Robert Balukas was the man you’d see lying on a piece of cardboard on a sidewalk in downtown Denver and panhandling near the Englewood-Littleton border. “I was stuck,” said Balukas, 55, who …
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This story is part of Colorado Community Media's third and final installment in a series, “No Place to Call Home,” which explores the reasons behind the rise in homelessness in Englewood and the response from various segments of the community.
To read more on how school districts, churches and city governments are responding — and to see the first two installments of the series — click here.
Robert Balukas was the man you’d see living amid cardboard on the ground in downtown Denver and panhandling near the Englewood-Littleton border.
“I was stuck,” said Balukas, 55, who lived for three years in shelters, on the street and near the South Platte River in Denver and in Englewood. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’m not proud of.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, an abusive household shaped Balukas’ young life, he said — deafness in his left ear is just one lasting mark he bears. Influenced by those around him, he also began selling drugs.
“I’ve seen a lot of things I shouldn’t have seen,” he said. “I had to do things I didn’t want to do.”
In Colorado, Balukas worked as a cook and in construction but said he couldn’t hold jobs because of various mental health challenges — schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and anger issues.
He was charged with drug crimes and, Balukas said, served many years in prison. He got out in his late-40s and landed in the arms of the Arapahoe Douglas Mental Health Network — now called AllHealth — whose program put him in an apartment, covered two-thirds of his rent and provided several case managers to help him back on his feet.
After an altercation with a neighbor got him thrown out, he eventually cycled through several downtown-area shelters. He often survived on food from passersby and churches, and spent almost a year in a Denver hospital recuperating from frostbite and a bacterial infection.
He then returned to Englewood, living outdoors and still, he said, using drugs. But through a church connection, he met Mark McIntosh and Gale Schrag, two members of Change the Trend Network, a community coalition working to address homelessness.
“They helped me, they checked on me,” Balukas said. “Every day, one of them would come by.”
McIntosh got him into a 72-hour mental health medical stay, and then McIntosh and Schrag found him a room at Littleton’s Essex House Motel on Santa Fe Drive. He attended classes to help manage mental illness at a location of AllHealth, also a Change the Trend member. Pneumonia landed him at Porter Adventist Hospital just outside Englewood, and connections through the hospital found him a spot at Pearl Street Health and Rehabilitation Center, just steps away from the apartment he was kicked out of years ago.
These days, Balukus is a Change the Trend advocate who strives to give a “hand up” to anyone who needs it. A big motivation is building a relationship with his son and grandchildren, who live nearby in Denver.
“Me and (my son) just talking is a miracle,” he said.
Schrag is proud of Balukas and how — despite all the obstacles — he continues to work toward positive change.
“If I could do it,” Balukas said, “anyone could do it.”
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