David Shue was sleeping on cardboard behind an Aurora strip mall and drinking more than half a gallon of vodka and several beers a day last fall when he agreed to accept help from a kind hospital social worker.
Months earlier, Dave lost six toes, three on each foot, after spending hours outdoors during a frigid, wet spring snowstorm.
Living on the streets, shivering and waking every hour overnight had gotten too difficult.
Dave had met his social worker, AK Kopperud, while being treated for frostbite and alcohol addiction at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. The men kept in touch.
Close to Thanksgiving, Dave was ready to accept help. AK had good news. Thanks to a new housing transitions program, AK could help Dave embark on a path to permanent housing.
Dave had borrowed a friend’s phone and left word for AK about where he was living. AK headed out to look for Dave and almost had to give up on finding him. Then, he searched one more time behind the TJ Maxx store. He saw some cardboard move near a concrete stairwell, and a face appeared. It was Dave.
That day, AK connected Dave with case workers from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, who helped Dave find a room in a motel that the City of Denver rented through a program to get people off the streets during the pandemic.
Dave has lived at the motel west of downtown Denver ever since and now qualifies for permanent housing. After getting a roof over his head, his health improved significantly.
“I haven’t had any seizures since moving in here,” he said. “I’ve gotten back on all my prescriptions. I take my medications more seriously.”
Dave also hasn’t needed to visit an ER or stay in a hospital since getting his motel room. That means his health is better and taxpayers who fund Medicaid are saving thousands of dollars.
While Dave hasn’t given up alcohol completely, he no longer drinks any hard liquor or uses illegal drugs. He’s down to drinking a couple of beers a day. He’s keeping in touch regularly with AK and his doctors and is getting injections to treat spinal pain after a car slammed into him while he was riding a bike a few years ago.
Now 52, Dave has a twinkle in his eye. He likes making jokes about the little toddler boot he keeps on his cane. It’s a play on his last name. He’s a ‘Shue’ who sports a cute shoe.
Dave has a phone now and calls his mom in Ohio every day to let her know how he’s doing. He has a twin brother and the two always vied against each other in everything from chores to sports. Dave started working when he was just 14, cutting grass and hauling lumber at constructions sites. He’s applying that same work ethic to his life now. He wants to serve as a good example for others who are experiencing housing instability.
“I’m a competitive guy. I want to show other people that they can do this,” Dave said.
“For the first time in my life, I’m doing this for me,” he said of his well-being and his much-reduced alcohol use.
Dave says having a home — even a small motel room — means everything to him.
“It’s security. It’s my safe zone. I like taking showers. I like being clean.”
Once addicted to ‘everything,’ now seizure free
Dave grew up in Ohio in a family where alcohol abuse was common. He got drunk for the first time at age 11 and eventually became addicted to nearly every substance.
“I’ve done everything there is to do. I’ve been through cocaine addiction, heroin addiction, alcohol addiction,” he said.
Even so, Dave managed to work construction jobs for 27 years.
He came to Colorado from Ohio in 2001 and did well finding construction work, but also racked up convictions for drug charges and riding in a stolen car.
Dave served time in county jails, then when he was released, his alcohol use other health problemsed. As a result, he had multiple ER visits and long, costly stays at various hospitals in Denver and Aurora.
Back in 2018, Dave’s second marriage had fallen apart. He was riding a bike while drunk when a car hit him. He suffered multiple injuries that still haunt him today.
Chronic homelessness and health setbacks became Dave’s norm.
In October of 2020, he fell on a rock and shattered his knee. He received care at University of Colorado Hospital and had to spend weeks recovering. Doctors released Dave, but his wound became infected while living on the streets. He returned to the hospital and was transferred to UCHealth Broomfield Hospital in December, where he spent weeks recovering.
Then in March of 2021, Dave had his terrible encounter with frostbite. Paramedics again brought Dave to University of Colorado Hospital. Medical providers pulled off his boots and found his toys frozen and black. Dave then spent three weeks in the UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center.
Along with chronic pain, Dave also used to suffer regular seizures connected to his alcohol use. Before getting his motel room, he says he had 43 seizures in a single year.
“Now, I haven’t had any. It’s been 19 weeks and four days, and I haven’t had any vodka or liquor.”
Ready to find a home in Denver and reduce his alcohol use
Dave still remembers the day he met AK in the hospital.
He trusted the veteran social worker immediately.
“I definitely knew he cared,” Dave said. “He was interested in assisting me to get off the streets.”
Dave told AK that he wasn’t ready to fully give up alcohol, but he still wanted help.
AK had worked with many people like Dave during 11 years as case manager and team leader at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless before becoming a hospital social worker for UCHealth in 2018.
While working at the University of Colorado Hospital, AK found that many unhoused people repeatedly were seeking care at the hospital, and AK and his coworkers had few options to help them as they left.
He felt called to assist.
“This is my life’s work,” AK said of his advocacy for people who are struggling.
So, AK and his UCHealth social work leaders, Amanda Van Andel and Katie Herrmann, collaborated with experts at the University of Colorado School of Medicine to apply for a grant from Colorado’s Medicaid agency, the Health Care Policy and Financing Administration (HCPF). Managers at HCPF awarded the money to the CU School of Medicine and the Housing Transitions Program formally launched in August, 2021. AK and two other social workers, Avery Perry and Lia Ryan, help patients map out plans before they leave the hospital. They try to help patients find stable housing so they can be healthier over the long term and won’t need to return to the hospital repeatedly.
“The UCHealth mission is to improve lives. How better to do so?” AK said.
Over the years, AK learned the value of a “housing first” approach. Many people who are living on the streets are dealing with complex problems like addiction and mental illness. Without homes, it’s tough to work on other challenges.
“Having housing helps people move toward recovery and better health,” AK said. “Whether you are empathetic like me or you’re a pragmatic realist, we all know that few people can engage in post-hospital care without a place to live. Giving people access to a safe physical space gives them peace of mind so they can do the hard work of taking care of their health.”
Van Andel, who manages social work services for ambulatory clinics at University of Colorado Hospital, oversees the Housing Transitions Program. In addition to supporting the patient outreach work, UCHealth funds beds at Beacon Place, a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless respite program in Denver and at the Comitis Crisis Center, a homeless shelter close to the hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Path to permanent housing with help from homeless coalition in Denver
During a recent visit to see Dave, AK marveled at how well his client is doing.
“I’m so proud of you man,” AK said as he greeted Dave.
Dave’s feet are healing nicely from the frostbite and spinal injections keep his back pain in check. The contrast from months ago is startling.
“When I met Dave, he was chronically drinking. He went from cycling in and out of hospitals, living behind a store and eking out an existence to engaging with us and getting healthier. He’s completely thriving,” AK said.
Dave likes to call AK with progress reports. AK credits Dave with all of his accomplishments.
“My job is to provide people with alternatives. We’re in the opportunity business. We provide pathways to recovery. What patients do with those opportunities is up to them,” AK said.
Dave is proud of his room at the motel. He keeps it tidy and stretches his sleeping bag out over the clean, white sheets.
Out of habit, he still sleeps in the bag, not on the sheets.
As he surveys his room, he sees a home.
“I’ll shed a tear and tell you, ‘I’m proud of myself.’ If it wasn’t for AK and the Coalition for the Homeless, I’d be on the street and stuck in a rut. Now I have a bed, a shower, a refrigerator, a microwave and counselors.”