Darin Barton’s plans on Jan. 14, 2017 were the same as any other day.
He was homeless at the time, living in a tent near Golden.
For some sort of an income, Barton and two others took turns panhandling on Denver West Boulevard. Barton’s shift generally began at about 1 p.m. and lasted about two or three hours.
He was used to people calling him derogatory names or yelling at him for panhandling, Barton said, as this was his routine for the past four years.
“I’ve had people throw things at me,” he said. “People spit at us.”
But Barton had never had anyone physically hit him, he said.
Until that day last year when a man got out of his car and assaulted him.
• • • • •
Beating someone up. Robbing each other. Rape. No matter what form it takes, the homeless are susceptible to violence.
“It’s the dark part of humanity,” said Rev. James Fry, founder of Mean Streets Ministry, a homeless outreach based in Lakewood. “There’s sick people who get a jolt out of hurting others.”
It could be self-inflicted or caused by a mishap, such as a fall, but Fry believes that not one day goes by that he doesn’t see at least one person with some sort of scrape or bruise.
In unincorporated Jefferson County, an incident involving a homeless person is treated the same as any other report, said Lt. Jon Everhart. Sheriff’s deputies respond, investigate, issue a summons or, in some cases, make an arrest.
Speaking only for the unincorporated areas of the county, Everhart said he doesn’t see a lot of violence, including assaults, among the homeless. However, he added, that does not mean it doesn’t occur. It could be that the incidents just go unreported.
“The majority of the (homeless) that we encounter want to be left alone,” Everhart said.
Many crimes — including those among the general public — are underreported, said Lakewood Police Sgt. Jon Alesch. With that in mind, the homeless population often tries to stay out of the public eye, Alesch said, therefore, generally prefers not to get involved with law enforcement. This makes them even less likely to report a crime committed against them, he added.
For example, Alesch said, a homeless person probably would not report that he or she had been robbed while sleeping, if they were sleeping somewhere where they weren’t supposed to be, such as in a laundry room in an apartment building or similar.
Homelessness wouldn’t necessarily be a cause for violent behavior, Everhart said.
But “considering the living conditions and drug or alcohol use, it wouldn’t surprise me that (violence) would happen,” he added.
Any living situation that there’s drugs or alcohol involved has potential for violence. And although there are drug-and-alcohol related issues among Jeffco’s homeless, it’s nothing like in the bigger cities, Everhart said.
“Denver definitely has a different problem than we have,” he added.
“The homeless are way different in Denver,” he said, claiming that alcohol, drugs and mental health issues are much more prevalent among Denver’s homeless population than Jeffco’s.
Homeless campsites are more hidden away and less controlled by the authorities, plus many are docile, Fry said, making Jeffco’s homeless enticing targets for street criminals looking for victims.
Moreover, Alesch added, homeless people often don’t have a safe shelter to go to or family around to help protect them. This makes them more vulnerable because they are generally alone, he said.
“In Jefferson County, the homeless are generally more afraid of you than you are of them,” Fry said. And largely, “you can’t get Jeffco’s homeless to go to a Denver shelter because of fear.”
Lakewood Police Department records show about eight incidents between mid-August 2016 and early November 2017 that possibly relate to homelessness and violence.
Two of these were assaults involved homeless people among themselves, two happened when a homeless person assaulted a member of the general public, one was the record of Barton’s incident when a member of the general public assaulted him when he was panhandling and two incidents involved people who might have been homeless.
“Although we have it out here,” Alesch said, “it hasn’t been an epidemic as far as violence is concerned.”
Something that is of concern, though, are crimes that Alesch referred to as “nuisance” crimes — a homeless person begging on private property, sleeping on a street corner, trespassing.
Homeless families are different than the typical homeless person, Fry said.
Often, they have some sort of income because one member in the family is working, he said.
“Getting a job is generally not the problem,” Fry said, “it’s finding affordable housing.”
With the families, it’s usually because of a circumstance, such as losing stable housing because of a rent increase, for example, that puts them in the situation of homelessness, Fry said. Bad behavior or drug use aren’t usually the contributing reasons, he added.
Homeless families run the risk of getting robbed when they have to store all of their possessions in their car, Fry said. In addition, sometimes they have no choice but to sleep where there’s others, putting them at even more risk to be victimized.
“A guy’s pretty defenseless if someone busts out a car window and grabs one of his kids,” Fry said. “And if a woman is even close to attractive, she’s a target.”
Law enforcement would like to help those working toward a solution to end homelessness, Alesch said. A solution to the overarching problem is preferred to being forced to ticket a person for needing to find a place to sleep, or seeing a homeless person being a victim of any crime committed against them, he added.
“You can’t arrest or ticket your way out of a homeless problem,” Alesch said.
Barton’s sign read, “Hungry.”
Bradley Marsh’s sign read, “Everybody needs a little help sometimes.”
In February, a Jefferson County jury found John Wiltbank guilty of felony menacing with a real or simulated weapon; two misdemeanors — harassment and tampering with intent to cause injury, inconvenience or annoy; and two counts of disorderly conduct, a petty offense.
The charges stem from two separate assaults on panhandlers — the incident with Barton in Lakewood, and an incident with Marsh on April 16, 2017, in Wheat Ridge.
In both cases Wiltbank got out of his car, yelling things such as “get out of my city” with a mix of profanities and eventually Wiltbank shoving or chest-bumping the men, knocking them off balance.
Barton had a brace on his leg at the time, and Wiltbank’s blow caused him to tumble over the side of the guardrail he was leaning on.
In Marsh’s case, Wiltbank had nearly hit him with his car.
“He yelled and cursed. He called me the scum of the earth. He actually spit in my face and on my stuff,” Barton said. “It was very degrading.”
Barton, 44, is no longer one of Jeffco’s homeless. He recently secured employment in a restaurant and obtained housing in the south Denver area.
Marsh was never homeless. But he can’t work because he suffers from epilepsy, he said during his testimony at Wiltbank’s jury trial on Feb. 13. That month, he just needed extra funds to help cover his share of rent, pay for his medication and give gas money to those who drive him to-and-from his doctor’s appointments, he said.
“I was scared. I’ve never been almost hit by a car before,” Marsh said of the day Wiltbank assaulted him. “I’m terrified to go down the street now. Everyday that I do go down the street, I keep my eyes peeled.”
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