At 6 p.m. on any given day in Longmont, clusters of people — some lugging hiking backpacks, some carrying canvas shopping bags — gather in the Safety and Justice Center parking lot to wait for the HOPE van.

Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement is one part of the tapestry of Longmont nonprofits and government programs working to provide homeless and low-income residents with food and services.

HOPE volunteers make a loop around the city every night, handing out food, blankets, toiletries, clothes and other odds and ends to people from their stuffed van, no questions asked.

This becomes especially important in the summer, when there is no readily available shelter for homeless people in either Longmont or Boulder.

Officials from the city, the nonprofits and the homeless themselves often cite rising rents in Boulder County as the factor that either pushes people out onto the streets or keeps them there. A June Denver Metro Apartment Vacancy and Rent survey found that Longmont had the second-lowest vacancy rate in the Denver metro area, at 1.8 percent, and rents in the city rose 10.8 percent this year, according to an August Apartment List report.

Of 153 homeless people surveyed in Longmont, 77 said they were on the streets because they couldn’t pay rent and 47 said they couldn’t pay utilities, according to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s January data from its Point-in-Time survey.

While the homeless survey is a snapshot and doesn’t lend itself to comparison over multiple years, HOPE Executive Director Lisa Searchinger said her group is seeing an anecdotal increase in the number of people asking for services.

“We’re seeing more seniors, people who are experiencing homelessness for the first time and more families,” Searchinger said. “We get calls every day for families, and before it was once a week.”

Faces of the streets

People who described themselves as homeless or near homelessness in Longmont said rising rent prices were one of the major factors keeping them on the streets. Most of the 17 people interviewed by the Times-Call in city parks, parking lots and in the OUR Center cafeteria in July identified Longmont as their hometown, due to growing up here or spending the majority of their lives here.

Don Tracy, 40, said he is homeless and originally came to the area from Nebraska in 2002 to be closer to the semi-professional team he played on. He lived in the same home for seven years with a friend but when his friend died, he was left with no place to go. He does construction work and temporary labor when he can, but he can’t find a place to rent.

“I’ll save up a month’s rent, but these landlords want that plus two more months plus a deposit,” Tracy said. “That’s the most frustrating part is getting the money together and thinking you’re going to find a place and being disappointed.”

When asked what he wished the general public knew about homeless people, Tracy was blunt.

“We’re more trustworthy than people with money, and we’re going to make it into heaven a lot easier when the time comes because you have to give it all up anyway.”

Mario Ramiro, 62, loves theater. Ramiro, who has acted with local homeless theater groups, said he’s “done every drug in the book,” and his main barrier to getting off the streets is securing a regular income.

“I was on cocaine for 15 years, and I paid the price,” said Ramiro, who spent his teen years traveling between Longmont and East Los Angeles before settling down in Longmont. “Uppers, downers, sideways, man — I’ve OD’d a couple of times and I’ve been stabbed and I’ve been jumped. … I shouldn’t be here today.”

Ramiro said he is completely sober now and heavily involved in a local church.

“Every time death came directly for me, the Lord forgave me, you know?” Ramiro said. “He’s got some purpose for me yet.”

Megan, 24, and her boyfriend, Cody, 23, live in a van because they lost their jobs working at a dairy farm more than a month ago. They’ve been looking for work since, said the couple, who identified Longmont as their hometown.

“There are not a lot of jobs that want someone without reliable transportation or who can’t shower regularly,” said Megan, who did not give her last name.

They’ve tried a few housing programs, she said, but were told that they need to be a family or have a baby on the way to get transitional housing.

“We’ve heard there’s a shelter available in Denver, but we don’t really have the resources to get down there,” she said. Her goals for the future are to get a job and get an apartment, even if it’s for a month, so they can save money and have a place to shower and do laundry.

Rory Cleveland, 42, has been homeless for the last two years since he, his mom and his two brothers were evicted from their duplex. Cleveland said they were living in one half of the duplex, and his mom was taking care of the elderly woman who owned the duplex and lived in the other half, but when the landlady died, her son kicked them out.

Cleveland, who said Longmont is his hometown, recently got his job back doing metal roofing, but now his truck has broken down and after using a whole paycheck trying to fix it himself, it’s finally in the mechanic’s shop.

“I try to keep my head above water and donate stuff (to HOPE) when I can,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland is living in his friend’s shed. He said things are looking up for him, though, with his new job and his girlfriend likely to get housing soon through government assistance.

Demitrise Torkelson, 17, said she has been homeless since her dad kicked her out. Her mom is homeless, too, and Demitrise runs into her from time to time at the HOPE van or other places, but they don’t travel together.

“My dad’s girlfriend doesn’t like me, basically, and she said, ‘It’s either her or me,’ and my dad picked her,” said Demitrise, who goes by Demi for short and was raised in Longmont.

She said she doesn’t go to school; she dropped out in eighth grade.

A man who said he preferred to be called only “Pinky,” 25, described himself as a world traveler by choice. He said he was born in Colorado before being raised in eastern Europe. He said he owns four houses throughout the country but chooses to backpack instead.

“The less tied you are to material objects, the more free you are,” Pinky said. “No one is truly homeless because home is where the heart is and where the head lays, and I’m at home everywhere.”

Pinky said he first traveled to Colorado for a rap battle in Greeley, which he lost in the first round. His goal in life is to make the world a better place. The only truly free people are travelers and gypsies such as himself, he said.

Ruben Ehiguese, 61, said he immigrated to the United States 25 years ago from Nigeria, first staying in Minnesota. He said people still tell him to “go back where you came from.” Ehiguese used to live in Boulder but couldn’t find a job and couldn’t make rent, so he came to Longmont three years ago.

He lives off of a modest pension and showed a receipt for a $400 transfer to his elderly mother in Nigeria for her birthday. That leaves him with $300 in the bank, though, and he’s not sure what will happen when that runs out.

Ehiguese said he feels he has been harassed by Longmont police officers, who sometimes write him six tickets at a time. He said he was written a ticket for jaywalking across Hover Road at 2 a.m. one time that he found particularly ridiculous.

“I said, ‘Which car you see that’s trying to cross the road here?'” Ehiguese said.

Jeff, 52, said he isn’t homeless yet but fears he and his wife may soon be evicted from their one-bedroom apartment. Jeff, who did not give his last name but described Longmont as his hometown, said his wife receives disability payments, and he has been unable to find work for six years due to health problems of his own.

“I don’t understand the economics of Longmont,” Jeff said, referring to an increasing homeless population. “The apartment rents are like in a wealthy city like Denver or another major city.”

Jeff, after a career as a truck driver and a machinist, occasionally helps out with tasks around the OUR Center, such as fixing chairs.

“I’m not refusing to work, but I’m asking, ‘What can I do?'” Jeff said, mentioning that he has diabetes and his legs swell up. “I can’t walk, I can’t stand.”

Bobby W., 64, said he isn’t homeless but merely getting by on a small disability income. He said he used to live near Lafayette but has been in Longmont for several years and now considers it his hometown. He and his brother used to race motocross bikes, but Bobby, who did not give a full last name, has recently undergone four surgeries related to old motocross injuries.

He said he’s had as many jobs as he’s had cars — he started listing some of the 120 vehicles he has owned since he was 17 — and has been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for 31 years.

“I’m clean and sober,” he said. “It was God that did it, not me.”

Despite his left arm not working properly, he said he would like to buy a digital camera at a thrift store and take up wildlife photography.

Karen Antonacci: 303-684-5226, antonaccik@times-call.com ortwitter.com/ktonacci