The Denver Diaries: Chapter 4 – October through November 2013
There are many assumptions about what homeless people are like or how they wound up in their situation. Most think that the homeless are lazy, unwilling to work, disabled, or addicts of one kind or another. This is simply not the case. While many people who live on the streets do have some kind of mental disorder, addiction, or disability, and there certainly are those that live on the streets by choice as well, the majority have found themselves there because they lost their income unexpectedly. I’ve heard so many different stories about people whose loved ones died and tried to take time off to mourn and were then fired, people whose landlords unceremoniously kicked them out without notice and could not afford another apartment at that time, people struggling with health problems who could work a particular job and thus didn’t qualify for disability and who then lost that particular job. There are so many sad and complicated stories. My own was simple. I had moved halfway across the country with insubstantial funds and found myself without work. I couldn’t blame anyone else or say that this was the fault of another. The truth is simple, and often cutting like a crude blade, and the consequences of my choices fell squarely upon my shoulders. I knew that I was taking a risk moving here, but it was a necessary and calculated risk, and in my case, it just hadn’t paid off… yet.
I did, however, have some advantages. I don’t have a debilitating health condition, I’m not an addict or drug user, and I don’t have a history of any prior crimes. I had been employed the past five years, I did have a computer, a camera, and a phone with me. I also came prepared, albeit not quite for this situation, as I had originally intended to backpack my way across the American Southwest, so I had plenty of clothes and gear to make living on the streets (somewhat) more easy. I had applied for food stamps, which I would receive before the month was out, and I was learning a lot about both the city and the homeless community in the city. It didn’t take long before I found potential places to volunteer, where I could give back and help to make a difference for others in a similar circumstance, and prospectively have some positive job references within the state. I soon had a list of different places to go, places that offered food to the hungry and homeless, places where people could bathe and do laundry for free, places where one could receive medical attention and obtain prescriptions, places where one could receive mail and use toll-free telephones, and places where various services are offered to help qualified individuals find work or temporary shelter. I wanted help. I needed to. So, I spoke with a few of these organizations, some run by the government, some by churches, and some by the community, and realized I needed to select the place that was in the most need of a helping hand. That’s how I came to the conclusion that Saint Paul’s was where I needed to direct my attentions.
First, let me tell you a little about St. Paul, if for no other reason than it might help to explain why I chose to volunteer there. St. Paul United Methodist is on 16th and Ogden. The historical roots of St. Paul can be traced back to 1860 when Methodist Reverend William M. Bradford built what is to believed to be the first church in Denver. While there were certainly other congregations at the time, they did not have their own church building, and were relegated to meeting in town halls, theatres, schoolhouses, or then unused buildings. Over the next few decades, St. Paul relocated from 14th and Arapahoe to 1846 Arapahoe, then to 20th and Curtis St. , followed by 21st and Welton, and then finally to the current building on 16th and Ogden, which underwent its initial construction in 1910. During this period spanning half a century, the constantly changing community saw the comings and goings of different reverends, the onslaught of the Civil War and the destruction caused by both Northern and Southern forces, and the building of the railroads. The church took an active stance in providing a street mission and a school to Chinese railroad workers and later, during the first World War, sponsored the Save the Children Foundation, as well as contributing bandages to the Red Cross. During the 1960s, the church community, originated and partook in a number of outreach programs. In 1984, St. Paul became the third “reconciling congregation” in the whole country, being part of Affirmation: United Methodist and then the Reconciling Ministries Network, which welcomes gay, lesbian, and bisexual parishioners. In 1985, they were given an award in from the gay community in recognition of their openness and welcoming attitude reaching back to the late ’60s, something which is still emphasized today and has expanded to the broader LGBTQ community. The church has also helped the immediate Denver community by launching various socially conscious programs, such as their Sunday Meal Program which began in 1987, and offers breakfasts each Sunday to the homeless and hungry, feeding between 120 and 200 people each week. During the ’90s, the church welcomed Buddhists into their building, and developed an inter-faith community. They helped people with HIV and AIDS, providing and delivering furniture and other essential household items to those afflicted with the diseases who had lost their homes or no longer had the support of their families, in an effort to make the world a more comfortable and loving place. For two years, the church also gave shelter to homeless and displaced youth, as part of a program which was later assimilated into Urban Peak. They also have offered their downstairs kitchen to Catholic Workers who use the facilities to make food which is then taken to the St. Francis Center and dispersed amongst the homeless, poor, and hungry.
Normally, as an atheist and vocal critic of organized religion, I would not have aligned myself with a church organization, especially as most use their charitable efforts and philanthropy as a front to proselytize, but St. Paul has been different. The attitude there is one of genuine altruism and societal concern, not of judgment or infallible self-righteousness, so I was surprised to find a self-proclaimed progressive church that lived up to its proclamations. The church, with its small congregation and its ongoing social activism within the community, needed volunteers and funding to keep its doors open. While funding is beyond my ability at this point, volunteerism is something I’m more than capable of and willing to do, so I started volunteering at the end of October.
Over the next few weeks, I found myself feeling newly reinvigorated by a sense of purpose again, and was glad to be doing something productive, even if I didn’t generate any income from it. It was good to have something to do to keep me busy and to be again feeling a part of something greater than myself. I was still trying to figure out how to find work and housing, and I was applying for every job I could find that I might qualify for, but things were certainly looking up. After two weeks of volunteering at the church, two of the members and fellow volunteers there offered to open their home to me and let me stay there for a couple months while I try to land a job. Two days after moving in, they elected to go on a trip to Colorado Springs, and asked me if I’d join along. I was grateful to see more of the state and to be even closer to the mountains.
I was uncertain of what the future might hold, but I knew I would be staying in Colorado, because I’d finally found a place that one day might be home.
To be continued…