In some of the grittier industrial areas of northeast Denver, it's not unusual to find people eager to give back to the community. Usually what they're giving back consists of old tires and scorched mattresses, used syringes and construction debris — the kind of detritus that's regularly dumped along the weed-choked, crumbling curbs of some of the city's most neglected streets.
But for the past four months, motorists barreling south on York Street, through the heart of the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, have caught glimpses of a far rarer sight: a single figure in a hardhat and yellow hazard vest, hacking away at the piles of trash and vegetation that had all but devoured the sidewalk abutting a sprawling Union Pacific lot. A shiny banner announces that this is a "Community Service Volunteer Clean Up Project," but the project consists of exactly one volunteer, a 59-year-old parolee named Scott Rollins.
"There's no crew — I'm the only one doing it," Rollins says, surveying his work. "Imagine if you had sixty men out here on a weekend. You know what they could accomplish?"
When he was a much younger man, Rollins robbed banks across several western states. His ill-chosen career cost him 31 years and five months in prison — a quarter-century in federal pens ranging from Leavenworth to the federal supermax in Florence, ADX, and another six years in the Colorado Department of Corrections. He was granted parole last February. But his current "community service," cleaning up the 4200 block of York Street, isn't something a court ordered him to do. Instead, it was a challenge he decided to take on in what little free time he has between working a construction job for a CDOT contractor and reporting every night to a halfway house up the street.
"Before": The bus stop on the block when Rollins began his cleanup project.
"I'm doing this to do something for the community I live in," he says. "Every place I've been, there were very few people who believed in me. No one ever believed I would get out and succeed."
With permission from his supervisors at the halfway house, Rollins began picking up trash in the block. A nearby grow house allowed him to use their dumpster for some of the heavy stuff, such as old tires and an auto bumper. Nearby Sunbelt Rentals donated a chainsaw and a weed trimmer. Before long, he was on the phone to Omaha, persuading Union Pacific reps to give him a key so that he could gain access to their fenced-in property and begin clearing some of the underbrush.
Over the past few weeks, Rollins has collected more than two truckloads of debris, paying out of his own pocket for it to be hauled away.
The site is still far from ideal — go around to the north side of the UP lot and there's a gaping hole in the fence and mounds of trash deposited by truckers, squatters and other visitors to the area — but Rollins figures he's made a dent. "If it looks halfway decent. I don't think people are going to throw trash out here," he says.
"After": Rollins surveys his progress; behind the fence, a stack of underbrush awaits disposal.
The halfway house, CMI Columbine, agreed to "adopt" the block as part of its own community outreach. But so far none of Rollins's fellow residents have elected to join him in the cleanup; he has spent as much as nine hours a day on weekends out on the street, all by himself.
That's fine with him.
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SHOW ME HOW
"I'm not doing this to get a pat on the back," he says. "I don't give a fuck about that. But everyone looks at people like me and writes them off, and I wanted to show them that they shouldn't."
Still to come: A side of the UP lot not included in the current cleanup project.