It can be the coldest day of the year or the hottest; it doesn’t matter. Resiliency to extremes is just part of life. Why? Because mankind is programmed to survive and for many homeless, survival is not just an issue of creature comfort but, very simply, of getting from one day to the next. Weather is nothing more than another variable in the complex equation of life on the street.
But this time of year is perhaps when the homeless population most gets our attention. Not only because it’s December with its short days, long nights and sub-freezing temperatures but because it’s the holidays; the time when goodwill pushes its way to the front of our consciousness.
But the homeless are not a seasonal issue for the handful of organizations who have made the men, women and children in this population their mission. It is a 365-day-a-year undertaking. For the Denver Rescue Mission, it’s also been a 126-year effort in lending a helping hand.
“We serve people from all walks of life,” said DRM’s Nicole Tschetter. The Mission feeds them, gives them sanctuary from the elements and, for those so inclined, provides spiritual sustenance. On any given day, more than 800 people will walk past the iconic “Jesus Saves” neon light and through the doors at 22nd and Lawrence or one of its satellite facilities.
To address the needs of the people needing a helping hand, said Tschetter, is a staff of “about 200 people.” DRM also has chefs and volunteer coordinators. In a typical year, as many as 17,000 individuals will step up and give of their time.
Whatever their circumstances, the one thing DRM doesn’t do, she said, is make judgments about how these people found themselves in the situation they’re in. “One of the first things that I learned is that everyone has their own unique story,” she said. The homeless, she added, are also not on the street because they’re lazy or simply looking for a handout. “When we do see people sleeping on the street or the side of the road, maybe they do have a job but just not making enough (for rent).” We can’t---or shouldn’t---“jump to conclusions.” Another reality in this community is that many of the homeless are also chronically mentally ill.
The Mission tries to go about its business in a quiet, dignified way, said Tschetter. But winter is a time when its resources are stretched to the limit. Despite its independence, it is not too proud to ask for help. “We really have a big need for warm winter clothes,” said the reporter turned homeless advocate. “If people have stuff at their house that they’re not using,” she said, the Mission will be more than happy to take it off their hands.
Not surprisingly, its biggest needs right now are the basics; gloves, hats, coats and socks. There is also a need for toiletries including everything from razors and deodorant to feminine hygiene products. Another thing always in short supply, said Tschetter, is diapers. And, not surprisingly, there’s always a need, she said, for cash donations. In this regard, local businesses have stepped up and lent a hand.
Some businesses---this season and in years past---have offered discounts to customers for bringing in coats and jackets. The savings are passed on to the Mission. DRM also has an electronic option for those who might want to contribute monetarily. “Donate Now,” said Tschetter, “allows individuals to donate on-line,” either once or on a monthly basis. The web address for ‘Donate Now,’ is Denverrescuemission.org.
The Denver Rescue Mission, as have others who help the homeless, has stayed current in recognizing the changing demographics of the region. “We also have Spanish-speaking staff including case workers,” said Tschetter. For those times when it’s called for, she said, “we have a clinic inside of our Lawrence Street Shelter.” It offers medical, dental and optical for those who might need them.
According to the 2018 Point in Time Survey---a ‘snapshot of a single night’ across the seven-county metro area---there are as many as 5,000-6,000 homeless. Most of this population is in Denver. Also, said the survey, as much as 20 percent of this population is characterized as ‘chronically homeless.’ Chronically homeless are those individuals who have been without a permanent home for at least a year or have been homeless four times over the last three years. For many in this population, shelter often means spending days and nights in jail or in alcohol detox facilities.
For many, jail is often the result of sleeping on the streets or in public places, including parks. Denver currently has a ban on camping or sleeping in either of these venues due to health and safety considerations. Homeless advocates are working to get this ordinance overturned saying it unnecessarily criminalizes homelessness.
While the homeless picture comes into focus during the holidays, it won’t be long before they’re over. Tschetter hopes people will resolve for the New Year to add volunteering to their calendars in 2019.