Photos: Project Homeless Connect draws thousands against backdrop of camping ban
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.
Big photos below.
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."
Sam Levin Mayor Michael Hancock addressing volunteers at Project Homeless Connect 12 at the Convention Center
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."
City Councilman Albus Brooks addressing volunteers on Wednesday.
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.