Kim Atencio is new to the streets, and for two weeks now, she has kept a secret from the city, the Denver Police Department and her six children: At night, when they are asleep, so is she -- hidden inside Civic Center Park. She knows that the city's parks come with an 11 p.m. curfew, she says. She knows the city's new camping ordinance will further restrict her sleep, she says. She has no other options, she says.
As a child, Atencio grew up in Alamosa, where she daydreamed of becoming a nurse, assisting others and living a relatively traditional, stable life with few demands. As a teen, she saved money on the side through early jobs washing dishes and waiting tables. She did well enough, rather than well, in school until what she calls a "surprise" forced her to drop out in the 11th grade.
The surprise? She was pregnant. Unable to pay for the child on her own, the eighteen-year-old Atencio married her boyfriend, David Atencio, and the two moved to Denver with her mother to seek new jobs and prepare for their son's birth. She did not finish high school, and she stopped dreaming about becoming a nurse.
"It just wasn't an option anymore," Atencio says. "Everything happened at once, and by the time I caught up, my old plans hadn't."
From her nineteenth year to her 37th, David and Kim lived downtown and rotated through a series of jobs -- mostly manual labor and customer service. And the surprises continued: Over the years, their first-born son was joined by three brothers and two sisters they also had not planned.
"Hold on here," Atencio pauses, ambling over to a black BMW convertible rimmed in red custom detailing. Its owner, who appeared to be preparing to make a donation, turns out to be lighting a cigarette. He flicks ashes out his window and looks at Atencio, then looks away.
"It's you. You're keeping me from making money," Atencio accuses me. "You have to leave."
But before she enforces this edict, Atencio runs through the rest of her history, including the part that put her here, on the corner of Speer and Broadway. Nine years ago, David died of liver cirrhosis from decades of alcoholism. The family didn't have health insurance, and Atencio doesn't know what happened to the bills. "They are probably still out there," she says. She shrugs.
So she raised her children, ages nineteen to 28 and spread all across the city, to focus on supporting them. Today, they work in extermination, wait tables, build offices and serve many of the same roles their parents did. But Atencio doesn't anymore: Although she previously lived on the streets for three years on and off, her most recent bout came when she was fired as a waitress at the Carnation restaurant in Lakewood. Soon afterward, she lost her voucher for city housing, searched for a Sharpie and crafted a cardboard sign: "Homeless Anything Helps God Bless Thank You."
"Now please, go away," Atencio says. "They won't give me money with you here. Go."
While panhandlers, as they're commonly known, are sheltered by the First Amendment, Denver' sign-fliers are also prohibited from using profanity or being aggressive, and they cannot come too close to ATMs, community toilets, buses, outdoor patios or other public spaces. Many consider these people the face of Denver's homeless -- but who are they, really?
To answer that question, Westword is writing a regular series profiling the people behind the signs. Read our first entry below.
More from our Street People archive: "Steve Meyer, ex-mailman turned sign-flier, kicks off our new Street People series."
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