Read the story in the Daily Camera here. Copied below in its entirety:
Charlie Armstrong, who is homeless, recently told a Lyons resident who had given him a ride that he didn’t know if he could manage another winter of sleeping on the ground in his tent outside Lyons, overlooking the South St. Vrain River. Now, due to residents’ generosity, he won’t have to. (Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer)
Maybe it’s a minor miracle. Or perhaps, like some are saying, it’s just the Lyons way.
At the very least, credit good timing and the generosity of human spirit that has seen dozens of Lyons-area residents come together to put a roof of sorts over the head of a man with mental health issues who has weathered the past four years living a hardscrabble existence in a tent in the woods outside of town.
“I’m really grateful, and I appreciate it. I had no idea that many people cared,” Charlie Armstrong, 64, said on Wednesday.
Armstrong’s circumstances have taken potentially a dramatic turn for the better, beginning with Sept. 7, when he was picked up hitchhiking outside Longmont by Lyons resident Jen LaFollette.
LaFollette, the married mother of two homeschooled boys, knew Armstrong, like many who live in the St. Vrain Valley, as the homeless man who has fashioned an isolated life for himself at a makeshift campsite overlooking Colo. 7 and the South St. Vrain River, a few miles outside of town.
“Most of us in Lyons know Charlie,” LaFollette said. “We have seen him selling his art on the side of the road or given him a ride from the canyon into Longmont and vice versa. He goes into Longmont, where he does his artwork and gets art supplies.”
Armstrong, a Denver native, is also known at Ralph Ford’s Lyons Farmstand in downtown Lyons, where bundles of sage that he has collected are sold as smudge sticks.
“He’s a steadfast fixture in Lyons. He is one of us,” LaFollette said. “He is not a homeless person living in Lyons. He is Lyons. He lives here.”
‘The biggest smile’
When giving him a ride on Sept. 7 , LaFollette asked him if he was tiring of long, cold winters in a tent, where rain, heavy snows, high winds and the occasional marauding bear are just some of the obstacles he faces.
“It’s a question I have asked him many times before, and this was the first time his answer was different,” she said. “He said, ‘I think I am just getting too old to sleep on the ground anymore, and I would like somehow to find a pop-up camper.'”
She couldn’t believe her ears, she said, because the same day, she had seen on a Facebook page for local yard sales an offer of a used pop-up camper in good condition, with no leaks, for $1,100.
“Usually, if they don’t leak or have major issues, they are at least $3,000,” she said.
Putting social media to work, LaFollette posted a fundraising note on the Lyons Happenings Facebook page, and in one hour and 10 minutes, she had pledges to cover the purchase price.
LaFollette and her husband picked up the camper that night, and the next day she surprised Armstrong at the downtown produce stand with the title to the camper.
As of Thursday morning, the total raised was actually $1,815, enough for extra propane tanks, a new battery for the camper and other incidentals needed to ready Armstrong’s new digs for move-in day.
“I drove down there with the title and the list of names,” she said, referring to the 70 different people who pledged money to cover the purchase, for which she and her husband wrote a check up front.
“He was bundling smudge sticks. I walked up to him and said, ‘Charlie, do you remember the conversation we had yesterday about the camper?’ I said, ‘Well, there are a lot of people here who want you to know that we love you, and we bought you that camper.'”
She said Armstrong didn’t at first understand what she was saying, because he was so overwhelmed.
“I handed him the title, and he took his sunglasses off and he had tears in his eyes, and the biggest smile,” LaFollette said.
At his campsite on Wednesday, Armstrong lamented the trash piles under tarps that he has not yet packed out, and fretted a bit about the work that lies ahead in moving on — although he is delighted to have a better option ahead.
“I had no idea how much stuff I’d accumulated,” he said. “If I ever live in a tent space again, I’m just going to have a sleeping bag and a toothbrush.”
Winters have been tough, and as recently as last week, he had a tent ripped up by a visiting bear that tore through his bag of toiletries.
“He liked the hand cream,” Armstrong said. “And there was a bite taken out of a bar of soap.”
Still, he said, “It’s not like living in a cardboard box,” something he has done in Denver, where he said his seven siblings live.
Armstrong’s many Lyons supporters are delighted to see a positive next step for a man who has had little to celebrate in recent years, and scrapes by on $623 in monthly disability checks.
“We’re absolutely thrilled for Charlie,” said Emily Dusel, executive director of the Lyons Emergency Assistance Fund, which administers the Lyons Community Food Pantry, where Armstrong makes weekly food pickups. “And we continue to be astounded by the generosity of the community for those in need.”
Just down the street at the Barking Dog Cafe, where Armstrong stops in for occasional Cokes, baker Amanda Anderson said the outpouring of support did not surprise her.
“That’s the Lyons way. That’s always been the way,” Anderson said. “People helping people to make everyone succeed.”
For Anderson to succeed, he’ll have to complete an assignment from LaFollette. She and her husband are making a few improvements to the camper, while he works to gain permission to use a piece of private property on which he can park the camper for at least the next few months.
Armstrong said he has a line on someone who will provide that, and he just has to nail that detail down.
Ford, who welcomes Armstrong at his farmstand and helps him when he can, has just a little apprehension about his friend making the transition.
“It might be that it’s just another new set of problems, in a way,” Ford said. “I mean, he’s been living in the hills for 20 years in a tent, and then all of a sudden, it’s like ‘Forrest Gump.’ He might be a little overwhelmed by getting it so fast.”
Armstrong acknowledges that in the woods, he eschews medications for his depression and anxiety — “I don’t want to take meds that may cause death or suicide as a side effect” — because there are no neighbors to be bothered by the occasional resulting fits of yelling and cursing triggered by his mental issues.
Presuming that his camper is set up in an area where he has a nearby neighbor or two, he anticipates having to be on his meds.
But with colder weather just around the corner, Armstrong said, he’s ready to be out of the woods — a place, he noted, where “if something happens (in the winter) you won’t be in the newspaper until next summer.”
No need for the Homeless Philosopher to comment, beyond pointing out that there are many more long-term homeless campers out there — and Mr. Armstrong is very lucky to have friends who are NOT trying to push him into the social services system against his will.