We're Not Worthy

Charity began at home. This home.

 The savings of the poor are made little by little; they come out of that broken, fragmentary condition of humanity to helpfulness and self-respect. -- Reverend Oscar McCullough, 1890

Denver City Council was packed Monday night, overflowing with supporters of the city's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, a proposal that could sound like so much squishy liberalism -- except that George W. Bush himself issued a call in 2003 for cities to devise ways to eradicate homelessness within the decade. And after many long, heartfelt speeches by people one step up from the streets, people one step away from the streets, people still on the streets, councilmembers took the first steps to make that plan reality, amending the Human Services chapter of the Denver Comprehensive Plan 2000 to incorporate its goals and also changing zoning-code regulations to allow more flexibility for shelters, particularly temporary shelters. Next month, council will vote on the entire plan.

The biggest obstacle to its passage lurked outside the City & County Building Monday night, just as it lurks there every night and day.

As politicians and service providers try to come to grips with the needs of the homeless, the numbers of homeless, it's hard to avoid a certain strata of the homeless -- the hard-core street people who would have been called "bums" a few decades ago (and in the interest of clarity, perhaps still should be), called the "unworthy poor" a century ago. Those who weren't flying their much-used signs -- "any bit helps," "homeless and boneless" -- along Civic Center Park were lying around inside the park. And all along 15th Street, up and down the 16th Street Mall, knots of these folks were putting the arm on visiting conventioneers and irritating city boosters who worried about how that would look on Monday Night Football.

While this layer will be the toughest to eradicate (although the plan does call for monitoring of the "chronic homeless," and treatment when possible), it's also the most obvious, obscuring other levels of homeless who are desperate -- and desperately interested -- in the services the plan would provide.

And now another layer overshadows that group, the worthiest of what could be called the "worthy poor." These are the evacuees, the victims of Hurricane Katrina who -- no matter what their homes were like back in Louisiana -- now find themselves in the top ranks of the homeless here in Denver.

Local social service agencies try hard to sound chipper as donations keep flowing to hurricane relief efforts, while money available to other good works -- including the campaign that will help fund the city's 10-Year Plan -- could dry up. The Mile High Chapter of the American Red Cross now estimates that the money collected here for hurricane relief has topped $7 million. The first year of the city's homelessness plan is budgeted at $7.7 million: Half of that is to come from federal and state grants, but the city is looking to the private sector for the rest. "We'd like to see the same sense of urgency applied to the needs of our local homeless," says Sue Cobb, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Human Services.

But while Katrina could hurt Denver's plan in the short-term, it should help in the long run. Because many of the services being offered the evacuees -- one-on-one counseling, job-placement assistance, temporary housing (up to eighteen months, HUD announced today) -- are exactly what's being proposed for this city's homeless. If Denver can offer shelter from the storm to evacuees, can it do any less for homegrown homeless who've weathered their own calamities?

"Folks in the Katrina situation became homeless through no fault of their own," says former councilwoman Debbie Ortega, who now heads the Mayor's Commission to End Homelessness. "That's a similarity with many homeless here."

The plan's critics look at the unworthy poor -- the addicts on the streets who've chosen not to get clean, the panhandlers who'd rather fly a sign than get a job -- and worry that the $7 million will be wasted. The service providers think about the cost of not trying to help, the price of hospital beds and detox centers. And then they look at the homeless men, women and children who just need the right hand up to get back up.

It's worked here before.

Look up "philanthropy" on the Internet, and you discover that charity began at home. This home. In 1887, six Denverites -- a woman and five clergymen, including McCullough -- formed the Charity Organizations Society, a group that took up where individual philanthropists left off, setting up a coordinated effort to meet the needs of many. That first year, the society provided emergency assistance in 529 cases and helped other charities with another 2,500. Ultimately, it grew into Mile High United Way -- and its practices were exported across the country.

"What we're doing now is an extension of what we were doing then," says Caryn Gracey Jones, who began researching Mile High's history when she became communications manager in January. "One of the reasons it was founded was because there was a need to help the people arriving in Colorado with nothing. Now here we are again."

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