Annual Project Homeless Connect Falls on Season's First Snowstorm

Volunteer Kim (right) stands with the two people she helped navigate services: Robert Harris and Sabrina Lugo.EXPAND
Volunteer Kim (right) stands with the two people she helped navigate services: Robert Harris and Sabrina Lugo.
Sara Fleming
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For many Denver residents, the early snowstorm that blanketed the city on Thursday was a mild inconvenience. But for those without stable housing, sporadic bad weather can be a nightmare, threatening to make their daily challenges all the more difficult.

People living on the streets know that all too well. Thursday morning was a bleak scene at a large homeless encampment on California Street, between 23rd and 21st streets. A woman named Yatta, who lives there, says she dreads the harsh weather with minimal shelter.

"I don't have any blankets, I don't have a tent, I don't have a tarp," she says. "Half of these tents and tarps are makeshifts, someone's old one, half-torn, half-ripped."

People living on the streets often crowd into others' tents to keep warm; when the temperatures drop, freezing deaths can occur. But Yatta says she has faced sexual harassment in shelters and doesn't want to be separated from her fiance. She has been on a housing list for years, she says, but has heard nothing back. So she feels like her only choice is to face the cold.

Several blocks away, thousands of unhoused individuals filtered into a massive line to get into the Colorado Convention Center for the thirteenth annual Project Homeless Connect, which was coincidentally timed on the wintry fall day. 

Project Homeless Connect, which is organized mostly by Denver's Road Home, the city's homeless outreach agency, and Mile High United Way, a nonprofit social services organization, is a one-day, all-encompassing resource fair to serve people currently experiencing, at risk of, or emerging from homelessness. Over 130 providers set up shop to offer free services and information to over 1,500 people.

Project Homeless Connect includes plenty of nonprofits that traditionally work with the homeless population, like shelters, employment and housing-assistance providers. It also includes organizations that don't do such work on a daily basis. For example, high school students gave manicures. The Healing Warriors Project offered acupuncture to homeless veterans. Animal care providers set up an area offering pet grooming, vaccination, free spay and neuter vouchers, and food. Guests can also get IDs, talk to legal advisers, and get free health checkups, vaccinations and STI tests.

Each guest is matched with a volunteer who spends the day with them, helping them navigate the overwhelming number of service providers. The point of the volunteer partnership is not only to help facilitate the process, Denver's Road Home Director Chris Conner says, but to "share conversation, discussion and stories with one another. So we're closing that social distance that homelessness creates."

Many guests that Westword talked to said they came primarily seeking a jacket or other warm clothing, given the weather. Tables filled with clothing donations were heavily trafficked. Robert Harris, who has been staying in Denver shelters while trying to find work and housing after moving from Yosemite, said he was thrilled to find a coat after all of his belongings had been stolen days earlier. "A guy off the street gave me this shirt, this was all I had," Harris said. "The timing was absolutely impeccable. I mean, it couldn't have been better."

Unhoused people hear about the event through posters at shelters and soup kitchens, or by word of mouth. They often come seeking to fulfill a narrow need, but Conner says the aim is to get people connected to other services they might not have thought of. They're probably not going to get housing or a job in a day, he says, but they may get connected to organizations they didn't know existed.

That's exactly what happened to Sabrina Lugo, who first came to the event years ago, when she was living on the streets. "The first time, I was really, really scared. I didn't know about all these places." She learned about various shelters and now mostly stays in the Samaritan House, which has also helped her seek employment. "It's good to see all [the services] in this one room," she says.

Still, many experiencing homelessness are suspicious of formal systems and organizations, making it hard to build ongoing relationships in a one-day event. Organizations that can offer shelter, housing or employment often have requirements that some can't meet, and they can't get people into their programs in a heartbeat. For example, Mark Jackson, who has been living in a group home, said he went to Project Homeless Connect to find a way to get permanent housing, but didn't encounter anything he felt he couldn't research himself; the problem was navigating the long process from first contacting an organization to getting a new place to live.

And there are still those like Yatta, whom the event did not reach. For her and others in the California Street encampment, there is ongoing tension between the city and many of Denver's homeless residents. Yatta was particularly concerned about the bad weather, because the city, pursuant to new procedures following the settlement of a class-action lawsuit representing Denver’s homeless population, had posted a notice that city workers would “remove all objects encumbering or obstructing public areas” during a “multi-agency cleanup of the area.” People in the encampment feared that with a cleanup would come police threatening camping ban enforcement, sweeping them out of the area with nowhere to go in the snow. Trucks from Public Works arrived at about 9 a.m., but workers said they would only pick up trash.

"All we're trying to do is stay warm and dry. We're surviving, we're not camping. Camping is something you do for fun. This ain't fun," Yatta says.

Some think the Project Homeless Connect model could make a broader impact if expanded. "They should do these more often," said one volunteer.

Conner says the event drains the resources of his agency as well as nonprofit partners. "I wish we could do this every day of the year," he says. 

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