We do a lot of reporting on the state of Denver’s most vulnerable populations. You might be moved to do something as a result, so we’ve put together a list of some resources that will help you pay it forward.
There are a LOT of places you can give your time, money or in-kind donations. The list below is by no means an exhaustive one.
First, a lay of the land:
Homelessness and housing insecurity is a sprawling and complicated set of community issues. As a result, there’s no silver bullet to solve the problems. Furthermore, advocates don’t always agree on how to help.
We asked Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud, Deacon Geoff Bennett of Samaritan House Homeless Shelter, Laura Kuhlmann of the St. Francis Center and Meredith Ritchie of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for some guidance on approaching this issue.
They did agree on one thing: A helpful first step is to educate yourself on these issues.
“Breaking down myths about who becomes homeless and how,” Richie told Denverite, “is one of the most powerful ways to engage.”
While chronic street homelessness is a very visible problem, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can learn about how families living in motels are on the edge of living on the street, how people who were incarcerated need help getting into apartments or why shelters aren’t always the best option by reading some of our prior coverage. You can also watch our recent panel discussion on housing insecurity. Richie also said the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless will begin their own education series in January.
Disagreements over shelter safety and effectiveness have produced two ways of thinking about how to donate time and resources.
On one hand, Deacon Bennett told Denverite that one way not to be helpful is to distribute food on the street on your own. Shelters like Samaritan House, he said, develop relationships with the people they serve and can direct hungry folks to other services while they provide a hot meal. “To have that regular interaction is helpful,” he said. “You become a conduit to help people.”
Kuhlmann echoed that sentiment. People volunteering at St. Francis are encouraged to commit to at least three months of service. That personal relationship with the center and its guests, she said, says a lot to those they serve.
In both cases, shelter advocates say donated time is an extremely valuable resource. St. Francis operates each year with 20,000 hours of volunteered time. “Simply put,” she said, “we couldn’t function without our volunteers.”
On the other hand Howard, of Denver Homeless Out Loud, did recommend distributing winter survival gear directly to people who need it. “Talking to people about getting to a shelter,” she said, isn’t the way to go. “The person obviously knows where the shelters are and has reasons not to go.”
Instead, she recommends giving coats, boots, hand warmers, gloves and blankets to people who are struggling to survive on their own. Think about what you’re donating, she said. Don’t give out apples to people without teeth, she said, and a bag full of summer t-shirts is probably not the best donation in the winter.
What is clear is that there are a lot of ways to get involved. Once you have a handle on the issues, you may find one of the following resources fits your beliefs and motivations best:
Help families in Aurora – The Colfax Community Network
According to their website, the Colfax Community Network was “formed to reach the transient motel population along Colorado’s roughest stretch of avenue.” This organization provides after-school tutoring, snacks and outdoor recreation time for kids (including science experiments), and they need volunteers to help run these programs. They also provide holistic family services. Their volunteer page says nurses are “highly desired.” You can also donate money or goods. “$20,” their site says, “pays for one student to get new shoes that are clean, durable and something they rarely get: the right shoe size.”
Donate food in Montbello – Food Bank of the Rockies
According to their website, the Food Bank of the Rockies provides “more than 134,000 meals each day” between their three locations (two in Colorado, one in Wyoming). You can support their broader mission by donating money — $1 equals four meals, they say — or their Denver location by volunteering. A quick glance at their calendar shows they’ve got a lot going on Monday through Saturday.
Become a regular volunteer in Five Points – St. Francis Center
St. Francis Center is a day shelter that provides storage, mental and physical health services and even mailboxes for Denver’s homeless. While they’re always accepting monetary and in-kind contributions, Laura Kuhlmann, director of community engagement and volunteers, said donated time is a huge help. The 20,000 hours that are donated each year add up to about 10 full-time employees, she told Denverite. Kuhlmann said St. Francis can be a rough environment, and that’s part of the reason she tries to cultivate a relationship with their volunteers and why they require a three-month commitment. Prospective volunteers are encouraged to reach out to her to get started.
Help youth in Overland – Urban Peak
While Urban Peak has a drop-in shelter downtown, their biggest resource for Denver’s homeless youth is their shelter in Overland (which, by the way, is about to get a big upgrade). These services come at a critical point in a person’s life. The hope is they’ll help put kids on the right track to a stable future. You can donate cash, food or clothes; their needs list includes boots, sleeping bags, backpacks and grocery store gift cards. You can also sign up with a group to serve breakfast or lunch Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays.
Support mothers in Englewood and Jefferson County – Family Tree Inc.’s House of Hope
Family Tree Inc. provides a litany of services, not only for families experiencing homelessness but also for people escaping domestic abuse and new families in need of resources. Their Hope House in Englewood is the only shelter for families in Arapahoe County — women and children can stay there up to three months. They also run another shelter in Jefferson County for people escaping domestic abuse, the only facility of its kind in that area. You can support their mission by donating directly or shopping at their thrift store in Wheat Ridge. You can also volunteer your time; coordinator Erika Nelson told Denverite that prospective volunteers are first vetted and then placed in opportunities where they fit best.
Feed the hungry in Lincoln Park – Denver Inner City Parish
The Denver Inner City Parish has been providing food pantry services since 1960, following what they say was an exodus of service providers from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s. They open their pantry doors every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and would love both donations and volunteers. They also provide counseling services for youth and adults. If you’d like to make an in-kind donation, their wishlist includes toilet paper, copy paper, ground coffee and rolls of stamps.
Serve homeless women and transgender individuals in West Colfax – The Delores Project
The Delores Project was founded in 2000 in memory of Delores Big Boy, a Lakota woman who “fell through the cracks in the system” and died on the street in 1999. Today the agency is dedicated to providing services with a low barrier to entry for women and transgender individuals experiencing homelessness. According to their website, they save around $90,000 a year through the combination of donations and volunteer hours. Volunteers can spend time providing or serving meals, running errands, landscaping or teaching life skills. They also have a number of ways to donate money or supplies. Their biggest needs right now include peanut butter, socks, gloves, toiletries and hand sanitizer.
Volunteer in central Denver – Samaritan House and the Denver Rescue Mission
Located at Park Avenue and Larimer Street, the Denver Rescue Mission and Samaritan House Homeless Shelter and Catholic Charities are right in the middle of Denver’s most visible homeless population. Both shelters offer many meals and beds every night, and there are a ton of openings for people hoping to get involved.
Samaritan House accepts volunteers as young as 13 years old. You have to be 14 to serve a meal at the Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street location (though they operate a number of other shelters). Both offer long-term service options, too. Samaritan House has opportunities to tutor kids, teach financial literacy and life skills, do administrative work and assist in residential areas. The Rescue Mission offers similar possibilities working as a mentor or educator — we’ve covered a volunteer preacher there. The Mission also has full and part-time internship opportunities for aspiring counselors and social workers.
Become an advocate – Denver Homeless Out Loud
Denver Homeless Out Loud is an advocacy organization for people experiencing homelessness and is largely organized by people who live or have lived on the street at one point or another. They’re one of the organizations behind the class-action lawsuit against the city’s “urban camping ban” and public protests against the policy. You can donate if you’d like to support their political mission. They’re also involved in the Beloved Community Village of tiny homes in Five Points, which has its own portal for donating time and money if you’d like to support this experimental solution. Finally, you can tune into Get Loud, their literary and art magazine that “provides a platform” for homeless individuals to express themselves and help challenge public perceptions of homelessness.
Be a pal in Capitol Hill – Network Coffee House
Sometimes, the best way to help is to be present. While the Network Coffee House on Pearl Street at 14th Avenue does accept donations, people interested in getting involved in person are invited simply to show up, listen and be a positive presence in the room.
“We aren’t a soup kitchen, a food bank, social services or a crash pad. We create a place for long-term redemptive relationships. That’s what we do,” their website says. “We are Christians being friendly.”
The coffee house is open Monday to Friday from 6 p.m. to 9 p p.m., Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. They offers a safe space to sit, hot coffee and showers.