By Susan Dugan
Brian Augustine is a happy man. A familiar face at the Sunday South Pearl Street Farmers Market where he chats with neighbors, charms canines and sells the Denver VOICE, a …
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By Susan Dugan
Brian Augustine is a happy man. A familiar face at the Sunday South Pearl Street Farmers Market where he chats with neighbors, charms canines and sells the Denver VOICE, a publication addressing the tangled roots of homelessness and poverty in the metro area, his own voice echoes with quiet conviction as he proclaims he has discovered the meaning of life: “to make other people’s lives a little better.”
“I do that with a big smile and ‘good morning,’” he continues. “If you do that, every day is a little better at work, a little better at home, you sleep a little better and pretty soon your whole life is better. I have thousands of people I know and like and consider my friends. This is the best job I ever had.”
It’s also the job that helped Augustine climb out of homelessness after an inoperable back condition rendered him unable to manage the warehouses he’d worked in for decades. Having joined the military right out of high school in 1979, he spent two years in Germany, worked briefly as a dishwasher in Aurora after finishing his tour, and landed a job in a warehouse pulling orders, doing inventory and operating a forklift.
Brian Augustine demonstrating his ability to make friends of all stripes. Brian’s life has been marked by ups and downs, but through it all his positive outlook and winning personality have kept him moving forward. Photo by Sara Hertwig.
A brief foray into bartending enabled him to develop skills that boosted his productivity in the warehouse world.
“I learned to be quicker with my hands and how to organize my life better,” he says. “When I got tired of bartending, I went back to warehouses and found out I had a knack for figuring out what was wrong with the organization and reorganizing the warehouse to be more efficient.”
Warehouse owners recognized his talents, one job led to another and he worked his way up to warehouse manager.
“There was one place where they were losing money because they couldn’t afford to pay all these people to pull orders,” he says. “I really liked the manager and had worked with him before. I went in and reorganized and after three months, they went from 25 order pullers to five.”
Meanwhile, Augustine thrived and saved, leasing a house in Northglenn toward buying. “I was home one Saturday raking leaves and my back blew out,” he says. “I wasn’t at work so I didn’t have workers’ comp. I saw a lot of specialists and all of them said they would operate on the three vertebrae but were afraid they would damage the nerves that run my right leg.”
In constant pain and unable to work, he faced foreclosure.
“I had paid eight years and seven months towards buying,” he says. “I had no place to go, so I came to Denver to get help getting social security disability and figure out what to do with my life. But it took four years to get my social security, and if I tried to survive on how little I got, I would probably starve to death.”
Forced to live on the streets while waiting for disability assistance, Augustine was homeless for a year and a half.
“When it gets really cold, you try to get into shelters and sleep on a mat on the floor six inches away from guys next to you,” he says. “If somebody’s sick, you get sick.”
Following a bad bout with flu, someone gave him a good sleeping bag and he started sleeping outdoors year-round.
“On a thirteen-below night, I’d sleep with three layers of cardboard underneath and three layers above and still be shaking,” he says. “My back would really hurt, but if I changed positions I’d get cold again, so I’d stay in the same position for six or seven hours. Twice I got beat up and I was robbed at knife point. I had clothes and shoes and a bag with my dentures stolen. Once I started selling the Denver VOICE, I could finally buy a bicycle lock and lock everything up so if they tried to grab it, I could try to defend myself.”
Augustine found sleeping on the 16th Street Mall safer because even at 3a.m. there were people around. His days started at 4a.m.
“You get in line to get into a day shelter and wait for the showers to open at eight o’clock,” he says. “People in the day shelters play games or talk, but I got bored. I’ve always been a worker. That’s how I identified myself. I tried panhandling and felt so bad I had to give the money back.”
A friend told him about the nonprofit Denver VOICE’s vendor program.
“The Denver VOICE helps people with poverty and homelessness,” he says. “I pay fifty cents per paper and whatever I earn selling I can use for my own needs. I ask for a two-dollar donation. To start out it helped me buy a meal or hygiene products. I got myself a membership at the 20th Street Gym to take showers. And I’ve been renting a room with the money I earn from social security and the Denver VOICE for six years now.”
A doctor he saw at the Stout Street Clinic prescribed a new medication that helped ease his nerve pain.
“Not to where I could work a regular job, but I can spend four, maybe five hours at a time selling the Denver VOICE on a good day. I usually do three hours a day, six days a week in summer and five in winter. More hours than that and I’m not able to work the next day.”
Besides the South Pearl Street Farmers Market, Augustine sells the paper on Saturday in Cherry Creek and weekdays at 15th and Curtis streets and 18th and California streets. His approach is friendly and very low-key.
“I love saying good morning to people,” he says. “After a while, they’ll ask me what I’m doing and I explain the paper. I tell them there are street papers like this all over the world, how we try to get information out on what’s going on in Denver but don’t take political sides.”
While many people find Augustine’s warmth contagious, he elicits his share of negative reactions.
“I’ve had people spit on and yell at me,” he says. “My attitude is I have no idea what’s going on in your life, so if that helps you release some of that, that’s good. I had a gentleman to whom every day I would say ‘good morning’ and he would scream at me. After six months he came up and said, ‘you know, you’re the nicest guy. I’ve been going through a really rough divorce and I’ve been really angry and want to apologize.’ I had no idea what was going on in his life and it was not up to me to judge.”
Augustine considers himself a good Christian.
“I don’t care what you do with your life, it’s not my business,” he says. “My business is taking care of my life, but if I can help you take care of yours, I’m going to do that. One lady saw me give a gentleman a dollar and asked me why and I said because he needed a cup of coffee. I don’t just hand money to everybody. I hand it to people I’ve seen a lot that I know need something warm in their stomach more than I do at the moment. If I spend the whole day just smiling and saying hello to people and don’t make a dime, I’m still a happy guy.”
Naturally drawn to the people and dogs he interacts with, Augustine considers himself lucky.
“Before I became homeless, I worried about paying the rent, about my mother, about what I had to fix in my house next; I worried about everything. Going from having all this stuff to having nothing was quite a shock, but then you reevaluate. If I lose the little I own now, I wouldn’t worry about it. If I become homeless, I’ve done that. My self-esteem isn’t hooked to my working, to the things I have, it’s hooked to who I am. You know, buying something to make myself smile feels pretty good. But if I go downtown and see a guy that’s hungry and buy him something to eat and he thanks me, I feel so much better.”
Author Susan Dugan’s wide range of work includes newspaper and magazine articles, personal essays and fiction. An active volunteer in local schools, she has taught creative writing and brought authors into classrooms. If you know a member of our community who is contributing in extraordinary ways and might make a good subject for this column, email Susan at email@example.com.
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