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Cardboard & Concrete exhibit puts faces on Denver's homeless

Scott Russell expected to find stories, and he did. On bike rides between Denver's alleys and street corners, he found twenty of them, eleven of which will be on display this weekend at Wazee Union at Cardboard & Concrete, the project that resulted. But there were a few surprising turns in his attempt to turn Denver's sign-fliers into works of art, to put a few faces on the city's homeless issues. He didn't expect to change his mind, for example.

"I'd go around on my bike, and I'd feel drawn to people," Russell says. "There are just so many stories out there, and I felt changed by all of them. What I didn't expect was a new perspective -- on homeless people and on people in general."

He hopes this show will serve as a catalyst to promote a similar shift in public opinion. Over the past month and a half, Denver's proposed urban camping ordinance has spotlighted the city's homeless community as Denver City Council moves toward a final decision on Monday. If enacted -- and the proposal has already passeda preliminary vote -- the ban would make it illegal to camp on any property in Denver (without the express permission of its owner), effective May 29. But the concept of Cardboard & Concrete, which is presented in conjunction with the the Denver Voice, launched before the controversy.

"They're really insightful about life because they're living on the fringes and watching it," says Kristin Pazulski, development director and editor of the Voice. "They have this poetic voice, and we wanted people to see it as well as their faces. We want people to hear what they have to say."

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To prepare, Russell and a handful of other organizers dedicated the past five months to turning Denver's most maligned faces -- its sign-fliers -- into accessible narratives through photography and found art. They collected cardboard signs from sidewalks and waste bins; those artifacts will line the walls of Wazee Union at the free, two-day show that runs Saturday and Sunday from 7 to 11 p.m.

Although not all of Denver's sign-fliers -- also known as panhandlers -- are homeless, those in the exhibit are, says Russell. And before 22 of Russell's final pieces were moved to the display space, he offered Westword a sneak preview. Continue below for the faces of the city's homeless.

More photos are on the next page. More photos are on the next page.

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