- Matthew Schniper
Mona Welz likes to sit on her apartment's balcony, where the breeze touches her hair and she's surrounded by memories of her past life. The stick that would have made a perfect slingshot. The deer antlers her dog found. The stump that sat at her camp by Monument Creek.
She's been off the streets now for a few months. But after years of living in the urban forest, she's struggling to adjust.
"It's nice, really nice," she says of her new apartment, "and I appreciate all the people that went through all the trouble to help me get this place. But I was outside for so long. It's just like in here, I feel cooped up."
Mona, 60, offers a success story in a sea of people who are short on them. She was among our city's homeless for around a decade before she was able to get help from the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT Team), was granted a housing voucher that will last the rest of her life, and was set up with a small living stipend.
Now, she says, she's struggling to relearn how to live in society. Mona has found that without the worries of living on the streets, she's had to face the pain and trauma of her past, along with the guilt of feeling that she doesn't deserve her second chance. And then there's all the social norms and rules that she no longer remembers.
"It's getting back to being a normal person again," she says, "and I'm not a normal person anymore because everything I went through is now affecting me, now that I have a place."
The Independent first came in contact with Mona in 2016, after being phoned by her friend, Sherry Brand, a retired caregiver.
Brand lives in a neighborhood close to Mona's old camp, located near Pulpit Rock Park, and likes hiking through the area's woods in autumn, when the trees become a kaleidoscope of shimmering color. She had noticed Mona's camp four years before, but in the fall of 2016, she felt moved to visit it, and walked right up to Mona. The two struck up a friendship, and Brand was taken with her new buddy, whom she described to the Indy as "a modern-day Daniel Boone."
"I thought she was really quite an amazing person to be able to do what she did with nothing," Brand recalls.
Though she's a petite woman, Mona lived alone in an impressive shanty with rooms containing a kitchen, portable toilet, full bed, and dresser. Her camp was tidy, and she dutifully attended to the chores of such wild living daily — keeping her cooler stocked with ice and food, her camp supplied with chopped firewood, her trash and toilet emptied.
Unlike most campers, who are moved by police officers enforcing the city's no-camping law, Mona had been in the same spot for at least four years. She had permission of the nearby landowner, Fellowship Bible Church, to camp on the property.
"I would go down there and visit her and sit," Brand remembers, "because she just had a kind of cool place to hang out at, and we would just sit and enjoy the beauty of the area."
The only problem was, by the time Mona and Brand met, the church had sold the land, and it was now owned by the city. Mona had been informed by the HOT Team that she was going to have to leave her home. That alone was an adjustment, but Mona would soon find out that her situation was even more critical than she thought: She had cancer.
Mona grew up in Michigan with seven siblings. At the time, she says, it was expected that young women would marry, have children and be stay-at-home moms. And that's actually what she wanted. At 18, she became pregnant with the first of three daughters and moved with her boyfriend to Colorado. They married, opened an auto body shop, and stayed together for over a decade before going through a messy and painful divorce.
Heartbroken, Mona says she moved out, only to later realize that was a mistake. She never saw the paperwork mailed to her home, she says, and missed her court date, and her husband was granted custody of their children. Her ex remarried, and she didn't see her three young girls, the eldest of whom was still in elementary school, for eight years.
- Pam Zubeck
Mona ended up meeting a man who was 10 years her junior and moved to Texas with him where she worked in printing. The two lived there for about a decade, and Mona purchased the mobile home they lived in. She liked her boyfriend, but says she "cried just about every day for five years because I missed my kids so much."
One day, her boyfriend asked her to sell her home and move back to Colorado with him. She did, but says when they returned to the state he broke off the relationship and asked her to move out of their home. She worked at a motel for a year, renting a room there to live in, but, she says, the owners "were going to rebuild into a big hotel, so I lost my job, I lost my place to live and I began living in my car."
Shortly afterward, she was in a car accident. Though she says she wasn't at fault, police ticketed her for driving without a license and she went to jail. Her car was impounded and when she was released, she says, "I started really living on the streets." Mona isn't great at remembering dates, but that was around the mid-2000s. At first, she camped on the Westside, or couch surfed. She searched for work for a while, but then stopped. "I kind of gave up hope."
Except for a brief stint, when she lived with a boyfriend, she was on the streets after that. The boyfriend, she says, drunkenly stabbed their other roommate to death and went to jail. She ended up with his young black lab, Mickey. "I loved that dog," she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. "He was my best friend for so many years."
When she heard about the church land, Mona felt she had finally found a home. She started with a tent, then built a frame around it to make it more of a shack. Over time, she collected furniture she found by trash bins.
"I wanted a home, so I made my camp my home, since I didn't have to move around like I had to before," she says.
Like most homeless people, Mona gave herself a street name. "I called myself Trash, because that's what everyone made me feel like," she says.
She adds, "I tell you, when you live on the streets and a stranger looks you up and down like you're dirt on the earth, it's a really bad feeling."
Mona tended to steer clear of large parts of the homeless experience. She says she didn't often hang out with people on the street, finding that they sometimes seemed friendly and then stole her belongings. Plus, she says, she never was a drinker, and she didn't get into drugs beyond marijuana. Likewise, she only "flew a sign" twice, she says, and only until she had collected $20 for necessities, because she found the practice "degrading."
Her middle child would come to see her in the camp sometimes she says, and buy her groceries or do her laundry. It was a loving gesture, but Mona says it sometimes just upset her, and she'd snap at her daughter and drive her away. Most of the time, she survived with food stamps, giveaways, and with the $40 a week she earned picking up dog poop at a local veterinary office.
"They were just very good to me," she says of the vet. "... That was the first money I had."
A woman at the vet's office had created the job for her, and also gave Mickey dog food and even removed a tumor from him free of charge.
Mona also began attending the church that owned the property she lived on. The members were kind, and allowed her to refill her water and ice there. Once, when Mickey was taken to the pound and Mona needed over $100 to get him out, a man at the church shrugged off the cost, telling her, "Well, let's go get your dog."
Mona says she was deeply appreciative of the gifts, but even more so of the spiritual path the church provided.
"God was there for me the whole time I was homeless," she says. "This one time, I was praying to him, I said, 'God, I just need $20. I got to get some dog food, get some cigarettes and this and that, you know.' The next day, I was walking around, and there at my feet was a $20 bill. That was awesome. Every time I needed something, it was right there for me the next day, it seemed. I went to church to keep my faith strong, and to not be a liar and use people and stuff. I'm glad I did it. It helped me find God again."
Other than God, Mickey was Mona's only constant companion.
She recalls once, when the two were walking in the woods, she spotted a black bear and her cub. At first, she says, she was scared about what Mickey might do, but it seemed like he knew the bears.
Mickey ran to a certain spot and laid down. "He was like, showing the bear respect," Mona recalls. "And then him and the baby bear got up and started playing together. It was so cute." The mama bear, she says, seemed unconcerned.
Another night, she remembers waking up to find a mouse on her face. "My dang dog's just sitting there staring at me from the corner of the bed, scared to death," she laughs. "Didn't warn me or nothing. He was scared of mice."
And then there was the time she injured her back and had difficulty walking up hills. Mickey happily dragged her along.
At times, she says, other campers scared her, but she had her dog, and a machete, and that kept most people away. "My dog helped me feel safe because he always knew if someone was down there and let me know," she remembers. Still, she would usually stay up until 3 in the morning, fearing an attack by another camper or the hordes of mice that also inhabited her home. In her kitchen, food was hung from the ceiling to keep the rodents out.
Late at night by her campfire, she would sometimes consider her life, and sob loudly or scream at God. She felt like she had been stupid for trusting the men in her life, or that she should have fought more to keep the daughters she now missed terribly. She felt abandoned by her family, who knew she was homeless but hadn't taken her into their homes. She felt alone.
Mickey was always there, though, always a comfort and a friend.
"He loved everybody, remembered everybody that he met," Mona says through a cascade of tears. "He was a very happy dog, and he loved chasing rabbits. I think that's how he got killed, is he was chasing a rabbit and he ran across Nevada Avenue and got hit by a car. It was the saddest day of my life and I had to bring him back to camp in a box."
"It was a year ago that he died but I still miss him," she adds. "We were together 24/7 and I walked him all the time and talked to him just like he was a real person."
Mona buried her dog lovingly by her camp, marking his grave with a wooden cross. In permanent marker, she wrote messages on his grave. "I miss u baby." "Best dog in the world."
Even now, she still goes to visit him.
- Matthew Schniper
- At her camp, Mona had to hang her food to keep rodents out.
It was winter when Mona finally left her camp. She had been sick for six weeks, and hadn't had a bowel movement in close to a week. Though she hated going to the doctor, she finally visited UCHealth Grandview Hospital, just up the road from her camp.
When the doctor came back into the room after running tests, she says, "I could tell it was bad news." The doctor told her it was colon cancer, and that if she'd waited another week to get seen, she likely would have died.
While she was sick, Mona started to renew her relationship with her two daughters who still live in the state. They cared for her, and brought her grandchildren by to meet her. "They all have good jobs, they're all happy," Mona says of her children. "... They all have beautiful families and didn't have problems with drugs or alcohol, so I'm glad about that. I have to give my ex-husband credit. He did do a good job raising them, whereas I probably would have been a mess. So, it's probably good that he got them, rather than me."
Kippel, Mona said, had been kind and patient with her despite the city's no-camping law. He really seemed to want to help and had assisted her in getting approved for a housing voucher through AspenPointe. Kippel says when he's trying to get people a voucher, they have to take a needs assessment. "The higher the rating, the quicker people can get into housing," he explains. "So she ended up having a very high score." (See "A foot in the door.")
After surgery that, thankfully, removed the cancer (Mona says she was told there's only a 7 percent chance of it returning), she agreed to let Kippel help her. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today," she says.
It was a good thing, because when she returned to her shack, it was obvious someone had lived in it. Liquor bottles were strewn everywhere, and the few items of value she had were gone, including the snow boots and heater a friend had bought for her.
"She was so good to me," Mona says. "And then someone came and stole all that stuff."
Mona's apartment, located in the Patty Jewett area in a senior living building, was furnished by local charities and gifts from church friends.
It doesn't allow dogs, though there are plenty of good things about being housed. No mice. No worries that her home will fall in on her during a storm. Getting to eat ice cream again. Clean clothes. Showers.
Back at the camp, she would sometimes go two months without a shower.
- Matthew Schniper
- Mona has written loving notes all over Mickey's grave.
And there's a chance here too, to be feminine in a way she couldn't at the camp. Mona paints her nails with sparkled polish and spritzes herself with perfume. Her new place has a washer and dryer, a kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. She's learning to enjoy all these new luxuries, even if it is a slow process. She tried to cook frozen pizza recently, she says with a laugh, not realizing she needed to remove the cardboard tray. It caught on fire, though she quickly put it out.
On Sundays, Mona heads to church. And occasionally one of her daughters or an old friend will drop by.
Mona still collects dog poop at her old vet, but says she doesn't think she could work again full-time. She gets too down, and she doesn't want to miss days because of it. But she used to bead and sell other crafts and she's hoping to start doing that again. She wants to build a life.
"I would love to stay here," she says. "It's a great place."
- J. Adrian Stanley
- Mona hung stars from her wall, to remind her of the night sky.
Still she says she fears she won't be able to. There's the little things — her neighbors have reported her for infractions like vacuuming after 10 p.m. She says she's had to learn the rules of the building, but seems hurt that people would be so mad at her when she meant no harm.
Then there's the big things. After losing everything she loved over and over, she has difficulty trusting that this new life is really hers to keep. She struggles to understand why she would deserve the good fortune of being given this fresh start, while also not grasping what she did to deserve being homeless for so many years. She wonders if it's because she made "stupid" or naive choices.
"I just feel like, sometimes, it's all my fault," she says.
When her mind goes to dark places, she often mentally travels back to her shack. It used to be, she says, that she would have done anything to live indoors, but now, when she's sad, she misses the woods. At night, in her apartment, she'll often turn off the lights and stare at the collection of glowing plastic stars she's stuck to her bedroom wall.
Alone in the dim light, she'll think of Mickey, and all those twinkling, long nights they spent together by the campfire.