Photos: Project Homeless Connect draws thousands against backdrop of camping ban

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Thousands of homeless individuals in Denver came out to the Colorado Convention Center this week seeking services as part of an event called Project Homeless Connect. It's an effort by the city to actively reach out to those in need -- and one that comes after a summer of intense criticism tied to a new ban that prohibits people from sleeping on the street.

As more than 1,800 lined up to receive resources -- some who said they are struggling to find stable places to sleep -- officials insisted the controversial camping ban has been successful.

"What we understand is that it is going well," Mayor Michael Hancock told Westword when asked about the camping ban, after making a speech to the homeless individuals and volunteers crowded inside the Convention Center Wednesday morning. "We are certainly moving people to better shelters, safer shelters, out of the elements and it seems to be working well so far. We know we are not where we want to be. We got a lot more work to do, and we're working on it."

The camping ban -- which was thrust into the spotlight again when the city recently gave Sports Authority a special permit for its Sniagrab event -- has been at the center of debates around how the city is responding to the challenge of homelessness. The mayor has repeatedly said that the ban is driven by a desire to get individuals off the street and into shelters, or back at home with family and friends. His office recently reaffirmed this position in response to criticism from Occupy Denver, saying that the Sports Authority permit shouldn't be compared to a policy designed to help the city's most vulnerable.

A 2012 study from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative found that on a Monday night in January, there were 12,605 homeless men, women and children in the Denver metropolitan area. The report also says that nearly 1,000 people were living on the street that night -- under a bridge, in a car, etc. -- which represents around 7.6 percent of all homeless people. That's up from 5.1 percent in 2011. Of those who were without shelter, about a third were individuals who had children with them.

Of the newly homeless, 666 were households with children, the report says.

The event on Wednesday -- in which more than sixty partners offered free services with the help of roughly 600 volunteers -- featured a range of resources, including health exams, a job fair, legal assistance and child care. Individuals, who waited in a long line that wove throughout the Convention Center, could also obtain information on shelter and housing, benefits assistance, veterans services, health insurance, substance abuse treatment and more.

City Councilman Albus Brooks, a champion of the ban who has faced a lot of backlash, told us that homelessness remains one of the top three challenges and priorities for the city. And the camping ban is only one part of developing a long-term solution.

"This event shows our city's commitment to connect the most vulnerable population to the services that they need," Brooks said, adding, "You see we have an issue that's not solved yet, but you also see a city that is ready and willing to help."

Speaking of the controversial policy, he said, "It's too soon to tell how the camping ban is going.... Our shelters...are at capacity, they're at 100 percent. So we know that some of the folks have gone there, but also some of the folks are hiding a lot better. They are not in sight. I think that's the unfortunate piece about this. It's making our outreach workers work that much more...to locate where people are."

He added, "Those people who are hidden are mostly people who don't want to be seen. They want the help. We are thinking about creative ways. We are trying things like this, but it's going to take as many contacts as possible.... You've got to keep reaching out."

Of his critics, Brooks said people often don't understand the longer-term vision that the camping ban supports, which includes an effort in progress to establish a 24-hour shelter.

"I'm not worried about the criticism, because I'm focused on the direction that we as a city are going," he said.

Of the proposed 24-hour shelter, the mayor told us, "We're very...interested in doing it.... One of our big issues has always been about transitional and making sure we do more substantive impact on people's lives, so it's just not a 'here's a voucher' sort of thing. Let's get people where they need to be and they can re-start their lives. So we're working with [city] council to get there."

This is the twelfth time the city has held the event , this year called Project Homeless Connect 12, and a spokeswoman tells us with more than 1,800 individuals seeking services, it was the largest turnout. The event is coordinated by Denver's Road Home, the City and County of Denver, Mile High United Way along with several other community partners and is sponsored by Delta Dental, Bank of America and Xerox.

Continue reading for reflections from homeless individuals in attendance about the city's efforts and the camping ban. Brandy Gallardo, 26, never thought she would need these kinds of resources.

"I never imagined being in this situation," said Gallardo, who showed up at the Convention Center with her two young children. "I never knew what it was like to be on the street."

Gallardo, who has been staying with her family in shelters, said she has been homeless for a few months, after she could not longer afford to pay rent.

"I think there are a lot of people like me that really need help," she said. "Finding a place to stay has been very difficult."

She said it is especially hard to find a suitable shelter that will allow her to stay given that she has two young children. "There are a lot of requirements."

Lequita Jones, 33, said she has come to these events in the past and finds them helpful.

"It's getting better every year," she said, but addedthat it's still a challenge "to try and find a place to stay that respects kids."

Jones has a five-year-old daughter and just wants stable housing for them. "Every month, I change places."

She said, "There's just not enough [places].... A lot of women out there are sleeping on the street with kids."

For this reason, she said she's still upset about the camping ban.

"They are arresting people on the street," she said. "It just makes it worse. If people are trying to get a job and they get arrested, that goes on their record. That's a step backward, instead of a step forward. We need a step forward.... And there's not enough beds for women and children."

In her words, "We are all hurting."

Continue for more photos and comments from homeless individuals. Keith Slobe, 42, said his biggest challenge is the city's lack of reentry services. Slobe, who has worked in hospitality in the past, was recently incarcerated for a parole violation and has been unable to find work since he was released.

"It's been very difficult," he said. "They don't hire felons."

And the job search is made worse by the fact that he has to spend most of his energy figuring out where he is going to sleep and how he is going to eat everyday.

"That leaves you no time to look for jobs," he said.

When people don't end up finding a shelter, he said he doesn't know where they go -- especially with the camping ban.

"It's discrimination against the homeless," he said. "Just because someone carries a bag and walks down the street doesn't mean they are a bad person. They need to treat people with courtesy."

For Kandi Jackson, who showed up with her five-month-old boy, sleeping on the street is not an option. She stays with family when she can't find a shelter or other place indoors -- but she is desperately looking for something more permanent and stable, she said.

"Even if you find a place, you can't keep up with rent," she said, explaining that she is looking for work and hopes that the event could help her with the job search. "Finding a job is very hard.... We have family members that let us stay with them...but it's hard."

While she would never let her son sleep outside, she said she realizes others do. "I do know people who sleep on the street.... It's not fair. There's not a lot of places they can go.

"There's just so many homeless people," she said.

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Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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