Editor's note: This is the latest profile in Kelsey Whipple's ongoing series highlighting local political activists.
Denver's Road Home executive director Bennie Milliner's career in service began the day he saw Calvin step out of his brand new, canary-yellow Chevy Impala. Emerging in an expertly starched uniform, Calvin struck a perfect picture of the military ideal. That day, with all its glory and starch, would be the one Calvin shared the news he was going to Pakistan.
Milliner met Calvin, an officer stationed in New Jersey, when he dated his aunt, a student at Temple University in Philadelphia. "We had often talked about the military and traveling and all the opportunities it affords, and I knew it was something I wanted to do," Milliner says. "Joining the Air Force was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
During the 23 years of his own eventual service, Milliner also traveled frequently. Born in Philadelphia, the now 61-year-old was born third in a line of nine siblings. He, his four sisters, five brothers and their dog lived in far-from-posh circumstances with their father, a self-taught plumber with a fourth-grade education, and their mother, who Milliner says proudly "was born to be a mother. She let people know all the time." Later, when her nest emptied, Fay Milliner worked as a power seamstress.
"We never got quite homeless, but it was close enough that I could see the end of it," Milliner says by way of describing his family's financial structure. He adds that such experiences contribute to his leadership style at Denver's Road Home.
"You kind of do things throughout your career for thirty years or so, and it all seems to come together in the end when you reach a point like this one," Milliner says. "In the military, for example, I moved through times of change and transition on a regular basis while maintaining the stellar quality of performance and maintaining schedules, checklists, timing and those kinds of things. The prime mover in my life has always been service."
Although Milliner jokes that compassion is not the quality the military is best known for, he says it is one of the most important qualities he developed in the Air Force. Milliner's military life ended in 1993, at which point he decided to end his previous career in electronics and push toward the service industry. His goal was to "do something that had the potential to change lives," a natural step after more than two decades in the armed forces.
Milliner moved to Denver for the first time in 1971 before relocating to Hawaii for three years in 1978. Aside from one year spent in Korea, he has lived in the city since 1981, during which time he has crossed both the political and service spectrum. At the time he sat down with Westword, Milliner was ten days into the new position he started on February 13, before which he served as Mayor Hancock's deputy director of legislative services.
Before the Hancock years, Milliner spent roughly six years as a community liaison for Senators Ken Salazar and Michael Bennett and the Urban League, where he was the director of community relations and development. Throughout his career, Milliner has often focused on veterans, who, along with families, play a significant role in Denver's homeless population.
"For me, the job change is really just a natural progression, as far as I can tell," says Milliner, who describes his first day on the job as "like drinking through a fire hydrant." "But as the [executive director], your role is different depending on when you join the organization. For Jamie [Van Leeuwen], his role was to build this from the ground up, and Amber [Callender]'s role was to put things into place to prepare for the next step."
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In the next three years of Denver's ten-year plan to end homelessness, Milliner sees his own role as "getting us there." Milliner describes his job as "the crusader, the motivator, the re-Energizer bunny." As his time with Denver's Road Home begins, he hopes to target the program's sustainability in order to encourage its growth past his tenure. There's "What is going to get Denver to that finish line?" but then "How do we push past it?"
"One thing that really overwhelms me is that as big of a problem as we think we have here, with 4,200 homeless in Denver each night, Chicago has 6,200," Milliner says. "It gives me hope as far as an achievement number, and this ten-year program has been proven as a nationally recognized success model. We're not going to just close shop and leave once the ten years are done."
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More from our Politics archive: "Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide."