By the time he arrived in Durango, Skip Ferguson had lost a lot.
He'd lost a job and the ability to work. He'd lost his home. He'd even lost some faith in humanity.
But there was one thing he was mighty happy to lose on his way: The chronic nagging pain that had kept him from working for over a decade and created many of his problems.
It was that pain – caused by twice being hit by trucks and having four metal plates installed – that had spurred him to leave hot and humid Maryland for the cool and dry West.
“I had to do something to get out of there,” he said recently as he unpacked boxes and moved into his one-room Durango apartment. “I needed a change.”
After six months at the community shelter here, he's finally found a home, and he's looking forward to the future. But he's the first to tell you he wouldn't have gotten nearly as far as he has without some serious help from several local charitable organizations. He would probably rattle off a long list of them, but for the sanity of this story, we'll start with Housing Solutions for the Southwest and go from there. That's who's handling his case, and he compliments them every chance he gets.
Housing Solutions, which formed in 1981 to help those struggling to meet basic housing needs, recently took charge of a community effort called the Community Emergency Assistance Coalition. It consists of several local nonprofits and gives one-time financial aid to those with an unforeseen crisis. The theory is that the recipients just need that one-time nudge to get them over the hump – to keep from losing a house or car, or to keep from going bankrupt.
But more than the one-time boost, Housing Solutions offers a holistic approach to those in need. Counseling is one component. And sometimes there are alternative options.
“When a client comes in, we can help look for other resources in the community,” said Alix Midgley, Housing Solutions' program manager for emergency services. She coordinates the coalition.
Housing Solutions' director, Elizabeth Salkind, said the coalition works well. “And we work well together. And (Ferguson) is an example of that.”
The coalition was able to help Ferguson make an unexpected $600 tax payment in December on a used vehicle he'd bought.
In looking at Ferguson's case, Housing Solutions came up with another possibility: He might qualify for a Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, or VASH, program that helps veterans with extenuating circumstances qualify and pay for housing. It's offered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and was just recently extended to rural areas. Housing Solutions was picked to administer 15 such vouchers in the region. Veterans who qualify, as Ferguson has, pay just 30 percent of their rent. The program's goal, Salkind said, is to ease the growing problem of homelessness among vets.
Ferguson said he joined the Army in 1977, at age 25. A couple of years later, he was sergeant of the guard at an ammunition supply point in Korea. One dark night, two drunken soldiers in a 2½-ton cargo truck came careening by the gate. Ferguson said that when he pushed a guard out of the way, the truck clipped him, shattering his right ankle and left wrist.
“My hand goes numb when it's cold,” he said, displaying the long surgical scars.
He stayed in the Army several more years and was honorably discharged in 1984. He returned to Maryland.
One day, a tool – a brand new angle grinder – fell from his car, and he stopped in a busy county road to pick it up, thinking he'd heard an oncoming vehicle slow down. The car slammed into him and sent him flying 85 feet, he said. That's when he gained his other two metal plates, this time in his knees.
He said he was able to work until about 2000 constructing cabinets and doing other labor, often on elite homes. But with his injuries, the work became too painful.
The bank took his home of 33 years when he fell behind four months of mortgage payments. He'd seen a story about Durango in Southwest Art magazine and started yearning for the climate as well as the art and music scenes here – he does oil paintings and has been a drummer for blues bands.
Ferguson left Maryland seeking a better environment, literally and figuratively. He arrived in September.
“I just came here for the weather,” he said. “And the day I came here, it was pouring down rain.”
But soon the sun began to shine on Ferguson. With the decrease in humidity, the pain dissipated.
“My metal plates are almost silent,” he said.
He found a place to stay at the Volunteers of America community shelter. Through workers there, he connected with the emergency-assistance coalition.
He qualified for the VASH program and became homeless no more in late March. “It's like Christmas,” he said at his apartment while unpacking boxes he'd sealed up half a year ago.
Part of the help Ferguson is getting is counseling. It's mandatory under the VASH program. Ferguson said he's had substance-abuse problems but has been sober for the last 12 years. He's also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“If it wasn't for these programs and these people helping me, I'd be living behind a dumpster somewhere,” Ferguson said. “I'd be in bad shape.”
Getting help is vital, but the onus is on you, he emphasized.
“You've gotta be willing to do this yourself. And they give you the tools to do it with,” he said. “And if you're not willing to do it, then you're in a revolving door. Some people just aren't willing to pull their head out of their butt and say, 'I've had enough.'”
His dream is to buy 4 or 5 acres in the area and build a house. That dream may be a few years down the road, he realizes. But the goal is important. At age 61, he doesn't have many second chances left.
“This is a do-or-die situation for me,” he said and emphasized each of the next six words: “I have to make this work.”
[email protected] John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.