Can Close to Home Make Colorado Homelessness History in Five Years?

James Peterson, assistant curator for artifacts at History Colorado, with item from Homeless exhibit.
James Peterson, assistant curator for artifacts at History Colorado, with item from Homeless exhibit.

As I drove south along Speer Boulevard this morning, I passed a dozen sign-fliers — some begging for help, some begging for money, some begging for beer — as well as several new signs posted along Speer by the Denver Police Department warning against trespassing in certain medians, or under bridges along Cherry Creek. As I walked the two blocks up Broadway from my office to History Colorado, I passed four men asleep in doorways, and one more upright and asking for help.

That help may be coming thanks to a new, metro-wide campaign announced this morning: Close to Home, whose five-year mission is to "make homelessness history in Colorado." Hundreds of people had gathered at History Colorado for the kick-off, including representatives of the community-based organizations that make up the campaign's grassroots network, as well as members of a leadership team that includes the Denver Foundation, Denver Homeless Out Loud, the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, Governor John Hickenlooper's Homeless Initiative Team and the Metro Mayors' Caucus. Aurora mayor Steve Hogan, who heads the homelessness and hunger committee for that group of 41 mayors, took the stage to explain how in 2013 his group "decided we needed to start shining light on the issue of homelessness in the metro area." 

At the same time, the Denver Foundation — the area's ninety-year-old community foundation — had been conducting a listening tour throughout metro Denver, and kept hearing concerns about homelessness — not just in the core city, but in the suburbs, too, says longtime (and outgoing) foundation CEO David Miller. And the group determined to create a campaign to recognize that "homelessness is close to home" and to "build public will" to change that, he explained.

Miss Colorado USA 2011, Blair Griffith, was also on hand, to bring the face of homelessness front and center: Two months after she won the crown, she told the audience, her family was evicted from their house in Morrison because her widowed mother, who'd suffered a heart attack, had fallen behind on rent. "Who's experiencing homelessness?" she asked. "You'd be very, very surprised."

Mayor Michael Hancock also addressed the crowd; ten years ago, his predecessor, now-governor John Hickenlooper, created Denver's Road Home, still touted as a ten-year plan to end homelessness.  A decade later, homelessness is not only still here, but it's a growing metrowide concern. Citing people's inclination to "hide the uncomfortable things," such as addiction, illness and, yes, homelessness, Hancock said: "We know it exists, we just don't want to see it."

Now you can see plenty on the Close to Home campaign website, which just went live this morning; it's packed with materials designed "to raise awareness, increase understanding, and move Coloradans to speak up and take actions that make a meaningful difference in addressing homelessness." The first step? The campaign is asking metro residents to take a pledge and make a personal commitment to learn more, speak up and take action. You can find the pledge on closetohomeco.org.

And for more on the history of homelessness in Colorado, head to History Colorado on Saturday, when the museum will open Searching for Home, its exhibit that takes a historical look at homelessness in the state.

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