For many, driving through the intersection of 22nd and Stout in North Denver is part of their daily commute. For others it’s where they spend most of their nights. The intersection is cluttered with tents, tarps and trash that are scattered along numerous blocks. There are small homeless communities along a bridge on North Broadway and back down past Saint Joseph Hospital all the way to City Park. Other makeshift shelters are strung to trees in Lawson or Benedict Fountain Park. Some simply lay barely off the street on an all too skinny sidewalks. These are the campsites where some of Denver’s homeless population live.
Homelessness in Denver is more visible than ever but for the actual homeless population, it feels just the opposite. Cathy Alderman, The Chief Communications and Public Policy Officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, says that people in the homeless community often feel invisible. “We often treat people experiencing homelessness as invisible because we don’t want to see that experience… Imagine living in a world where you felt invisible,” said Cathy.
Antonio, a homeless man in North Denver experiences this daily. “Some people when they see me, when I am working on the side of the street they go to the other side. I don’t know what I can do, live the life, the life I have now and pray to God too.” Antonio is among those that are newly homeless because of COVID. After losing his job due to the pandemic he was no longer able to afford his apartment.
COVID has been the tipping point for individuals like Antonio. In a 2020 point in time study conducted by The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, the number of homeless in the City and County of Denver has grown from 3,445 to 4,171.
If homeless people aren’t invisible to the general public, they are often perceived as criminals, says Antonio. “They see me like I’m gonna do something bad… they see people homeless like they were gonna do something or steal something, but I’m not doing this,” said Antonio. “In the world if you are homeless or no you will be around good and bad people anywhere,” he finished.” Cathy Alderman agrees. “Assuming someone is a criminal because they are experiencing homelessness is a dangerous assumption and it leads to the dehumanization of individuals.”.
“There are people who are engaged in criminal activity from all walks of life, some of these people happen to be experiencing homelessness, some are living in apartments or condos, and many of those people are living in homes,” said Cathy. Cathy dates this perception back hundreds of years when people started referring to the homeless as hobos. “There was an image developed over time of who was likely to experience homelessness and it was someone who had chosen that path,” she said.
Cathy says that homelessness is a false choice. “Many people enter that cycle of homelessness because of a traumatic event.” For Antonio, a global pandemic is what set that in motion. Before the pandemic Antonio was getting by just fine. “I had an apartment before, I had a wife before. Then COVID started, I lost my job, I couldn’t afford my place, food, everything was gone,” said Antonio.
The city of Denver and non-profits are constantly struggling to create solutions to help the homeless. Converting shelters to 24/7 facilities so that people can go there and get a shower, a meal, and to secure a bed for the night is one approach. Tiny homes and designated camping areas at churches are another. But Antonio says it’s not enough. “It’s hard to find restrooms because the one I know is on the other side and its far, like 20 minutes. I have to walk and keep running for the restroom. It’s tough to find shower places, it’s very hard.”
A Colorado Nonprofit called Showers for All, is doing their best to help provide facilities to the homeless all over Denver. Showers for All is a moving trailer that provides free showers, bathrooms, and laundry services to the homeless. They believe that all people, no matter their circumstances, should have access to basic necessities. Showers and clean clothes not only give people better personal hygiene but a sense of being valued.
Cathy commends what the city and non-profits are doing but she recognizes there is a long way to go. “That’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “But ultimately it’s about getting folks into long-term stable options. At the end of the day everybody needs a safe place to be. Everybody craves stability and the only way you can achieve economic mobility, employment, educational opportunities, and food security is by having a stable home.”
Antonio agrees. “Before I didn’t know anything about this life, but it’s different, very different. You have to be in the cold you have to be in hot. But it’s life, it’s experience, experience for a little but I hope to try and maybe do a little better in the future to find a job, go back to life I had before.”