Winter survival gear distributed by aid groups as Colorado homeless shelters grapple with limited space

‘We have a moral responsibility to step up and take care of each other’

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

As winter approaches, homeless shelters across Colorado are gearing up for unprecedented demand due to the economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus. But as demands increase, shelters are also having to shrink capacity to avoid a potential outbreak.

“Most shelters are having to reduce their capacity, sometimes by half, because of physical distancing,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communication and public policy for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

“So what shelter providers right now are really grappling with is what to do when there’s a snowstorm or bad weather events. Do they break physical distancing requirements by letting more people in or do they turn people away?” she added. “I think the fear is that if shelters start taking more people in, and there’s an outbreak, then there’s nowhere for people to go. And then are more people going to want to stay away after that happens?”

“We feel that in the space of the government’s failure to provide enough support for our communities that we have a moral responsibility to step up and take care of each other during this crisis.”Meera Fickling, a volunteer with the Rocky Mountain Mutual Aid Network
 

In late March, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs was working to identify a building, or a handful of smaller spaces, that could provide additional rooms for people experiencing homelessness if shelters hit capacity or lacked the ability to social distance due to COVID. But none has been identified. As Denver continues to conduct homeless sweeps, two Denver churches are working to establish sanctioned camping in their parking lots. But the sites would only support between 50 and 70 people — a small fraction of Denver’s homeless population. 

With limited shelter space and Colorado’s harsh winter months approaching, various mutual aid groups across the Front Range are ramping up their efforts to provide critical winter gear, supplies and food for people living outdoors. These recently formed groups refer to themselves as providing “mutual aid” to stress that their efforts are grassroots, community-driven and based on the premise of reciprocity, not charity.

“We feel that in the space of the government’s failure to provide enough support for our communities that we have a moral responsibility to step up and take care of each other during this crisis,” said Meera Fickling, a volunteer with the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Mutual Aid Network.

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

Tristan Smith, a 34-year-old resident of Arvada, helped start a mutual aid group in June, called the Comrade Collective, with his partner and their friend. The group of about 12 delivers food and essential supplies to people experiencing homelessness throughout Denver and Aurora every Monday and Friday.

The project started after Smith reached out to a Colorado outdoor gear company that was having a sale for $20 three-person tents. They had a total of 108 in stock. He put out a call for donations on social media. “Within like 12 hours, I mean overnight, we gained enough money to buy all 108,” he said.

Packaged lunches put together by the Comrade Collective, a newly formed mutual aid group in the Denver metro area. (Courtesy of Tristan Smith)

After that first purchase, the group started collecting donations and putting together meals to distribute in the community. He said two of the group’s most active participants are his two kids. “They have a blast doing it with us,” he said. “It’s so funny to listen to them because my youngest, she’s 8 years old, she’ll walk up to anybody and just be like, ‘Hey dudes, need some food?’”

When asked what people experiencing homelessness need right now as the winter months approach, he didn’t skip a beat. 

“Housing,” he said. “But I know that purchasing housing is not something that most people in the community can just go and do.”

He said winter essentials such as zero degree sleeping bags, tents, tarps, blankets, gloves, hats and hand warmers are in high demand.

Throughout the pandemic, the city of Denver has continued to conduct homeless encampment clean-ups, commonly referred to as “sweeps,” despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending the opposite. 

A man packs up his belongings on July 29, 2020, after law enforcement and public health officials dispersed the homeless encampment located in Lincoln Park in Denver on July 29, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

The CDC guidelines state that if individual housing options are not available, people should be allowed to remain where they are. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the guidelines state.

But Denver agencies, including the public health department and the mayor’s office, have continuously justified the sweeps, citing unsanitary living conditions.

Smith stressed that the clearing of encampments, in addition to being inhumane, is also a poor use of city and community resources.

“We’ll bring these tents, blankets and winter essentials and things like that but then you still have multiple agencies going out and putting up fencing around areas and taking their possessions and throwing them in dumpsters,” Smith said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Bags of winter socks collected by the Women for Revolution organization in October. (Photo courtesy of Brittney Karst)

“I’ve heard stories from people who lost their social security card, birth certificate, their parents’ ashes, journals that they had been keeping since they were kids,” he added. “All because the city came through with a front loading dump truck and just threw their stuff in the back.” 

Smith stressed that the current approach to the Denver metro area’s homelessness crisis highlights that the city cares more about property than it does about people.

“For me, I’d be searching for a real resolution that would help these people get back on their feet and overcome the situation that they’re in, rather than destroying the properties they have and pushing them to another block and putting them into greater housing insecurity than they already were in,” he said. 

Mutual aid groups focus on collecting, distributing winter survival gear

Brittney Karst, co-founder of the Denver-based community organization Women for the Revolution, started organizing mutual aid projects to support Denver’s unhoused in October. The organization was formed in August to focus on activism surrounding police brutality, prison abolition and the faults within capitalism.

This month, the group raised over $3,000 to buy winter supplies for Denver’s unhoused community, and they are currently fundraising to buy more hand warmers, sleeping bags, tents and winter coats.

Karst, who is 27 and lives in Aurora, said the first time the group put out a call for donations on social media, they raised around $700 in 24 hours. “Which was really amazing. After that, as the temperatures started to drop, we started focusing more on winter survival gear.” On Oct. 30, they did another winter supply drive and collected 30 large bags of winter clothes and over $1,000 in donations.

“Our government has not been there for the people,” Karst said. “So I think by coming together with mutual aid, we’re hoping it shows how communities can come together in the future.”

Volunteers help Sophie Elias and her husband pack up their belongings on Oct. 6, 2020, at the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street in downtown Denver while law enforcement and public health officials remove the surrounding homeless encampment. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Another recently formed group, called the Rocky Mountain Mutual Aid Network, has been focusing its efforts on providing direct financial assistance and food boxes to individuals and families looking for support. 

“The services that we typically provide through that program ranged from financial aid to groceries to hygiene products to transportation,” said Meera Fickling, who is a volunteer coordinator for the program.

The group also helps run a food delivery program in collaboration with the Lakewood-based food pantry, Joy’s Kitchen. Through the program, volunteers deliver food boxes to between 30 and 40 households per week in the Denver metro area, according to Fickling. 

The group was formed at the beginning of October after splitting off from another group that formed at the beginning of the pandemic. Between the two mutual aid groups, they’ve distributed nearly $30,000 in aid since the pandemic started supported by community donations, according to Fickling.

“We were seeing that not only was the virus itself hitting our vulnerable communities really hard, but the economic impacts were also hitting that same group of people disproportionately,” said Fickling, who works a day job as an economist.

Other Front Range mutual aid services collecting donations and supplies:

Foothills Mutual Aid Collective (Fort Collins/Loveland): Twitter: @aidfoothills

Northern Colorado Community Mutual Aid and Defense (Cities and towns from Wellington to Longmont): Twitter: @NoCoCMAD

Friends of the Forsaken (Boulder): Twitter: @Friendsoforsakn

Self Health Colorado, providing hygiene resources: Twitter: @CO_Self_Health

Denver Homeless Out Loud: Twitter: @DHOLofficial

Safe Access for Everyone (Boulder): Twitter: @bouldersafe

Help On Every Street (Denver): Twitter: @HOESinCO