Volunteers from the mutual aid group Headwaters Protectors pick up trash alongside unhoused residents at a homeless encampment in Denver. (Courtesy of Michelle Christiance)
Almost every Sunday for the past year, a small group of volunteers has gathered at 10 a.m. at Benedict Fountain Park in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood equipped with shovels, plastic bags, latex gloves and an intricate homemade water system.
From there, the group disperses throughout the city in search of homeless encampments, where they offer trash pickup services and water stations for people to wash their hands and refill their water containers — amenities the members of the group wish the city would provide.
“We never really had the expectation that this would continue on,” said Michelle Christiance, who started volunteering with Headwaters Protectors in August 2020. “Our big hope was that the city would come in and learn from what we are doing, and take it and run with it. But that of course has not happened.”
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The group has now trained over 350 volunteers and celebrated their one-year anniversary on Aug. 1. The idea for the group sprouted during the early months of the pandemic, after Ean Thomas Tafoya, an organizer with environmental advocacy group GreenLatinos, invited his friend, Matthew Kowal, onto his local radio show. On the show, Kowal, who engineers water systems for music festivals, started talking about how his job resembles building temporary cities.
“Ean had me on his radio show and was like, ‘Well, you know, that stuff’s all great when the festivals are going, but right now there’s a homeless crisis and it’s 100 degrees out and there’s no water,” Kowal recalled. “So he said, ‘So why don’t you bring that stuff out, like, tomorrow.’”
Then Kowal’s brother Jeremy donated more equipment and helped them design what became their mobile water unit out of the back of a pick-up truck. (They have since upgraded to a removable trailer.)
A year evolution
In the early months, the growing group partnered with local businesses to fill up their water barrels. “We just kind of helped people hose off in the street a little too, because a lot of what we didn’t realize was that people just needed a chance to have some hygiene,” Kowal said.
He said that any time they offered water services, they always distributed trash bags and offered to haul it away. The city “always uses the trash as an excuse for the sweeps, saying that it’s a blight,” he added.
Though the city hasn’t indicated that they’d like to take the project on and scale it as the group hoped, the Denver Parks and Recreation Department did donate shovels, brooms and trash bags for the group to use and distribute. The city also will pick up the trash for free once it’s gathered by the volunteers.
“I mean, that’s something,” said Christiance, who is also the operations manager for the local food distribution nonprofit, Denver Food Rescue. “We really haven’t seen the city do anything. So to see even the smallest thing was a big win. It was a big deal for us.”
Still, the group continues to invite city officials to participate in their efforts. In the fall, Denver City Council Member Amanda Sandoval came and volunteered with the group.
“So that was cool,” Tafoya said.
The city’s last official point-in-time survey — which is considered a significant undercount because it only counts the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night — found that 6,104 people were homeless in January 2020.
A more comprehensive analysis by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative found that 31,207 individuals had experienced homelessness in the metro area between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020. The city’s shelter system can accommodate approximately 2,200 people per night, according to city officials.
“When we show up, people are stoked”
Christiance said whenever the group shows up at an encampment, people are “stoked.”
“They see the gloves and garbage bags and they are just like, ‘Heck yes, I’ll get cleaning right now,’” she said. “People don’t want to live in filth. They are forced to live in filth.”
She said sometimes neighbors will come and join in the clean-up efforts. Other times, they complain.
“They don’t want water to be provided to folks, or they don’t want the trash cleaned up because they want the encampment to be swept,” she said. “But there is actually no correlation, because the city does what it wants.”
The group also distributes supplies such as sunscreen, tampons, and safe needle disposal boxes they receive through a partnership with Denver’s Harm Reduction Action Center, a public health agency working to reduce harms associated with drug use.
Christiance said one of the most frustrating things is when their group shows up to an encampment that was recently removed by the city and finds the ground covered in trash. She said a few days after the city removed a large encampment in Five Points in December, she found 15 to 20 needles on the ground.
“It’s just laughable that the city does this to protect public safety, but then they leave all the needles in the open, whereas if they hadn’t, you know come in and traumatically displaced people the needles were hidden away in people’s tents and were not easily accessible by the public,” she said.
Danica Lee, director of Denver’s Public Health Investigations Division, told Newsline in December that the Five Points encampment was removed because of the accumulation of trash, the existence of flammable materials, the presence of rats, improperly discarded syringes and reports of human feces in the adjacent river.
“It just makes you realize that there are people still out there that still care and are trying to fight for the homeless”
The first encampment that Headwaters Protectors regularly visited was one located at the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street, which was removed by the city in October 2020. Now, the streets are lined with large boulders to prohibit people from setting up their tents.
Sophie Elias was one of the residents staying at the encampment at the time. Thinking back to the morning when police officers woke her up and told her to move along brings tears to her eyes. She said mutual aid groups such as Headwaters Protectors helped her get through the last ten months.
“It just makes you realize that there are people still out there that still care and are trying to fight for the homeless,” Elias said at the group’s one-year anniversary party. “These people, they have changed my life and will always hold a place in my heart, because they did more for the homeless community than they really realized.”
Christiance wants city officials to join Headwaters Protectors on a Sunday to see what they do.
“If I had a magic wand, I would have them come out, learn how to effectively help people without creating more trauma, and creating more strife within the community, creating more barriers between people,” she said. “I would love to just see them work together with the people they say they’re trying to protect.”
“If we can water our gardens, we should be able to provide our people with water,” she added.
For Dara Hargrave, volunteering with the group has been rewarding because it has allowed her to help in an immediate way.
“We’re amidst a pandemic and still we’re seeing the sweeps. And so, just making available the basics of life, clean water, trash service, everybody deserves that,” Hargrave said, who volunteers with her 13-year-old son.
One of her biggest takeaways from volunteering is seeing how often unhoused residents get harassed while living on the street. “I don’t really understand why, but so many people come by and we’ve seen them yell at people, they just walk by yelling and throwing things,” said Hargrave, a massage therapist who has lived in the Denver metro area for 15 years
It’s why she says the work is important.
“Being able to just come in and be kind, be non-judgmental, and just be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this if you need it,’” said Hargrave.
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