Second of two parts
Casper seemed like the perfect place for Robert Decker to start his new life, after many years of being homeless. And for five years, it was.
The 49-year-old Decker – who prefers to go by his street name, Shorty – had been in Florida looking for work when he found a promising job as an oil field worker while searching the Internet. The company, Tuboscope, asked him if he could be in Casper the next day. Shorty said no, but he began panhandling to raise money, which he gave to a friend for gas in exchange for a ride.
I have what I need. I’m not suffering. Yes, it’s a hard life, but I’ve not been hungry. I’ve had my medical care, and they haven’t asked for one dime.
“I was making good money. I had a place stay, and Tuboscope was a wonderful place to work,” recalled Shorty. “Oil companies pulled pipes out of the ground and sent them to us, and we’d clean them and test them, and send the good ones back to the oil fields.”
He bought a recreational vehicle and used it to go to some of the job sites. “Home was where I parked, and I was enjoying life,” he said. “I thought I could retire here.”
But that dream ended abruptly. He took a vacation, driving his RV back to Florida, and then on to Greensboro, N.C., where he said without explanation, “I lost everything.” After four years of homelessness there, mostly living in camps outside the city, he decided to try Wyoming again.
He had no idea that soon after he returned to Casper, he’d be in a hospital, near death.
His initial stint in Casper was the first place since his eight years in the Marines where Shorty had a stable place to live. The son of an Air Force couple who had moved from base to base, he was happy when the family finally settled in Florida. He loved the weather and the beach, but he couldn’t keep out of trouble.
“I was not the best of people in my latter years of high school. I made some bad decisions and screwed up. I got caught carrying a bunch of drugs,” Shorty admitted. “I was basically told it was prison or the Marine Corps.” He quickly chose the military.
“The Marines changed me, and made me a better man,” he said. “In 13 weeks they basically turned me around.”
But after eight years, Shorty’s said his military career ended with a dishonorable discharge. He doesn’t provide any details, but whatever happened, he believes he was “kind of set up.”
By this time he had two kids to raise. “That was tough, because I was already experiencing bouts of homelessness,” he said. “I had some support from friends who watched the kids while I worked, but most of my money was going toward my children, so I had nothing. I was pretty much homeless the whole time, but I made sure my kids had a roof over their heads.”
When his son and daughter grew up, Shorty moved back to Florida and worked for a temporary labor agency. “I’d get a job, work for a few months, then it would end or I’d wind up walking out because of a political situation on the job,” he said.
Back to Wyoming
Life in Greensboro had not been kind to Shorty since he lost everything there while on vacation. He said he started a street newspaper, the Greensboro Voice, where he wrote about homelessness and gave people tips on how to survive.
“I was standing up for the poor, and I made some pretty powerful enemies,” he recalled. He said his paper was eventually taken over by college students who didn’t want any part of his controversial editorials.
A few weeks before he decided to move back to Wyoming, Shorty said he was arrested for trespassing – his crime was sleeping near a Dumpster. While in jail, he said, he was given a shot for his diabetes, even though Shorty had protested, “I’ve never had diabetes a day in my life.”
After being released, Shorty contacted Tuboscope and was told he could have his old job back. He raised enough money to buy a bus ticket to Casper. Three days after arriving here, though, he got a terrible infection and found himself at the Wyoming Medical Center, where he would stay for the next 28 days.
“The infection settled into my heart sac and around my lungs,” said Shorty, who added that he learned other inmates at the Greensboro jail have also experienced similar life-threatening illnesses. “I had pneumonia-like symptoms, but I’m usually healthy and it wasn’t very cold outside. Eventually the infection traveled down to my bladder and into my penis, and I had to have some surgery. I should have died; the doctors said it was a miracle I lived through it. They were baffled.”
During his month stay at WMC, Shorty said he racked up a bill totaling $150,000. Mary Ann Budenske, a lawyer who runs the Poverty Resistance Food Bank downtown who eventually became his attorney, said such stories are not uncommon.
“People like Shorty don’t have access to regular medical care, and they don’t know how to sign up for Medicare and free prescriptions,” Budenske said. “Then they get sick, and what was a routine infection that could have been easily treated through Health Care for the Homeless or Community Health turns into a big medical problem, and they’re in the emergency room.”
More medical problems
Shorty said he felt better when he was released from the hospital and stayed at the Central Wyoming Rescue Mission for 12 days, but Budenske said he still wasn’t getting the help he needed because the community doesn’t have a place where the homeless can recuperate from an illness. “The rescue mission said we’re not a medical facility,” she said, “and the hospital said we can’t keep you because you’re homeless, because we’re for people who have medical needs.
“Everybody knew if he was turned out on the street again he’d probably get reinfected,” she said. “And that’s what happened.”
Shorty has to wear a catheter, and likely will continue to need one as he has several reconstructive surgeries.
“After leaving the mission, I spent about a week on the streets, sleeping here and there,” he said. “I have to sleep up, and I have to put the catheter below my bladder – otherwise it doesn’t drain and it can cause infection. Some of the places where I slept I wasn’t able to do this. It froze, so I had three or four nights there where my catheter froze and I couldn’t pee, and that’s a special kind of pain. I had to go some place and get warm.”
Shorty did get another infection, but fortunately it was a different kind and not as serious as the one that first put him in the hospital. This time he spent a week at WMC, but he was still homeless when he was discharged.
“I have what I need. I’m not suffering,” Shorty said. Yes, it’s a hard life, but I’ve not been hungry. I’ve had my medical care, and they haven’t asked for one dime.”
A lot of homeless people, he added, get depressed. “They decide to crawl up into a bottle, or they start doing drugs, because they lose all hope, and without hope, there can’t be growth,” he said. “It’s sad to see a perfectly viable, intelligent person get to the point where all he wants to do is lay in a gutter and drink.”
Budenske, who first saw Shorty at her food bank, became his lawyer. She and her assistant, Dustin Estrada, helped him fill out paperwork that they hope will result in him getting disability benefits from Social Security. Because of his medical condition he is now signed up for food stamps for the next year; Estrada delivered the benefits card to him during the middle of this interview.
Budenske said a doctor paid for a room at Masterson Place so Shorty could have a place to stay for a week. He was about to start his second week there when Budenske and Estrada told him the good news: he was getting his own apartment.
A fresh start
Budenske said she sees many older people who used to work in the oil fields who are now homeless. “They did a lot of drinking and drugs, and now their body is shot,”she related. “They’ve just been ruined physically and mentally by the life that they’ve lead, and then they’re just kind of thrown away by society.
“We try to help out a few a year. I don ‘t see us as being majorly successful,” Budenske said. “There’s way more people that we can’t do anything for. We don ‘t have very much cash on hand. … We’re paying rent for Shorty until his Social Security comes through. Somebody has to do it.”
His new apartment isn’t large, but it has a bed, a table and a shower where Shorty said he can keep himself clean to prevent any more infections. “That’s one of the worst things about living on the streets – you don’t have a place where you can get clean,” he said.
Shorty said he wants to add a couch and some other furniture to his new apartment, plus a television set. Relaxing at his kitchen table, he is hopeful about the future. “This has really knocked me down physically; I’m not in the shape I was when I arrived here,” he said. “But I think I’m going to be fine now. I’d like to go back to work, but it’s going to be at least two years until that can happen. First I’ve got these surgeries, so I can be whole again.”
He’s grateful for the support he’s received. “Mary Ann is an amazing woman,” he said. “I’ve never wanted for food, because I get everything I need at the food bank. And her assistant, Dustin, has never turned me down for anything. I consider him one of my better friends here in Casper.”
His faith in God, Shorty said, has helped him deal with the problems he’s encountered while living for so long without a home. “God has always made a way for me, it’s just that sometimes I’ve been too stubborn to take it,” he confided.
He is happy, he said, not to have to worry any longer about sleeping out in the cold. “I do not want my catheter to freeze up again,” Shorty said. “I’d rather be hit in the face with a frying pan than have that happen.”