Man who died days after finally getting off the streets is remembered

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Paul Gabrielson in his new apartment. - COURTESY OF RICHARD JOHNSON
  • Courtesy of Richard Johnson
  • Paul Gabrielson in his new apartment.

The day Paul Gabrielson moved into his own apartment, the first address to his name in years, he was glowing.

Within a few hours, the 50-year-old had put on music and decorated the space with a few spare belongings, recalls Richard Johnson, a relative who helped Gabrielson move.

"He was like a little kid," Johnson says. "He was so excited about this brand new home, his new start on life."

But two days after Gabrielson — who had been chronically homeless since at least 2013, couchsurfing and frequenting the Springs Rescue Mission when he wasn't camping outside — gained the keys to his own apartment, tragedy struck.

While the coroner's report isn't finalized, word is that an undiagnosed condition, possibly related to Gabrielson's alcoholism, took his life.

Gabrielson was a frequent patron at Westside Cares, a nonprofit that provides food and services for people experiencing homelessness. At a Dec. 20 memorial service for Gabrielson, the nonprofit's building was packed with those who knew and loved him: family members, friends who had lived with him on the streets, volunteers who'd felt appreciated by his kindness, and others who knew him in passing but felt the impact of his loving personality.



"We’ve had a lot of memorial services, but none as big as this," one volunteer remarked to Gabrielson's sister in passing.

It's not surprising, given the impression Gabrielson clearly left on the homeless outreach community. He received services, but gave what he could himself, too — like the Broncos cap he gave to Pastor Eric Sandras, who led the memorial service, and a beanie sported by Kristy Milligan, CEO of Westside Cares, as she delivered opening remarks. Gabrielson often helped serve meals at Sandras' The Sanctuary Church, Sandras says. And those he met on the streets recalled his habit of lending a helping hand when he could.

"Paul had a really big heart and he inspired a lot of people, whether to become Christian or be thankful for what you have," says Janeice Queen, Gabrielson's sister. "... He didn’t have a lot, but he did have a big heart, and we’re going to miss him."


At Westside Cares, Gabrielson took the VI-SPDAT housing assessment, which looks at a variety of factors to determine level of vulnerability and potential for placement in permanent supportive housing. After a long process involving heaps of paperwork and doctor's appointments, he eventually was selected for an opening in one of Homeward Pikes Peak's permanent supportive housing units — like "striking gold in this town," says Deb Mitguard, Westside Cares' director of volunteer engagement.



"We saw him really working hard this last year to create a different kind of life for himself," Mitguard says, "and of course it took him making up his mind about that, but it also took several people walking beside him and helping him just kind of jump through all of the hoops that had to be jumped through to get from here to there."

Gabrielson was enrolled at Pikes Peak Community College from 2010 to 2014, according to a PPCC spokesperson, but never got a degree. Johnson says he had planned to complete the remaining courses needed for an associate's degree and transfer the credits to Colorado State University at Pueblo in the summer or fall.

COURTESY OF WESTSIDE CARES
  • Courtesy of Westside Cares
He loved dancing and martial arts, Queen says, and had a job interview scheduled the last time she spoke with him.

"I don’t understand why it takes some people and doesn’t take others, the alcohol," she says. 


Through everything — decades of alcoholism, the deaths of two of his friends last year, and a recent beating that landed him in the hospital — friends, family and acquaintances agree that Gabrielson put others before himself, sometimes to his own detriment. And contrary to one stereotype of chronically homeless people, it was clear he didn't choose the lifestyle he led. That much is evidenced by his 2017 interview with Milligan for a video series promoting Westside Cares.

"I’m a wuss on the streets. I hate the cold," Gabrielson says. "I don’t want to be out there for anything. I just sustained some medical issues and a [traumatic brain injury] and I just had some problems that unfortunately I found myself on the streets, and you know, it can happen to anybody... Sometimes I get in dire straits. I just, I’ve gone through this before and I’ve learned how to survive and take care of myself and what have you, but not everybody knows how to do that. And I’m just trying to do my part to do whatever I can to help anybody that needs the help utilize the resources that are available."

Johnson hopes Gabrielson's journey out of homelessness will inspire other patrons of Westside Cares, even if it did end in tragedy.

"Folks working here can say, 'Remember Paul? How he made changes in his life? There's hope.'"

Francie Crary, a volunteer who helped Gabrielson with his housing assessment, says she remembers a visible change in his appearance the last time she saw him at Westside Cares. It was a few days before he would receive the keys to his apartment.

"He was floating," Crary says. "I mean, he was so full of light anyway, but he was floating. He was absolutely floating."

Milligan takes comfort in one outtake from the interview that she still recalls.

"
I asked him what gave him hope, and he said God gave him hope," Milligan says. "Which makes me feel better about losing him... He believed that he was wrapped up in God’s arms, and that’s what I would wish for someone at their last moment."

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