There's no place like homeless for the holidays.
At the initial meeting of the city's new task force on homelessness, more than two dozen representatives of social-service organizations, the private sector and public office debated what to do with the residence-challenged folks who hang out on the 16th Street Mall, in Civic Center Park, along Colfax -- frightening tourists, startling suburbanites and generally not doing much for Denver's image. Suggestions (guess which was serious) ranged from dropping the whole bunch -- 10,000 strong, by current estimates, which would mean there are more homeless folks than official residents of downtown -- on new Aurora mayor Ed Tauer, to showing some safety-through-peace-like sensitivity, maybe by featuring a different homeless person on a poster each week, sort of like those Dewar's Profiles, except with Mad Dog 20/20 instead of Scotch.
But it would be much, much easier -- and far more instructive -- to simply follow Gloria Hoffer one Saturday morning.
On the first Saturday of this month, the first truly chilly morning of the fall, the heater was blasting as I drove through downtown -- past the mounds of blankets and newspapers that represented homeless people who'd settled for the night over heating vents rather than in shelters -- and spotted a black Jeep Cherokee pulled to the side of Lawrence Street just past 22nd Street. Two tables had been set up beside the vehicle, and lined up in front of those tables were dozens of people, some wearing blankets, some shivering in grimy shirtsleeves, patiently waiting their turn while Gloria Hoffer and her husband, Darrell, served breakfast.
Just as Gloria's been doing for the past nine months.
"She's been there every Saturday without fail, rain or shine," says Darrell. "They call her the Breakfast Lady."
The Hoffers aren't part of any official do-gooder organization -- although their efforts certainly qualify as non-profit. Darrell is a carpenter, and he came up with the money to buy the big coffeepot, the grill and a table; Gloria works part-time for UPS, and she clips coupons and shops sales on Friday in order to deliver the goods every Saturday morning. "I don't make a lot of money," she says, "but what I get, I take and I spend on them."
Less than a year ago, she didn't know anything about them. But then another lady at church -- she and Darrell drive from their house in Northglenn all the way to the Heritage Christian Center in Aurora every Sunday -- said she was going to feed the homeless, and she asked Gloria to help out.
"I'd wanted to do this a long time," Gloria says, "but you know how it is. You put it off and put it off. I didn't know how to get out there. I didn't know what to expect."
On her first venture out there, Gloria and Alex, the Hoffers' now-eight-year-old son, went down to a shelter with the church lady and handed out sack lunches. There were other volunteers doing the same thing, though, and Gloria wondered if this was where she was really needed. She talked to a few of the people taking the lunches and learned that those lucky enough to spend the night in a shelter still had to get out early in the morning. "So I was thinking, they've got to be hungry first thing," she remembers. "And it's just bitter cold down there. So I said to my husband, 'I want to feed them breakfast. Eggs and potatoes and hot coffee.'"
From there, her good intentions have built into a free feed that stretches $30 from their family budget into a hot breakfast for 55 to 80 people every Saturday. Not just during the holidays, not just around Thanksgiving. But eggs, potatoes and hot coffee every Saturday. And this week, juice. "The other day at Albertson's, we got apple juice ten for ten dollars," Darrell says. He helps out when he's in town, and Alex does, too.
"I take my little boy every weekend," Gloria says. "I want him to understand that no matter how good he has it in life, there are others suffering, and they have to come before him."
At its heart, though, this is all Gloria's mission. "I'd wanted to do it for years, but I never had the courage to do it," she admits. "Then I realized there's no way of knowing unless I step out of the box and take a chance. And now that I've done it, I don't see myself not doing it anymore.
"I guess you could say I'm attached to those people. They're my first thought in the morning. They're the first thing in my heart next to my family. I pray for them; I think about what we can do for them. They're so many of them out there who didn't ask to be put there. A lot of people don't understand that."
"They're family now," adds Darrell. "A dozen people we're on a first-name basis with. If they're not there, we worry about them. They treat us better than a lot of people who have money. We pray with them, we pray for them; we hug them like they're real human beings. That's more than anything else you can do. Their real-life stories would break your heart."
Over the months, the Hoffers have come to know many of those stories. "I don't even have to ask them," Gloria says. "They'll just start pouring their hearts out to me." She knows that one man's wife left him and, after that, he just didn't have the will to go on. She knows the woman who lost her husband and then her house. She knows the people who had health problems and went broke trying to pay their medical bills. And yes, she knows that many of these people -- the ones whose hands have to be steadied so that they can hold the plates loaded with eggs, potatoes, hot coffee -- are on the streets because of their addictions.
"Some are so addicted they can't help themselves, but what are you going to do -- let them die?" asks Darrell. Rather than give them money, which they could misuse (and not that the Hoffers have any to spare), Darrell and Gloria feed them, listen to them. "A lot of them didn't ask for their lot in life," Darrell points out, "and a lot of us are a few paychecks away from that."
"I'm so thankful they have my shoulder to lean on," Gloria says. "They're lost."
In helping them, she's found her own way. "If I could feed them seven days a week, I'd do it -- in a heartbeat," she says. "They're human beings, regardless of where they came from. They do have feelings. They have personalities that are unbelievable. They're funny and they're heart-warming, and they never disrespect me."
They play ball with her son. They talk sports with Alex while they help her unload the groceries. "People have this image of them that they're bums, they're scums," she says. "And they're not."
So would posters profiling homeless people help change that image?
"You can put posters up anywhere, and people will just drive by," Gloria says. "You need to get out and spend time with them, talk with them. They feel in their heart that nobody wants to get near them."
Gloria didn't learn this in a poster, or a briefing paper, or at a task-force meeting. (In fact, some members would disagree with what she's doing -- enabling the homeless with a cup of coffee.) She learned it when she quit driving by, when she stopped ignoring the problem right at her own feet. She does a lot of long-distance races, she says, and in the old days, the days before she became the Breakfast Lady, when she was running along Cherry Creek she'd just jump right over whatever passed-out person had become an unofficial obstacle on the course.
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She learned it when she stepped outside that box and went out on the streets herself.
A native of Denver, Gloria had watched the homeless population grow. But she didn't know what she could do to help, not until one day when she started clipping coupons, loaded up the family car and headed to downtown Denver.
"If you took just half an hour to go out and meet them, you'd completely change your idea," she says. "If there's ever going to be a difference in this town, it's by people taking a chance and showing that we care."