The Colorado Convention Center is often used to host ritzy trade shows and pop-culture love fests, drawing crowds that eagerly spend money or are hustling to make business connections. That was not the case on Thursday, November 15. Instead, over 1,400 people, most of them experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, occupied the main floor of the convention center for the 2018 iteration of Project Homeless Connect.
Gary Pacheco was among those in attendance. The middle-aged man, who sleeps most nights at the Denver Rescue Mission, arrived at the massive, glass-plated downtown building around lunchtime and was immediately paired with a volunteer guide, Kim.
As was the case with all attendees, she would stay with Pacheco throughout his visit at the center, making sure he was connected with every service he needed or wanted. Pacheco was grateful to have a guide, because when Kim took him up to the second floor of the building, he was dwarfed by the massive event space that was full of different service providers, nonprofits, government agencies and companies. They offered everything from winter coats and haircuts to medical checkups and job-placement services.
The only reason Pacheco wasn’t completely overwhelmed was that he had attended a Project Homeless Connect before.
The annual event has now run for eighteen years straight in Denver (except for one year that was canceled because of bad weather). Project Homeless Connect has become one of the most uplifting and anticipated events among the city’s homeless community, an opportunity to take care of many needs, including replacing lost or stolen IDs.
This year’s Project Homeless Connect was bigger than ever, staffed by more than 750 community volunteers and coordinated by Denver’s Road Home and Mile High United Way with support from We Don’t Waste, Regis University and the U.S. Bank Foundation.
"This event is important because it takes all the services that are happening in Denver every day and puts them all under the same roof,” said Chris Conner, director of Denver’s Road Home, as he was watching some of the event’s attendees get their portraits taken by photography students from Arapahoe Community College. The portrait studio was a new addition to this year's event, Conner said.
Nearby, masseuses were rubbing the backs of other attendees lying flat on cushioned tables.
"The real remarkable thing about Project Homeless Connect are all the community volunteers who want to do good around homelessness," Conner observed. "And though a lot of people come with the expectation that this is about providing basic needs, our hope is to solve problems that people didn't know how to identify before coming."
As an example, Conner mentioned a woman he met earlier in the day whose primary mission in attending Project Homeless Connect was to repair a broken zipper on her jacket. But as she perused the tables set up by all the different service providers, she gathered information about city-backed programs that could eventually lead her to find transitional housing.
People find out about the annual event mostly through word of mouth, Conner said, and it helps that the event has been going strong for so long. “This is certainly the largest resource event in the region that happens each year."
Of course, the supportive event does not occur in a vacuum, and the past weeks have been a particularly trying time for the homeless community as the city has stepped up enforcement against encampments that had formed in the Golden Triangle and Ballpark neighborhoods and along the South Platte River. The homeless advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud has been documenting the sweeps using Facebook Live, and recently provided Westword with a list of over twenty reasons why some people experiencing homelessness decline to use overnight shelters.
Despite tensions flaring on the streets, there was little animosity on display at the convention center. The job-fair portion of the event even resulted in 157 job offers — more than double the number from 2017.
Other attendees with issues like outstanding warrants or citations took advantage of free legal services and the city’s innovative “homeless court,” in which judges and prosecutors work with homeless defendants to resolve legal issues before they escalate to the point of an arrest or jail time.
Pacheco didn't need those services, but he did take advantage of some of the more fun offerings. After he got his portrait taken by Arapahoe Community College students, he inspected the final print. “We have a problem: I think because of my picture, I broke the camera!" he cracked with a booming laugh.
Pacheco says his life took a turn when he had an accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. He’s struggled with homelessness ever since. But on Thursday, he was grateful for Project Homeless Connect.
"Look where I'm at!” he said, gesturing around him. “What more can you ask? All the camaraderie. All the volunteers. They're taking time out of their schedules to come here. And that means it's only right that I attend.”
Asked if he had any specific services or items he was seeking, his answer was simple: "I really could come here and not come away with anything. To me, it's all about these good people. I came to say ‘hello’ and ‘thanks.’"