- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 3, 2018

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Dan Collins knows what it’s like to sleep outside on the ground in Cheyenne’s unforgiving winter cold. He said heavy cardboard was the best insulator between the chill of the bare ground and his body.

He knows what it’s like to live each day with his only care being cigarettes and liquor - Black Velvet was his brand.

“Myself, I wouldn’t go to sleep at night without this much in my fifth, at least a half-pint,” Collins said. “For that two hours maybe I’m awake waiting for the liquor store to open, that half-pint really made a difference. No dry heaves, no nothing. Not hungry. Nothing.”

But that’s not the life he wants anymore. As 2017 comes to an end - a year he spent most of intoxicated and on the street - Collins is living a life almost unrecognizable to anyone who knew him the past several years.

Collins has a spacious room at COMEA House, a nonprofit serving Cheyenne’s homeless population. It has a desk where he writes down his thoughts next to a couch for guests. Next to that is a refrigerator, from which he’ll be sure to offer visitors a Pepsi. The bathroom is clean and comfortably amenable to his being in a wheelchair (Collins lost both of his legs to severe frostbite when he passed out intoxicated in a snow drift). The television with cable sits across from a comfortable bed with fresh linens and robust pillows.

But that’s not what is motivating Collins’ recent commitment to stay sober and off the streets. Since he began living at COMEA in November, he’s become an integral part of the shelter’s programming. In addition to volunteering to monitor the front desk at different times during the week, Collins reaches out to homeless people both inside and outside of the shelter that he can help in some way.

Many of the people living on the street don’t trust shelters for one reason or another, said Robin Bocanegra, COMEA executive director. With many of those skeptical folks, she said Collins is able to transcend the barriers shelter staff might face. When weather permits, Collins goes out into the community, trying to locate his friends still living homeless to talk about what they could do to improve their situations.

“He just knows how to talk to them,” Bocanegra said. “They seem to like him because he’s one of them. They don’t feel judged, they don’t feel uncomfortable, and he has some insight.”

It’s true, Collins said, that the people he’s reaching out to can’t say he doesn’t have the shared experiences. And he understands that people have reasons to not trust others.

“A lot of people have been burned,” Collins said. “(But) they can’t say I’m a book-learner, or I’m not a true alcoholic. I know these people. I’m right here.”

The beautiful part is that people needing Collins is what he needs.

“That’s my major anchor for staying sober, is that I’m wanted,” he said. “It really helps that people want me and I’m not alone.”


Alcoholics who find their way to recovery frequently cite having a moment of clarity that led them to sobriety. For Collins, that moment happened during the season’s first snow in the middle of November.

Frequent stops for Collins at the time were the Green Door liquor store and Kum & Go convenience store. That day, he decided to pick up cigarettes at the convenience store before grabbing his liquor across the street.

When he was inside the store, however, he was struck with an urge to ask to use the phone. He called 911.

“I said, ‘I don’t know if this is an emergency, but I can’t handle the cold anymore,’” Collins said.

Cheyenne Police Department officers had lots of experience with Collins. Some days, they would write him citations or arrest him for a variety of offenses - Collins said he once received 22 citations in a month. Other days, they turned blind eyes to his open containers and public intoxication, just checking on Collins to make sure he was safe.

But on that day, police decided they needed to find someplace for Collins to go. Bocanegra said she received a call from a CPD officer who said he had Collins, it was really cold, and they didn’t know what to do with him. At the time, COMEA had a zero-tolerance policy for admitting anyone who had been consuming drugs or alcohol. The officer acknowledged Collins was intoxicated, which left Bocanegra torn.

She decided to roll the dice.

“After a minute or so of hemming and hawing, I said, ‘Bring him over,’” she said.

It was far from Bocanegra’s first experience with Collins. In 2010, he’d spent time living in COMEA’s dorms, and later the upstairs apartments, where he had around a year of sobriety. But Bocanegra said it’s not always easy adjusting for residents. One day, Collins felt he was unable to continue with the situation.

“He came down with his backpack and goes, ‘I’m leaving,’” she said. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I’m moving out. I want to drink.’ And he disappeared.”

Bocanegra continued to see Collins on the street. In 2016, she said Collins came back for a brief period to take another stab at living at COMEA’s facilities. But one day, he was caught panhandling, which also is against COMEA’s rules.

“He got mad and said he was leaving,” Bocanegra said.

The two continued to stay in touch. Bocanegra said she’d never turn Collins away.

When Collins lost his legs, Bocanegra said she believed he’d lost a sense of purpose.

“People who are homeless, however they got there, end up staying there because of a lack of purpose,” she said. “They feel life has no meaning, like no one would notice if they vanished. They feel invisible. I think that’s probably how Dan felt for many years.”

Today, Bocanegra said it seems Collins has found a purpose, helping others in the community, that is driving him. That, she said, is why she’s feeling optimistic.

“I think it’s given him the purpose we all need,” Bocanegra said.


Collins and Bocanegra agree this time seems different for him.

“All I know is I didn’t think I’d make it to 50, I didn’t think I’d make it to 60, now I want to try for 70,” Collins said.

He’s lived for so long traveling between states, working different jobs, hitchhiking, panhandling, living in a fog that blinded any path out of alcoholism and street living that Collins said it might have seemed unlikely he could turn things around. When he was detoxing in the same room he now stays in during those first days at COMEA in November, Collins said it was difficult being alone with his thoughts.

“There was no TV or radio - there was nothing to focus on,” he said.

But now, when he lies down in his bed to sleep at night, Collins said he’s able to feel at peace.

“When I go to sleep at night, the demons are silent,” he said.

Collins said he knows his sobriety isn’t a battle he’s won - far from it. He has work to do and must be mindful of his thoughts and surroundings to maintain the positive lifestyle he’s come to embrace over the last six weeks. There’s something different, however, in his thinking that Collins believes is setting him on the right path, he said. Knowing that he is needed and has a reason to be sober, Collins said, has lifted a heavy portion of the burden that kept him down for so many years.

“The weight is gone,” he said. “That crushing obsession, it’s very real; but, for now, it’s gone.”

For Bocanegra, it’s remarkable to see the kind of person that she knew Collins had the capability of being. Their paths in life, she said, couldn’t be more different. But they appreciate each other in a profound way that has a great deal of meaning for Bocanegra, she said.

“Dan and I are light years apart in life experience, and neither one is right or wrong, good or bad, but I love that we have those conversations and talk about our lives,” she said. “He doesn’t feel judged by me, and I don’t feel judged by him. We can appreciate each other and find value. He’s a great example of what you can do if you pour yourself into someone.”

New Year’s is a time when many make resolutions to improve their lives. Collins said he doesn’t see his commitment to a positive lifestyle as a New Year’s resolution - it goes beyond that. For him, the future is like a road illuminated on a path to a life that would have been unimaginable before. It’s a long road ahead, Collins said, but at least it’s a road.

“This whole scenario has given me youth,” he said. “When I get down the road, with my own place, maybe even a dog in a backyard, come over and say, ‘Now I’m proud of you.’ That’s what’s inside of me.”


Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com

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