The 16th Street Mall McDonald's was the setting for two recent Westword stories — the first about how a staffer named Ed served as a literal lifeline to members of the homeless community who congregate there, the second focusing on his firing after being stabbed by an unruly customer.
But there are a great many more tales that take place every single day at what has become an iconic and notorious Mile High City location. A lot of them are sad. Others are crazy. And as visitors to the Instagram account dubbed McShelter Denver know full well, plenty are both at the same time.
The creator of McShelter Denver on Instagram, as well as similarly named Facebook and Twitter pages, has asked to remain anonymous; we're calling him McSD. He reveals that for more than eighteen months, he's been chronicling the activities at the McDonald's from an ideal vantage point.
"I work across the street," McSD says. "I can see it out my office window — and there's always police activity, ambulances and fire trucks there. We call it the trifecta."
Here's an example of a McShelter Denver Instagram post.
McSD has a theory about why this particular McDonald's branch has become such a magnet for the unhoused, as well as for heroin users and other often young, typically disconnected people who continue to hang out on the mall despite cleanup efforts launched in 2016 by the Downtown Denver Partnership and additional agencies to combat the area's unwanted reputation for homelessness, drugs and crime.
"We're right on the edge of Civic Center Park and the Capitol, where a lot of the homeless community gathers," he points out. "And downtown, a lot of things are expensive, but McDonald's happens to be cheap. It's got a dollar menu. So that's where they go to get cheap food, rather than go to a soup kitchen or anywhere else."
It didn't take long after McSD started working across the street from the McDonald's for him to take note of activities there that aren't on view at the typical business: "You'll see people tripping on drugs, acting strange. Fights, a lot of fights. One time, a guy picked up a propane tank and almost tried to chuck it at somebody. And arrests. We see people in handcuffs there daily."
Such activities have become subjects of multiple McShelter Denver items, some of which have a cheeky tone. Still, McSD stresses that "I'm not making fun of anybody. Drug overdoses and being homeless aren't anything to make fun of. I'm just documenting it, showing when the police or the fire department come. It breaks your day up. But at the same time, you're wondering, 'What the heck happened?' And sometimes these things happen four or five times a day."
Incidents are so frequent that he's coined a term for them: McSituations. They include what appear to be drug deals, as highlighted in the video below.
Posts like this one soon attracted a sizable audience. Quite a few of the page's 500-plus Instagram followers have gigs in the area, too, and they've come to see McShelter Denver as a prime source of hyper-local news.
"I'll get direct messages from people saying, 'Our entire office is following you. We can't miss a day or we won't know what happened.'"
Law enforcers and emergency personnel are hip to the pages, too. McSD reveals, "We tagged the police department, Denver Health and the fire department, and they've become followers. We'll call things in, but they'll also respond to a live stream."
Some people who started out as fans are now tipsters. "We have some security guards who follow us, and they'll update us on things. And people who work downtown will go, 'This is what I heard.' It's a very specific group of people, and everybody is connected. We all communicate through this social-media platform."
It can take a village to figure out what's going on — and over time, McSD has honed his investigative skills to solve mysteries like one that might be called The Curious Case of the Untowed Car.
"This car was sitting on the street without getting tickets for a few days, and people downtown we're getting upset," he recalls about the matter, referenced in the photo at the top of this post. "The sunroof was open, it had a flat back tire, and because of the People's Fair the streets were closed off — so it became bizarre why the car was still there. Eventually, we called it in, and the cops came and we watched everything unfold through the window. It turned out that one of the guys who worked at McDonald's had potentially bought the car from someone, but it was definitely stolen, and that was the location where they dumped it."
Here's another police interaction captured on Instagram video:
The number of people who gather outside the McDonald's tends to increase at predictable times. During breakfast and lunch hours, the size of the groups swells, with minor beefs often exploding into major ones. And McSD says the eatery is always busy on cold days, "because it's a nice place to stay warm. That's why we call it McShelter."
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The crowd's size hasn't attracted many homeless advocates — or at least any that McSD has spotted. "They bring brown bags to Civic Center Park, but I haven't seen any of them at the McDonald's."
Nevertheless, he sees an opportunity for an organization wanting to help: "There's an office space right above McDonald's that's open, and it hasn't been leased for a year and a half. I don't know if a real business would want to be above that location due to the activity, but it would be perfect for a soup kitchen or support office. It could be a great resource to help people, because it's right above the problem."
McShelter Denver sheds light on the scenario, and McSD would like to think his efforts would inspire action. "If any good could come out of this, that would be a goal of mine," he says.
Until then, the McDonald's on the 16th Street Mall remains a bizarre people-watching attraction, and McSD has a window on it.