Denver Rescue Mission's Coors Field clean up slams stereotypes about the homeless

As city council continues to consider Denver's proposed urban camping ban -- and constituents continue to debate it -- the Denver Rescue Mission continued a twelve-year tradition yesterday by dispatching a crew of staffers and homeless people to collect trash in and around Coors Field before the Rockies home opener on Monday.

This year, though, their actions have added salience.

The results of these efforts were weighty: The group of approximately fifty staff, program members and unplanned volunteers collected 1,100 pounds of trash across ten square blocks of space, some of them in the same streets where they previously lived. The day before, ten volunteers collected 400 pounds. When the clean-up ended at Coors Field, Jim Kellogg, Vice President of Community and Retail Operations, publicly thanked the group for its contributions to the neighborhood.

Until 46-year-old Brett Durand joined the mission's New Life program, he was unaware of its existence. As the city weighs the repercussions of urban camping and the ban's affect on homelessness, the former addict says public outreach like this event -- one that echoes the mission's focus on sustainable transitions into work life -- becomes increasingly important in showing the general public both sides of the issue.

To place the Denver Rescue Mission in the context of the larger issue, Durand says its neighbors aren't fans of its location. Although the event is intended to create self-esteem in program members, he feels it's important to prove the value of homeless outreach to the community.

"People just want to look away and not see (the homeless), who can sometimes leave a mess," Durand says. "Anything this place or any of the support institutions can do to make a positive statement helps facilitate more supportive conversations. Without the community support, I'm sure they could all get together and vote us out if they want to."

Last year, the annual opening day clean-up was Dave Schunk's first event with the Denver Rescue Mission, and the chief financial officer noticed the same gap in community perception. He felt awkward when business people passing by wouldn't meet his eyes, particularly because he spent most of his life as one of them. Before joining the mission's staff, Schunk worked for a Fortune 500 company. "I'd see them driving by and ignoring us and think, 'I'm them,'" he says. "'That's me!'"

Behind him, a stranger approaches, says he saw the event online and asks if he can help. Soon, he is holding a plastic bag and a trash-picker.

Although Schunk attributes the camping ban to positive intentions, he urges a delay in adoption and implementation until the city has the means to provide resources for any people it would displace. In this effort, Schunk sees faith-based organizations like the Denver Rescue Mission as key in adding shelter options to the city's pool. The same option came up in the Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure committee's first public discussion of the issue on Tuesday.

"We here feel like our community is ready to build a safer, bigger, more sustainable place for our homeless community," Schunk says. "I believe that the city and the outreach community are both trying to do the right thing, and we're showing folks here that we care. But can we make the ban work for them and not hurt them?"

More from our Politics archive: "Urban camping ban heats up packed city council committee meeting."

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