn shops to the campus.

In those years I rode my bicycle everywhere, and I confronted panhandlers only when my bike broke down and I had to take the bus.

I returned to Denver for the American Academy of Family Practice’s  FMX, a convention for continuing medical education (CME).  We drove in from Iowa over the weekend.  We visited family.  The classes start tomorrow.

We walked from a very nice hotel to a silversmith’s on Larimer Square.  I’ve known the owner for 40 years now.  We walked down the 16th street Pedestrian Mall, past the panhandlers.

During my pre-med days a lot of young people found themselves on the streets because of lousy economic opportunities and generational alienation, they had good mental health.  They figured that the difference between no pay and minimum wage didn’t justify 40 hours of structure.

But at the time a lot of Indians came off the reservation to drink heavily in Denver (the sober ones, the vast majority, stayed on the reservation, giving the non-Indians in Denver a false impression of Indian alcoholism).  One afternoon I found myself walking down 15th Street when a Crow Indain confronted me.  “I’m just got into town,” he said, “I’m trying to get together enough for a bottle.  Can you help me out?”

He had caught me at a bad time.  I had much to learn about softening my words.  “You want me to help you out?”  I exploded.  “I’ve got a quarter in my pocket and I don’t have enough to buy a patch for my bicycle tire because I used the last one this morning and I got another flat this afternoon.  I haven’t eaten since 6 this morning and I don’t have enough for the bus.  No, I can’t help you out.”

He was taken aback and reached into his pocket, offered me half of what he had.

Humbled, I took enough to buy myself a new patch kit.

The street people look better fed but less washed than they did 40 years ago, and not an Indian among them.  My years in the Community Health Center softened my reaction to those who beg for money.  I have treated so many mentally ill that I appreciate the overlap between bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse.  Most but not all the people I saw asking for money had the bizarre affect of schizophrenia and the twitchy gait of the overmedicated.

I gave some money, I didn’t give to others.

I can afford it a good deal more than the Crow who helped me buy a patch kit.

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One Response to “Denver Panhandlers, Then and Now.”

  1. acuriousbecoming Says:

    This is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for your dedication to treating mental health, in spite of our infirmities.

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