Early on October 16, a woman was organizing her belongings on the steps of the Greek Amphitheater in Civic Center Park. She was not alone. Over a hundred people were thawing in the sun after a night outside in freezing temperatures, offering a striking backdrop to Denver’s Race and Homelessness Vigil, which was just starting its third day.
Across the painted street with its sapling barriers, an attentive group had gathered in front of the Denver City and County Building, listening to speakers, contributing to food drives and passing out supplies.
The vigil is slated to last just under four days: 98 hours, or 5,256 minutes — representing the 5,256 BIPOC individuals that Denver Homeless Out Loud estimates are in Denver.
The activist group organized the action in response to data gathered by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative Point in Time Count and Survey showing that the city's increase in homelessness has specifically and disproportionately affected people of color. For instance, while Black residents make up 10 percent of Denver's population, they represent 25 percent of the homeless population. (Although the Point in Time survey came up with lower BIPOC numbers, they still comprised a disproportionate number of the individuals counted.)
The Point in Time survey also indicated that Indigenous residents make up more than 5 percent of the homeless population in Denver, while accounting for less than 1 percent of the city's overall population. “When I think about being unsheltered, it's about a spiritual and mental deprivation which all of us are a part of," Sky Roosevelt-Morris, a local Indigenous activist, told the group. "Many of us are homeless ourselves, and we don't even know it. When I look at unsheltered people, I do not pity them. I ask myself how can I be a good relative to them, how can I lessen their struggle? And maybe If I have the capacity to take on a little bit more struggle, maybe I should do that. Maybe that’s what I need, to be sheltered in my own life. Be a good relative, because you never know when it's going to be you.”
Over the past several months, advocates and demonstrators have clashed with local law enforcement authorities at sweeps of homeless encampments around downtown, intersecting with broader demonstrations protesting police use of force against marginalized communities. Residents and advocates for the unsheltered population are asking for an end to what they call cruel and unproductive sweeps during the pandemic, leaving homeless residents with nowhere to go. This, they observe, is in direct conflict with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which recommend that government officials refrain from disbursing encampments, citing the likelihood of increased transmission.
“We have more wealth than any country in the history of the world, and yet half a million people don’t have a home," Claire Ragusin, a local member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, told the gathering. "This country allows poor people to live on the street while entire apartment complexes sit empty. ... The idea that homelessness is caused by moral failure is nothing but a coverup for the systems' own failure to meet the needs of people.”
John Staughton, a housed representative from Denver Homeless Out Loud, had intended to set up his own tent on the sidewalk in front of the City and County Building on the first night of the vigil, as a show of community support. “Police showed up and said anyone still here when they got back would be arrested," he says. The officers offered them one-night hotel vouchers, he adds, but "we went to a number of different hotels and were refused."
On October 15, protesters returned to the vigil for a second night. “Activists and demonstrators slept in tents on the sidewalk and were woken up at 4 a.m. by police during freezing weather, and told they could not demonstrate,” Staughton recalled the next day. Many of the people in the tents moved across the street.
“That behavior is indicative of the problem this summer,” Staughton continued. “The police want to show up with 20 to 25 cops, cruisers and motorcycles against peaceful people in need, who have shown no violent tendencies, and they offer no help or solutions and tell them to move. It's deadly. It's winter. People are dying.”
Breakfast, lunch and dinner have been served every day during the vigil, while volunteers pass out survival kits with hygiene supplies, hand warmers, lunch bags and other supportive resources. The vigil is scheduled to end at 10 p.m. Saturday, October 17. Speakers and programming are scheduled throughout the day.