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Cortez organizations dedicate park bench to homeless people who’ve died in Montezuma County

A plaque honoring the lives of homeless people who've died in Montezuma County.
Chris Clements / KSJD
A plaque honoring the lives of homeless people who've died in Montezuma County.

On August 17, a coalition of community groups in Cortez, Colorado held a bench dedication ceremony to remember those who’ve died in Montezuma County while experiencing homelessness.

“I have a story,” says Alston Turtle, vice chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council. “I don't want to get too deep into it, but I lost somebody dear that I loved to a situation here in Cortez, and you know, I still think about it ‘till this day.”

“So again, (I’m) acknowledging everybody that has lost their lives, whether it's through the pandemic or homelessness,” he says.

Alston and others are speaking at the bench dedication ceremony in Veterans Park, near downtown Cortez.

It’s a hot, breezy day. Far off in the distance, a monsoon storm is gathering itself before sweeping over the landscape.

“We've lost a number of tribal members up here,” Alston says. “So we try to get things like this situated. We're doing our best in Towaoc to try to get this homelessness issue gone away with, because everybody needs help.”

The event is hosted by the Montezuma County Homelessness Prevention Coalition, a collaboration between local nonprofits and government agencies like The Piñon Project Family Resource Center and the city of Cortez.

Lucia Bueno-Valdez is the homelessness prevention coordinator at The Piñon Project.

She says the idea to dedicate a park bench to homeless people who've died in the area came from a man she knew who would commonly stay by the City Market grocery store on Harrison Street.

“And he had blankets and tarps and stuff, and he passed,” says Bueno-Valdez. “And when he passed, a lot of the other friends and relatives started putting rocks and flowers (down). And for me, it sparked the idea of – they had nowhere to honor him, they had nowhere to sit with him and think about the loss of him.”

That led Bueno-Valdez and others who work with homeless people in Montezuma County to start asking questions.

“How does that feel for them, when they lose someone?” she says. “When we lose someone, we honor them in celebrations and ceremonies. I'm Catholic, we have mass. But our friends and relatives out here, they don't really have that. And if there is some kind of honoring done, a lot of times they're not invited, right?”

After consulting with the community about what the coalition could do to help provide homeless individuals and their families with a space to grieve, Bueno-Valdez says they settled on dedicating a park bench to those who’ve died while living unsheltered in the area.

According to Bueno-Valdez, there are around 265 homeless people living in Montezuma County. And in the past year, she estimates somewhere around eight to 10 people have died in the county while experiencing homelessness in some capacity.

Until relatively recently, numbers like those concerning homeless people in the community hadn’t been recorded in Montezuma County, she says.

“There's not really even anything to say like, ‘Oh, this is compared to three years ago,’ or, ‘These are the deaths compared to two years ago,’” Bueno-Valdez says. “We don't know. I was actually really shocked the last couple of months, as I'm talking to my friends and relatives out in the streets about who they've lost, how they've lost them. The number of people that I didn't even have a clue about that have passed in our city parks is much more than I ever thought.”

Because of the widespread lack of available data concerning homeless people in the county, nonprofit groups like Bueno-Valdez’s that do outreach in southwest Colorado can have a difficult time applying for grant funding.

Towards the end of the ceremony, a Navajo elder and peer recovery coach named Howard Yazzie says a prayer to commemorate the bench.

“People that are homeless, that are in need of help, we want to stand with them and help them, touch them, touch their heart,” says Yazzie. “To help them understand that we care for them, we love them, we want them to move in life in a good way, that everybody else is enjoying, life the way everybody else needs. Bless us Heavenly Father, we love you, and God bless everyone, amen.”

One by one, people in the crowd line up to be served sandwiches and cake by members of the coalition like Bueno-Valdez.

“So in a neighborly way, I would like our coalition members to please come up and help us serve all of our neighbors,” she says.

Organizers like her say they hope the bench will serve as a visible, permanent memorial to those who’ve died in the community.

The bench in Veterans Park, Cortez.
Chris Clements / KSJD
The bench in Veterans Park, Cortez.

Chris Clements is a former news reporter for KSJD. He had previously covered literary arts as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily in Chautauqua, New York, and graduated with a degree in English from Arizona State University. At KSJD, Chris has collaborated with KUNC (northern Colorado NPR) on water conservation stories, and had his spots regularly featured on NPR's national newscasts.