In Denver, there are people you see on the street pushing carts and carrying backpacks; there are tents on curbs. The people residing in these locations are in their very own community, with a world that contains different names, customs, and economies of its own. A complicated community landscape scattered with some members helping one another survive and other people opting to rob their fellow man.
There are good and evil in each of us, and the unhoused community is no different; the idea of the difference between them and us is a rich person’s luxury.
They have a culture of their own, creating families from circumstances, some built out of trust and protection, and others built out of anxiety and fear. These are their stories and what we can do better to help the unhoused.
On October 18th, I met a young girl named Erin, alias Skitz. She lived at 16th and Downing on the grassy corner of Homeless Out Loud.
Her red hair tucked in a hat, a teardrop tattoo under her eye, she was 21 and asked whether she could use while I was there, with OxyCodone being her drug of choice. I said yes and sat on the broken chair, leaning against the tent behind me.
Erin covered herself in a blanket on the ground next to me. Later, she would say it was her current bedding –a white and pink leopard print fabric barely covering her hunched body. I looked away. I felt certain decency was required to not look, to give her that respect. I saw the blood-splattered needles in her purse which startled me but did not surprise me. At 5 am the day after I met her, I promised I would come back to help, to give the items she could use. At 6:30 am, I gave her a small bag filled with feminine products over a fence, then proceeded to walk across to join the cluster standing around the table with an odd assortment of potato salad, coffee, and donuts. At 7 am, she rushed out of the gates to wash her face and freshen up in the building, eventually finding her way back to gather her things. By 7:35 am, tired and cold, she grabbed a donut, I said hello, and she hugged me. I walked home past the collection of fencing and spotted those who had made it out early searching for a new place to go and a way to carry their lives with them as DOTI moved in with large garbage bins hauling away the remnants of their dwelling. This is an everyday reality for those unhoused, the constant movement and incessant migration every seven days.
I would meet Erin’s “street mother” Sarah weeks later in the park, as the group on Bannock listed those that had passed, I asked if anyone had seen Erin or “Skitz.” A woman stopped the conversation she was having to ask me why I wanted to know because, as she explained, Erin was her street daughter. “We met 4 years ago out here when my boyfriend died,” she said. “That little 17-year-old kid saved me, she saved my life, she has been through a lot but she is so loved, and so sweet.”
“I don’t want to sit with these people; I want to work. The only thing that’s keeping me from working is I don’t have a social security card. But I just put in a request at St. Francis today. So hopefully, I’ll have mine by Friday, and I’ve got a couple of places that said they’ll hire me as soon as I get it. So I swear I’m trying to get off the illicit drugs, get my life together, and get on the medication.”
I met the 40-year-old Jimmy on the corner of Park and Stout. He was trying to trade his suboxone for a single cigarette. Jimmy is a recovering addict who uses the opioid substitute to wean himself off of his drug of choice, heroin, which has become a lot riskier as the rise of fentanyl cut drugs is on the rise. Jimmy tells me he was first given heroin at the age of 12 and that his father forcibly injected it into him against his will. Addiction, though for him, truly began at the age of 18 after a severe car accident caused him to get prescribed oxycontin for pain.
Though Jimmy has been using opioids for over a decade, the recent increase of fentanyl-laced heroin has made him seek recovery. When I asked him what the drugs felt like, he told me, “It’s like this at the end of the day. Imagine being out in the freezing cold. It’s like wearing nothing but shorts and a T-shirt, and then suddenly somebody offers you a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer. That is heroin for me. But fentanyl isn’t like that at all. It’s very different, and I don’t like it. You’re too hot, you’re too high, and it’s not fun because you’re just slumped over and it’s really dangerous.”
The treatment clinic Jimmy is attending is outside of the city, but not having a car or any other form of transportation means enduring long waiting times at bus stops to go back and forth between services. Most nonprofit and city services are located within the Metro Districts, forcing many of them to spend most of their days commuting.
To be homeless is a full-time job.
AMY, MIKE & THEIR TWO SMALL DOGS
In a parking lot filled with garbage and a seemingly unmaintained pay-to-park nestled in the corner, there stood a man, woman, and two small dogs, with the dogs more well-maintained than the individuals themselves. They stood in a cluster, folding blankets and clothing while looking for gaps in their already filled fabric and metal wagon where one more item might be placed. Amy and Mike had only 30 minutes left to gather their belongings for the night and move before DPD returned and asked them to vacate. Looking for his important documents, Mike turned out his pockets to only show blank fabric: He had been robbed. “I swear people dug through my pockets when I was asleep and took them,” he said. “I guess I’ve found out that I don’t really need quite as much stuff anyways. We just organized what we have and that’s all we can do.”
When I asked where they were headed next, Mike said, “I’m not setting up a tent because we’ve already been noticed, so even if we do move to that public lot right there, we will stay just for one night, and we won’t be setting up a tent period.” The threat of being asked to move again and again is always on the horizon with most in-house being moved an average of every seven days.
Though signs surrounding public sweep zones state that city officials will arrive at permanent sweep zones beginning at 8 am, unhoused residents claim to see individuals from DPD and DOTI arriving as early as 7:40 am.
The dogs, Buddy and Austin, bounced along the pavement with no knowledge that they would soon be making a long journey to a new home, one that, after seven days, they would be asked to vacate–yet again.
In a circle of chairs in front of the courthouse, I sat and listened as the many people around me talked about their daily struggles, such as the reality of not knowing when events such as Mutual Meals and Mutual Aid Training’s are because they don’t have a phone or address, forcing them to instead give street corners and storefronts as locations for service providers such as Mutual Aid to look for them. Each individual introduced themselves, using their given or chosen name. They spoke of those lost in the recent week, individuals with names like Spyder Head and Skinny Tim in the list of the dead. Henry mentioned his friend Roger who he lived within the camps located on Santa Fe and Bayard. Roger was killed on impact by a light-rail train in October. (Man killed by light rail train | FOX31 Denver) On the day that Roger was laid to rest, Officers scheduled a sweep. Officers were heard making comments regarding the deceased while conducting the sweep, which prevented Roger’s only friends from attending his funeral. As Henry spoke, he began to cry, tears sliding down his worn cheeks. “They already know exactly what happened,” he said. “There are cameras on the outsides and the insides of these trains showing that he either jumped or somebody pushed him.”
Henry has been on the street since he was 45 and is one of the few individuals I have met in my investigation who told me he “chose” this life. “I gave everything away because of the last couple years of my father’s life,” Henry explained.“He would like to disappear during the holidays. So I came out early one day without telling him I was in Connecticut tattooing at the time. I watched where he went, and he was disappearing on the holidays to go and hang out with the homeless people downtown. That was what he liked to do. So when I made it to 45, which is when he died, I thought that I would walk a mile in his footsteps.”
But that choice was not one without regret,
“Of course, once you get out of here, you find out how horrible it is. There’s a lot of addiction, and so using becomes easy.”
Like many who “choose” or who are given no choice at all, Henry was quickly flung into the world of drugs as he started to take methamphetamine to stay awake through the harsh nights so he didn’t get robbed. He told me he switched over to opioids when a “friend’s” mother forcibly injected him with heroin in the middle of their suburban kitchen. When I asked what his current substance of choice was, he said heroin, because it helped with the pain.
AUDREY & PAUL
As I made my way down the street once flooded with cars, that December 1st Wednesday morning, the area was now surrounded by fencing, and people were caged like animals trying to find their lives in the darkness. Audrey and Paul called out from the tent in the distance, looking for someone who could help. They had just acquired space at a shelter and had come that morning to collect the remnants of their belongings, only to run into the crossed wires. This time, luckily, there was an entrance. At 6:30 AM, the police started knocking on tents and waking up residents of the sleepy lane. Those that had been awake made their way to the table of treats donated by local businesses and community members. They were greeted there by Veria, a prominent worker and activist with Mutual Aid Monday. Veria had a collection of donations, this time consisting of burritos, cereal, and cups of coffee being passed from volunteer to chilled hands.
Francis woke up at 7 am as he did every day to clean where he had been permitted to sleep, wiping the railing and collecting his things. That afternoon turned into a less peaceful situation than the days previously. A Police vehicle was parked in the alley while Francis sobbed and grabbed his belongings. He had lost this safe place to stay. Francis with his kindness and generosity was helping another individual within the unhoused community when unfortunately things went awry. The actions of the other man ultimately led to the dismantling of the relationship between Francis and the Post Office. James, the man he was attempting to bring under his wing, struggles with mental health. The Post Office pressed charges against James. According to the officer I spoke with on the scene, James was charged with vandalism and public urination. This charge, though not against Francis, means the deal between him and the Post Office is over. Though Francis’s personal belongings only consisted of his pack and sleeping bag, he helped move another individual’s belongings who also called this alley “home” while they were at work. Francis left the alley in tears, starkly different from his morning waves of hello, for now, he did not know where he would sleep that night.
Lilly Redford works at Denver Homeless Outloud. I met them at my very first sweep on October 18th, 2021. We later met on November 3rd to speak further on the issue of the new permanent sweep zones within the City. “The permit sweeps area is a legal conundrum because people, under the Lyall settlement, still get seven days notice to be removed from an area,” expounded Redford. “So if these people come into the permanent sweeps area, they will need to be posted for seven days. Technically, if somebody wanted to stay somewhere for a week while waiting to get permanent housing, they could stay in that area. get posted the day they move in and move a week later.”
As we know from the stories of the unhoused and from what many see daily, drugs run rampant throughout the unhoused community, with many pointing to that as the root cause of being unhoused. Though drugs are often pointed to as the main reasons encampments are reported, that is not exactly the case. As Redford stated, “If you call for one, it gives you the options of what you are calling for. One of them specifically is to report an encampment. It means nothing more than that. That doesn’t mean there is an overdose, domestic violence, or some crime happening. It’s just you call 311. Is there a tent outside your house? That’s enough, a single tent.”
Some believe the unhoused people aren’t trying in life or would rather stay on the street. We have all heard this said many times. When Redford gives their explanation of this tossed-around phrase, the true meaning becomes clear. “It’s an intentional misinterpretation of what people are saying to you. They’re saying, I’m over it. I’ve been trying to get housed for X amount of years; I’ve gone through this many service providers, I’ve had 17 case managers. And still, I’m in a tent on the street. So when you tell them that you have an offer of housing for them that consists of a shelter or a motel for a week, these people don’t believe that because that’s not trustworthy at this point.” Just like anyone else, these people have their limits and breaking points.
When Yellow Scene Magazine requested an interview on the topic of the “sweeps,” the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) gave this formal response in email.
“Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) is charged with overseeing DRMC Sec. 49-246, which says that public spaces must remain free of unauthorized encumbrances. If we see an area that is deteriorating in condition, with increasing amounts of trash and other items encumbering and blocking access to the public right of way, we will post 7-day notice of our intent to do a large-scale encampment cleanup and, on the cleanup day, ask people to move so we can thoroughly clean the area with the encumbrances removed. The City also offers people experiencing homelessness free storage of personal items that do not pose a public health or safety risk for up to 60 days. The City will also store unattended personal property that does not pose a public health or safety risk, free of charge for up to 60 days.”
In contrast, I have found the opposite to be true, with mattresses, dressers, clothes, chairs, and various other items posing no threat to public safety, all being crushed and then piled into large garbage trucks.
DOTI Communications Director Nancy Kuhn followed up with subsequent statements. “DOTI supports the city’s position that no one should be living in an area that was not meant for human habitation especially when there are city services available to help people experiencing homelessness,” stated Kuhn.
Though most services are offered within the City Park and Capitol Hill Neighborhoods, there are only three 24 hour shelter locations.
Only one out of three are accessible by phone, meaning that those lucky enough to have communication still must also make the long trek all the way to the facilities just to see if they have any availability. Additionally, the areas that are claimed to be uninhabitable are often similar locations to common campgrounds, with small grassy patches by large towering trees.
About the disposal of personal property regarding unhoused residents, Kuhn went on to say, “During our cleanups, the people we interact with that are living unsheltered decide what personal items they dispose of.” However, most sweeps take place between 5:00 am and 8:00 am, leaving roughly 3 hours to collect one’s personal belongings and then vacate the area.
When asked about the hostile architecture and landscaping that has been put in place in areas such as Stout and Park Ave, Redford tells me, “It’s also destroying trees, even old-growth trees. My mom is a master gardener and so she understands how water levels work. So when you place boulders on that growth, it prevents water from getting down into the roots for the trees. These Denver trees are already trying to survive in a semi-desert, so when you prevent water from getting to those trees, they’re not going to exist. And we’ve already had business owners come out and complain about how the rocks are going to cause all of my trees to die. Also, placing stones along this whole area creates ideal habitats for dangerous rodents.”
The rocks and other hostile architectural features are not only a breeding ground for rodentia, they are also, in many cases, not ADA accessible, which in itself violates numbers 3, 6, and 8 of the sidewalk and DOTI requirements for public property. Neither a wheelchair nor a walker would be able to access the sidewalk via the curb or street with the stones obstructing the path and with the landscaping designed to keep the unhoused from living in the streets.
Boulder’s Recycle Row is a free drop-off location within the city limits that provides disposal of not only basic trash, but also hazardous materials [see map]. Boulder’s Recycle Row allows community members to dispose of trash and other hazardous materials such as biowaste with no additional cost for disposal of waste of any kind, making the drop-off location financially accessible.
Keep Denver Beautiful is a city-wide organization that focuses on “maintaining an attractive safe urban environment,” attractive being the keyword in terms of the city’s priorities. Though the city supports programs such as this and provides a guide on littering, they offer few trash cans or places to dispose of garbage throughout the city. The Denver Department of Transportation and Intruracture offers 5 disposal locations: D&R Transfer Station, North Transfer Station, Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site, South Metro Transfer Station, and Jordan Rd. Transfer station, all costing a fee.
MUTUAL AID MONDAY
Monday evenings on Banncock you can find a collection of pop up tents and tables covered in food at the end of the lane sit boxes of sanitary products and clothing. Mutual Aid Monday meets here almost every week. Mutual Aid Monday is a collective of community members and activists who work together to provide services and meals to the unhoused. This one day a week is often the only hot meal many will receive, and the connection to services as well as the ability to have one’s voice heard through workshops and open conversations run by Mutual Aid members, and members of the unhoused community.
Service providers as well providing basic first aid, and even acupuncture, done by trained professionals from the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, are offered at this weekly event. People from all walks of life are seen with children: toddlers and teenagers among those seen in the crowd.
Up north of Denver, the problem of criminalized homelessness in Boulder is no different, with a tent ban as well as a specialty task force that was introduced into the city. From the website, Boulder’s Homeless Outreach Team expresses their purpose as,
“[Being] present and visible in areas where homeless gather in order to normalize police presence, increase visibility and build trust.” But that building of trust has not been the case for many of the city’s unhoused residents, with the Homeless OutReach team driving them further out of the city and causing an increase in ticketing.
I spoke with Jennifer Livovich from Feetforward, a nonprofit she formed in Boulder. The goal of the work is to meet people where they are at and provide services that they need Jennifer experienced being unhoused for four years, but she was able to reintegrate with the help of Court Navigator Elizabeth Robinson, who helped connect Livovich with beneficial services such as Fort Lyon’s sober-supported transitional housing program. Livovich then attended Colorado State University to receive her undergraduate degree, and after graduating she returned to Boulder to help others like herself escape homelessness. “I’ve been here for almost a decade, said Livovich. “The unhoused community has been completely marginalized, they’ve had zero representation, and their only leadership is the City Council that dictates policies that directly impact their daily lives. There it can develop, and in many ways has developed into a situation of these individuals being undervalued. “We care so little about these people, we’re not even going to see them as community members, we’re not even going to see them as human beings, and instead what we’re going to do is to just have a meeting. We’re going to decide what their life’s going to look like daily, without a single representative from that group in the room.“
The choices being made are often not in the best interest of those they are affecting. For instance, the city has spent millions on police task forces to combat the unhoused crises. “We’ve seen a $2.7 million police increase,” said Livovich.“They created a reclamation officer position, a supporting squad with the sole purpose of targeting encampments, and then the city passed a tent ban that automatically enables police to seize people’s tents.”
Through my investigation, I have learned much regarding the culture of the unhoused, with one part of that culture being how individuals identify themselves through alias names and how this can sometimes be a challenge to service providers who are not well-connected enough in the unhoused community to know these aliases. Through her time on the street, Jennifer Livovich has a unique perspective towards the issues that the unhoused face and the culture that they come from. She explains individuals living on the street often have a different name than their given name for various reasons such as anonymity or safety. “A street name can be a real challenge for providers because they don’t know what that street name is,” explained Livovich. “They get a government name that they will typically gain from criminal justice records or possibly coordinated entry for the VI-SPDAT, which is a vulnerability assessment tool for adults that can assist in housing. I know that what we are doing is working because I see people traveling and I know where people are at.”
Though the efforts of Livovich and Feetforward have been astounding with their weekly meals by the bandshell, the numbers she is seeing are nothing to brag about, “I am always taking out food for 125 people, but we could see as many as 135 people or more,” said Livovich. “We are heading into December, and we are seeing double the number we saw at this time last year, and so we are in a crisis. Our reputation of being out there reliably has spread through the community, and this word of mouth reputation has been the best way to spread information. Since January of this year, what I’ve seen is that people are traveling to us, and they’re traveling from pockets outside to Boulder, as far as 65th and Arapahoe.”
Darren O’Conner, a board member of the nonprofit Feetforward and long-time activist against the unfair treatment of the unhoused, has some serious concerns regarding how the City of Boulder treats the unhoused. “Instead of doing sweeps, they are using that law to say if you don’t immediately remove your tent, that they will just give you a citation and take your stuff,” said O’Conner.
During the pandemic, O’Conner says the conditions were not better regarding sanitation and even worse than usual with people not having access to basic needs and essential facilities.
“We had to fight the city to get any public bathrooms where people could piss, shit, and wash their hands. And with a disease that’s communicable here, washing your hands is part of the basic safety protocol. We didn’t; we had almost no bathrooms. The city put out a map of seven or eight bathrooms spread out all over the city. And some of them that they said were there. I went there myself and they were locked, closed down, day in and day out, like in Mapleton ball fields. We had to write to the city and say, Hey, this is on your map of bathrooms, and it’s locked. And the next day they had a porta potty. Bathrooms are ground zero if you’re not going to provide people with places to sleep. How about a place to shit, so they don’t have to shit in the creek.”
Mollie McCoy is an intern at Yellow Scene Magazine and is a student of Journalism and Media Production at Metro State University. She was born in Longmont and has been a Colorado resident her whole life.