Every year we endlessly debate the “meaning of Christmas.” Fox News stages its traditional “War on Christmas” show, commentators lament the crass commercialization, and decorations inch up in store stocks until they compete with pumpkins for space. And on Christmas Eve, families everywhere gather around a traditional nativity, with baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by donkeys and camels, the only available spot for him to be born. Our economy and much of the country’s spiritual life is organized around the celebration of the birth of a Semitic refugee who was born into homelessness.
Last week, as I wrote late into the night on the aesthetics of homelessness, a tragedy was occurring. The snow fell swiftly and silently, blanketing the city in a deep, wet shroud of ice crystals, and the temperature dropped throughout the night. I turned in my blog around 3 a.m. (sadly, that's typical, as I juggle so many commitments right now) and crawled into bed, sleeping slept soundly well into the morning. But outside, just a few blocks away, the very homeless people I'd walked amongst the previous day were being evicted from the streets as I snoozed, for the very same aesthetics under the guise of safety.
Unicorn Riot documented the scene at 6 a.m. at Resurrection Village, shivering in 19 degree weather as the homeless residents of tents, in open violation of Denver’s egregious urban camping ban, were rousted from their sleep by a cop on a megaphone telling them to “move along.” Video captures the despair in voices that ask, “Move along to where?” And rising in pitch when they are informed that they will be taken in by the very services that turned them away the night before due to lack of space.
The last stats we have for the estimated homeless in Denver are nearly a year old, and what a year it’s been. In a year of skyrocketing rents, too little housing stock and unprecedented growth, it is almost certain that the 12,605 individuals counted by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless last year has increased by an alarming number. Almost half of those homeless are families with children, and a quarter were newly homeless. Yet the Denver area has approximately 1,700 shelter beds, a heartbreaking shortfall that makes the plaintive question “Move along to where?” even more poignant.
Denver Homeless Out Loud reports that nearly 100 people were swept up in this “clean-up” from the streets. And though the supposed reasons given were “concerns” about people’s “safety,” they also grabbed and threw away the meager belongings desperately needed for survival, such as tarps and shopping carts, telling one woman that she could only grab one bag. When you have been reduced to owning next to nothing, the cruelty of this is unimaginable in the sunshine, but in weather that could kill a person? What can justify this?
According to what the police told Denver Homeless Out Loud, the “trash and obstruction of sidewalks” that I documented just the day before they were shrouded in snow had become “too much.” I wholeheartedly agree – it is simply “too much” that we as a city are bearing this human suffering in our midst, while doing little to mitigate it.
The day before, as I'd walked alone through the streets of my former 'hood with my camera, the one thing most visible to me was not the trash, but a strong sense of community, and of having one another’s backs. A community that I tried not to disturb, pussy-footing through with my camera — but I still called attention to myself as an outsider, and obviously raised some suspicion, as well as one thrown bottle. I can’t say that I blame them; the line between journalist and voyeur is a tricky one, and though I came with respect and empathy, there was no way for them to know that. But before I had a chance to seek out the bottle-thrower and talk to them, I heard a sickening screech of tires and a thud, and turned around to see a crumpled body in the street. And immediately after, a flood of people running towards that body, lying in front of a shiny Lexus SUV, in one of the most Bonfire of the Vanities moments one could ever witness.
I ran towards the accident calling 911, and instantly regretting my choice, as I could see several others with more info had done the same, and being on the phone kept me from using my much easier-to-manage phone camera and tied me to the scene for a while. Workers from the Denver Rescue Mission and paramedics crowded around, identifying and assisting the man in the road who had just started to move a little. I was startled when suddenly, several minutes into the chaos, the driver finally emerged from the car. Impeccably dressed and wearing patent high-heeled boots, her face was stone, though she shakily asked if she should turn on her headlights to help in the falling light. She did not ask how the man was. She stood there, visibly different than everyone around her with perfectly coiffed blonde hair, watching but separate from the scene, a bit player in the drama unfolding before her who could surely bear the consequences of her transgression with little financial pain.
This is what it’s come to, Denver. I find myself weeping regularly for your soul. The long dehumanization of the poor in the media has found its resting place in our criminalization of homelessness in the name of the urban camping ban and unaffordable rents. This is the price of the rah-rah growth so many seem enamored with. And it is a cost too high to pay, in my mind. Though I am not homeless myself, I almost always append “yet” to the end of that sentence in my mind, hoping against hope that I can finish the tiny house before I inevitably lose my beloved studio to gentrification yet again. Because I know how close the shadow of homelessness lurks, how it has lapped at the heels of my friends and family, and even captured many of them in the “near-homelessness” of couch-surfing and basement-dwelling with relatives.
That’s the reality for the majority of us, really, one paycheck, one accident, one delayed payment or bounced check away from living on the streets or at the mercy of friends and strangers. The tension of living on this balance beam over the chasm of struggle and despair is surely taking years off of our lives, and most certainly impacting the artistic heart of our city. Every conversation amongst artists turns to this topic, every time…what will become of us? Move along to where?
I have asked for your help before, and am grateful to all who have heeded that call — thank you, so much, it is with your help that I am moving forward at all. But this year, all I want for Christmas is a stop to this madness. Please take the advice of Denver Homeless Out Loud, who are calling for these actions:
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Please call district 6 Police department at 720-913-2800 and ask the police to…
–stop kicking people out and moving people “away”
–stop pretending like there are enough shelters beds for all those who are homeless or that people can be forced to go to a shelter as if it is a jail
–stop throwing away people’s belongings including survival winter gear
Please call the Mayor’s office at 720-865-9090 and tell him this is not the way enlightened cities are addressing homelessness. They are allocating funds and getting low income housing built quickly.
Please call your city councilperson at 720-337-2000 and tell them to stop this disrespectful inhumane way of treating Denver’s homeless residents.
Please call the Governor’s office at 303-866-2471 and tell him the people of Colorado need the Right to Rest!
And if you have a roof over your head and enough to eat, please share your wealth however you can with others. Some great organizations to donate to are Denver Homeless Out Loud, The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Denver Rescue Mission.
What would that Semitic refugee do, when faced with this homelessness? As one of the rousted denizens of Resurrection Village complained, the cop “didn’t even bring coffee.” I like to think that coffee would replace frankincense and myrrh this year as the very least thing we could offer our neighbors who trying to survive the elements. But let’s do even better: Let’s offer them homes. Let’s offer them a place to “move along to” for good.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.