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"Pam really represents, I think, the spirit of not giving up … and that is a remarkable strength."

moon was in sight on a late summer night in 2004 when Pam Deedon sat in a canvas chair sipping hot tea at a campsite in Clear Creek County, her four dogs at her side.

The 47-year-old had been parked there for a week or more, living in a pickup camper—a faded green model with makeshift wheels that she moved about the countryside hooked to the hitch of an old Ford Bronco.

At 9 p.m., a car pulled off the road and parked, its engine left running, its headlamps blinding her view of the driver.

Pam froze when he did not exit immediately. Was she about to be tortured or raped?

She "freaked out" more during the ruckus that followed. Her four dogs were sent to investigate, and a large man holding a gun, silhouetted in the car lights, yelled at her to call them back or he would shoot.

The man would identify himself as a deputy sheriff, though he had used no flashing lights or siren to identify his vehicle. He would warn Pam about squatting near the roadside and about her pets, which he said were a hazard to passers-by.

Magic, a German shepherd who was especially protective of Pam, had bitten through the deputy's suit pants, and he sent animal control to remove the dog the next day.

For the next two weeks, Pam couldn't stop crying or shaking. Later, she appeared in court to pay $180 in dog-related fees.

Being homeless has its downsides.

Pam is one of a growing number of people in Colorado with no permanent address. Most live in the Denver metro area, but some struggle to survive in the unincorporated mountain communities of Clear Creek, Jefferson and Park counties.

For some, shelter consists of a friend's couch, an empty cabin, a car or cave, because finding a permanent location for camp trailers is virtually impossible.

Work-related injuries knocked Pam out of a more productive lifestyle about five years ago. Before that, she says, she was self-sufficient—"the captain of her own ship."

For the first time in 17 years, the Colorado Division of Housing will take a statewide count of people like Pam this August. The division will follow with another count in January to better understand seasonal patterns.

Homeless people in the Denver metro area are counted more frequently, according to Kathi Williams, director of the state housing division. Recent unofficial counts indicate that homeless numbers for families have risen. Families used to comprise about 20 percent of the population but the last count showed 60 percent, which is alarming, Williams said.

Her agency is determined to verify whether those unofficial calculations are accurate, and it is eager to extend those counts to smaller towns and mountain communities.

The counts could change the way the state allocates money to assist those in need, Williams said.

Transitional housing, for example, is catching on for families with children. They thrive better in home-like environments, as opposed to living in homeless shelters while parents are learning new skills.

But programs for single adults like Pam are much harder to find.

"There are a lot of people we would like to help, (but) our hands are really tied," said Tammy Frey, a case manager at a community center in Clear Creek County. "Single people with no children have very limited resources."

On a recent Saturday, as Pam prepared to move her tiny camper from one temporary location in Jefferson County to another, she rifled through plastic containers of personal belongings too burdensome to keep. Most had been emptied weeks earlier and donated to a shelter for female victims of domestic violence—hardware items and tools, household and kitchen utensils, blankets and more. Some of the things gave her pause—letters from relatives and mementos of her three children, now grown and living in another state.

"I have this feeling that if I let it go, I won't get it back … but the old life has got to go—it's a pile of ashes."

A life marked by formidable challenges, for sure.

Pam was a victim of sexual abuse well before she entered first grade, she said. The abuse continued, by multiple family members, as she grew. One of five children, she experienced a different level of rejection when her father determined that she was not his biological child but was conceived when her mother had an affair with a truck driver. Her parents fought over the matter, she remembers, and behaved distant toward her at times as a result. They divorced when Pam was 8, and her mother gave her alcohol to help her cope with the pain. By 10, she was a clinical alcoholic. Her mother's choice of men thereafter exposed Pam to more unseemly characters, which made marrying young seem like a merciful escape.

At 16, she wed a Vietnam veteran eight years her senior, and soon after gave birth to a baby girl. That marriage produced two more sons before she ended it in her early 20s, having tired of her husband's beatings.

She forged ahead without child support, working any jobs she could find to provide for her family—from telemarketing, to housecleaning, to driving a delivery truck—12 to 16 hours a day.

At 26, after two brushes with the law for driving drunk, she quit drinking cold turkey and says she has remained sober ever since.

"You know the saying 'Walk a mile in my shoes'? Most people would keel over dead just putting these on," Pam said.

There would be another marriage and another long-term relationship before she settled for being "very happily single." She and her three children remained close until they became adults and a rift developed between them.

"My whole life was about them—along with a million mistakes," Pam reflected. "It's not like they turned against me; they just turned away—living that life took its toll."

Her last connection with them was about six years ago when she scraped money together quickly to visit her first grandchild when she was born out of state.

Since then, her existence has been reduced to living in her truck, warming herself in winter months, when no electric hookups are available, by means of candles and aluminum foil stuffed in a roasting pan—an unimaginable plight for a woman who once considered herself "invincible."

Homelessness set in when neck injuries related to past physical abuses were compounded over the years by work-related injuries. Eventually, she became unemployable when the pain was too much to bear.

Josh Johnston, a chiropractor at Vitality Heath Center in Denver, describes Pam's condition as severe joint degeneration and spinal problems. She was a "broken shell of a woman" when she began visiting his office soon after she became homeless, he said.

But Pam, who still can't come to terms with the label "homeless," still thought she could overcome the physical problems.

"Nothing ever hurt me," Pam said of the past. "Nothing ever lasted—I just kept thinking, 'I am going to snap out of this …' "

When she didn't, she plummeted into despair and became a mountain recluse. She moved her pickup camper deep into the woods, surfacing only to use her food stamps and collect a small disability payment.

"If I would have been in a city, I would have probably blown my brains out," she said. "The only comfort I had was the beauty of the mountains—and my dogs. If I was going to be in hell—at least it looked nice."

She was dying, but the littlest things drove her on. Like the comment one acquaintance made years earlier about a suicide, callously remarking that the person who died didn't "have the balls to live."

One morning, as she carried a cup of coffee through the wilderness, a "molecule of hope" stirred inside.

"I'm not so much a fighter anymore; I have some peace," Pam explained. "I used to fight with God, but you can't really dent him, so we hugged."

Resurfacing has been difficult.

Her lifestyle remains a vulnerable one—often depending on the decisions of those who might lend her a hand. And she can get cranky at times, when people judge her.

"It's kind of common knowledge that most people are about two paychecks away from being in my shoes," Pam said. "It doesn't take much to get here."

Once there, it can be tough to escape.

"As far as I am concerned, the system has created disposable human beings," she said.

Though she gave up alcohol 23 years ago, Pam empathizes with homeless people who have difficulty doing the same.

"Frankly, I don't know how many times you can go to sleep in a car or on a park bench and not want to pass out."

Her tenacity continues to inspire others.

"Pam is really a very lovely individual," said her doctor, Josh Johnston, who treats her damaged vertebrae regardless of whether she can pay.

"It took a long time over the course of three some odd years, but she has become a different person," he said. "She already had that spark in her—always had that little bit of hope and optimism—but she has turned into a different person … one who is trying to become who she was meant to be."

Mimi Henry, a transitional living coordinator for the Park County Crisis Center, also admires Pam's resilience.

"Pam really represents, I think, the spirit of not giving up … and that is a remarkable strength."

On bad days, Pam still considers dashing back to the wilderness. Then she remembers a promise she made to God the day before her encounter with the deputy sheriff in 2004—a promise to turn the wheel of her ship over to a better captain.

The incident with the deputy was a painful one, and it eventually forced her to sign over her beloved dog to a new owner. And when she tried to park her camper at other locations, law enforcement officials continued to tell her to move on. Yet she remains pragmatic about the experiences, considering it might have been God's way of pushing her out of seclusion and further into society.

At one point, she moved in with a family with five children for a few months, and remains close to the family today. They too had briefly experienced homelessness, when the father lost his job as manager of a warehouse in Arvada and they were forced to live in a borrowed RV.

Pam recently contacted a vocational education group, and an assessment concluded she has above-average intelligence. Had she lived a different life, she might have become a lawyer, a detective or maybe a "word person"—maybe even an investigative journalist. When she was a child, she loved to read and imagined she might someday write a book.

For now, she continues to seek a better life amid the difficult circumstances of her daily existence. But it can be tough to grapple with the bigger questions when something as basic as keeping warm in her tiny camper depends on layers of blankets and blue-jean skirts stitched together with patches of purple velvet.

"I don't know what it is; I just keep taking steps," Pam said. "Whatever God's got for me, I think it's going to be cool—something I couldn't do on my own. Something meaningful, helpful, beautiful."

















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