Racism and homelessness highlighted during three-day Denver ‘vigil’

Fifth of the 6,104 homeless adults in Denver area in January were Black or African American

Community members gathered on the grass in front of the Denver City and County Building on Oct. 15, 2020 to draw attention to the city’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis, which disproportionately impacts Black people and other minorities. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Community members gathered on the grass in front of the Denver City and County Building on Thursday afternoon to draw attention to the city’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis, which disproportionately affects Black people and other minority groups.

The three-day event, called a “Race and Homelessness Vigil,” was put on by the local advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud to highlight the racial disparities apparent within the city’s growing homeless population and to stress the need for more resources for people experiencing homelessness. The vigil began Wednesday morning and is set to conclude at 10 p.m. on Saturday.

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“The city refuses to talk about homelessness and racism, and it’s not hidden,” said Terese Howard, a member of Denver Homeless Out Loud.

Of the 6,104 people who were considered homeless in the Denver metro area during the last official Point-in-Time national survey in January, 20.5% of the adults were Black or African American when only 5.3% of the general population was in this category, according to a recent report by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. Similarly, 6% were identified as American Indian/Alaska Native, when this group only accounts for 0.8% of the general population. 

A line of signs condemning homeless sweeps lean up against a table on Oct. 15, 2020, at a three-day demonstration in downtown Denver. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

A more comprehensive analysis of the Denver metro area’s homeless population presented in the report identified 21,765 individuals that had experienced homelessness between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020. The data showed similar racial disparity trends compared to the Point in Time survey, which is considered an undercount because it only assesses homelessness on a given night. 

“BIPOC individuals experience homelessness at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. This is the result of systemic oppression and policies which continue to ignore this racial disparity,” Matthew Meyer, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, said in the report.

Speakers stress the need for more housing resources

Candi CdeBaca, Denver District 9 City Councilwoman, said during the event that the city’s handling of the housing crisis during the pandemic was inhumane. She encouraged the attendees of the event to continue showing up to push for a more just world.

“We own this government. This city belongs to us. This park belongs to us. That street belongs to us,” CdeBaca said, speaking through a megaphone. “And if they have to be reminded every single day of that, then we need to keep doing that.”

She strongly encouraged Denver Mayor Michael Hancock to identify temporary safe outdoor spaces for people experiencing homelessness and to advance safe legal parking locations for people living in their vehicles. 

“If we continue to let the developers run our city, we’re never going to get the housing that we need for the people living in tents right now and for those of us who are one paycheck away from being out there ourselves,” CdeBaca said. 

Former Denver mayor candidate Lisa Calderón speaks to a crowd gathered in downtown Denver on Oct. 15, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

On the first night of the vigil, police officers told participants that they were not allowed to sleep in tents. The officers gave out hotel and motel vouchers for people experiencing homelessness. 

Howard, with Denver Homeless Out Loud, said around 60 people signed up for a hotel or motel room, and around 40 were transported to various sites throughout the city. But since many of the places require guests to have valid ID, only about 15 people slept in a bed that night.

Howard said that their organization has received more donations in the past few months, particularly from individual donors. So far they’ve raised $20,000 to provide port-a-potties to people experiencing homelessness.

“But that’s stuff that the city should be providing,” said Ana Cornelius, an organizer for Denver Homeless Out Loud. “And it just puts the burden on a small organization like ours.”

Told to move along with nowhere to go

Serena Jordan joined the event on Thursday to get lunch and ask where she could find blankets.

“Last night, it was so cold,” said Jordan, who has been living out of her tent with her husband for the last three months. “I was just walking around trying to find blankets or hand sanitizer and a lighter to set a fire or something. We have plug-in heaters but you can’t use them if you don’t have a plug.”

Before moving to Denver from North Carolina, Jordan, who is four months pregnant, has never been homeless. “It’s been really, really hard,” she said.

On Tuesday, the couple were told to move their tent, which was set up across from the police station, after two security guards called the police because they were on private property. 

“They gave us 30 minutes to move,” Jordan said, as she sat on a park bench eating stew and rice provided at the Denver Homeless Out Loud event. When she asked the police officer where they were supposed to move to at 3:30 a.m., the officer told her, “out of sight out of mind.” 

A row of tents line the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street in Denver before the homeless encampment was removed on Oct. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“That is not a decent or sufficient answer,” Jordan said. “What am I supposed to do, hide in a crevice?”

Jordan said she hasn’t applied for housing assistance yet because she doesn’t know where to start. Her first step is buying a car, which her grandfather in Alamosa is helping her do. She said she tried to get a group together to split the cost of an apartment. 

“Most of the people out here, their drug problems are bigger than their wallets,” Jordan said. “A lot of people choose to be out here. Some don’t,” she said. “I guess I’m choosing,” she added. “My brother would come get me so fast, my daughter, too. We’re Mexican, we’d put 100 people in a house before we let them go homeless.”

She’s been with her husband, who struggles with addiction, for six years. “I went to prison for a year for a 2005 case and when I came out, he was just a whole different person,” Jordan said. 

She has mixed feelings about the idea of a sanctioned camping site.

“A safe place to put up my tent and camp would be awesome,” Jordan said. “But it depends what all comes along with that. When they’re saying, ‘We’ll give you a safe place to camp but you can’t do this, and you can’t do this and you can’t do this … just because we’re homeless doesn’t mean our lives should be regulated like that. We are adults.”