Last year, Sherrod “Rod” Phillips came to Denver from his native St. Thomas in the American Virgin Islands for treatment after he had a stroke. Then, he said, his “soon-to-be-ex-wife” engaged in some “nefarious behavior.” He didn’t want to get into the specifics, but the results ended up being dire. When he left the hospital, he found himself without a place to go.
“I was on the streets for about a month,” he said, laughing about the situation in hindsight. “This is just where I happened to end up. Homeless in Denver with no ID in the middle of the winter, with no friends or family here either.”
Without identification, Phillips had little opportunity to find work.
“With no ID in this town, nobody will touch you.”
But one employer did give him a shot: Denver Day Works, the two-year-old program that provides work for people down on their luck. It only allows for one day of work per week over the course of a ten-week period, so Phillips’ ability to keep earning would have been limited. Lucky for him, a similar program opened this summer that’s providing a next step for Denver Day Works “graduates.”
At the end of August, Colfax Works will complete a pilot period employing people like Phillips. The effort was created by the Colfax Ave. Business Improvement District, a collection of business owners and local advocates who have overseen transformations along the wicked drag between Grant and Josephine Streets, like the removal of planter boxes beside the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Like Denver Day Works, Colfax Works is a partnership with Bayaud Enterprises, who is also behind The Laundry Truck, a mobile laundromat meant to provide services for people experiencing homelessness. Like the Laundry Truck, Colfax Works aims to attract people to service providers who can help them eventually reach a place of independence and stability.
Now that their pilot is over, the Colfax BID is hoping to drum up support so they can keep the program going. That effort might mean stoking similar projects in other parts of town.
Michelle Valeri, Communications and Programs Director for the BID, said the new program can be seen as a second step for people who got started with Denver Day Works. Unlike Denver Day Works, Colfax Works allows people to work up to four days a week and for an unlimited number of weeks.
“If it wasn’t for Denver Day Works, man, I would have had no money whatsoever,” Phillips said.
That small step, plus the added hours he’s gotten from Colfax Works, has allowed him to get his ID and work toward greater stability. Last Monday, Phillips finally moved into an apartment. In St. Thomas, he was a TV producer, and now he’s working to earn enough to buy equipment and get back to something close to his old life.
He said he’s gone from “just suffer until it gets better” to “I’ve got a gig that will get me the money to build the editing suite that I need to pursue that goal.”
Advocates see this as a win-win
The BID already contracts most cleanup work along Colfax to a private company, so Colfax Works is focusing on the side streets between 14th and 16th Avenues. Workers pick up litter, remove stickers and graffiti and power-wash sidewalks.
Cecil Easter, known to his Colfax Works colleagues as a “human encyclopedia” of the neighborhood, said he thinks their cleanup efforts have had a larger effect than immediate beautification.
“It seems like since we’ve started doing this more people are out trying to do their part to clean things up,” he said. “I think maybe we’re setting a little bit of an example, giving people a little bit of hope.”
Ron Vaughn, co-owner of Argonaut Wine & Liquor and a board member with the Colfax BID, said while cleaning up the street is great, he sees the program first and foremost as a creative solution to helping people who might otherwise have little opportunity.
This isn’t just for people who are experiencing homelessness. Easter, for instance, has a place to stay but needed the work after he was laid off from his job driving a forklift.
Still, advocates see this as a smart answer to the worst outcomes of the city’s housing crisis.
“I’ve been through lots of perspectives on homelessness,” he said. He’s watched as the city tried camping bans and police sweeps to keep people off the street, but “I’ve slowly come around to the thought that those ideas don’t really work.”
Instead, he and other neighborhood stakeholders wanted to “think outside the box,” and he’s excited that these programs have been met with support.
“This has been the most positive solution beyond police sweeps,” he said. “We’re trying to be progressive enough to deal with the problem head-on.”
Keeping Colfax Works and employees working might take a broader effort
The Colfax program’s pilot program ends of August 31, but Valeri said the BID has funding to keep people working through the end of the year. In 2019, they’ll take “a large contribution” from their existing maintenance budget, and fill in the rest of the gaps with money they hope to receive from local foundations.
She said they hope to eventually expand to seven working days a week, and she hopes their efforts will encourage similar projects in other neighborhoods.
“We think we’re creating something here that can be replicated across the city in other Business Improvement Districts as well,” she told Denverite in an email.
The broader effort to provide transitional employment might require that kind of growth.
Courtney Meihls, a spokesperson for Denver Human Services, said Denver Day Works has had a waiting list since they launched in 2016. There’s plenty of demand to meet for employment that’s easy to access, and she said they’ve been intentional in trying to branch out beyond the city’s center.
“We are actively looking at ways to make supported employment programs available in multiple neighborhoods,” she said in an email. “That’s one of the reasons Denver Day Works has partnered with RiNo two years in a row on projects like the Crush event.”
She said both Colfax Works and Denver Day Works are in talks with neighborhood groups around the city to forge partnerships that will help them “scale” their efforts.
“Our challenge is thoughtfully growing the program while maintaining the momentum and impact of it without compromising its integrity and outcomes.”
Update: This story originally said that Cecil’s last name is “Penny.” It is “Easter,” and has been updated throughout.