Listening to NPR Monday morning before work, I heard a brief report on the plans for dealing with homeless people in Denver during the upcoming Democratic National Convention.
As most Denver residents already know the Convention is what one might call a Big Deal. We’re about to be the national stage for Obama’s official nomination and acceptance speech and there’s a lot of preparation that goes into this. For example, closing light rail stations, which will make it more difficult for people to use public transportation to commute to work, and establishing a “free speech zone” no less than one mile away from the convention site. But I digress.
What interested me about the NPR report was the fact that Denver is planning to provide more resources for homeless citizens during the convention. Shelters will be open extended hours and some may be expanded. Health care will be available during the convention.
This is amazing to me. What the report did not reveal, and what I would really like to know is: how is the city able to afford this?
Now I don’t mean this the way my father would, as in “Better not be my tax dollars going to pay for these peoples’ health care.” My question is, if we have these resources, or are able to divert these resources in order to provide health care and shelters for a few days during the convention, why can’t we make them available permanently?
I would be really excited to see my taxes being spent on programs to get people off the street, especially if they were designed with an eye toward helping them find jobs and permanent housing.
There have been a couple of interesting new developments in the past year or so and in hindsight I believe they may also be Convention-related. The first was the establishment of fake parking meters in Downtown Denver. These are bright red and are often inconveniently located in the middle of sidewalks. The idea is that you put your spare change in the meter and it goes to fund programs for the homeless, as opposed to giving the change directly to an individual. This provides a short term solution to the What if they spend my money on crack? dilemma that faces so many of us, as well as along term solution: if everyone downtown puts spare change in the meters, people will have to go elsewhere for spare change.
This may explain the incredible proliferation of people bumming change at major intersections in the city this summer.
The second development was the appearance of the Denver Voice. People in the Bay Area may recognize this idea as Berkeley’s Street Spirit. The idea is that homeless people pick up copies of this paper and distribute them for a dollar donation. So they’re not just asking for spare change, is the point of the exercise. The Street Spirit publishes poetry and art by homeless residents and covered local news that affected the homeless community. I will never forget the issue that dealt with violent crimes against the homeless. If you don’t know much about it, google it. It’s fucking incredible and also terrifying and tragic. Anyway, it used to be that one or two people were hawking the Denver Voice on the 16th Street Mall. Today I encountered five in a three block radius.
Unfortunately, these are only band-aid solutions and aren’t going to fix the systemic problem of homelessness in Denver or anywhere else.
And honestly, this is a really challenging subject for me to write about. I’ve mentioned my Libertarian-in-Democrat’s-clothing father in previous posts, and his views have influenced the way that I regard homeless people; I can’t deny that. As a woman, I am concerned about homeless people from a personal safety perspective. If I am walking home alone at night and a strange man starts talking to me, I feel threatened. It doesn’t matter whether he’s asking for my phone number or a quarter. If I go to take my trash out when it’s dark outside and there’s someone sleeping next to the dumpster, I feel unsafe. I don’t want strange men sleeping outside my apartment building. I once stepped outside my back door and almost crashed into a guy passed out, standing up against my building. I told the story to my friends like it was funny, but it scared the shit out of me. No matter how hot it is in the summer, I have to sleep with my windows closed and latched, because I don’t feel safe and I hate that.
I do realize this is somewhat irrational. I am 95% more likely to be raped by a friend, acquaintance or partner than by the homeless man sleeping next to my dumpster. Rational or not, it’s not the thought of my male friends that keeps me up at night.
Anyway, I’m curious to see if this issue gets any more media attention. My initial reaction to the story was actually anger; why do we think of homeless people as a problem to sweep under the rug because company’s coming? I don’t know much about the resources available in Denver for homeless residents. I’ve heard a lot of people come here because the climate is mild compared to Chicago or New York, but everything I know about the homeless in Denver is based on observation and hearsay.