Once homeless, the man who founded Feeding Denver’s Hungry still thinks of those on the streets

He’s come a long way from sleeping in his truck, but his memories of that time have shaped how his nonprofit works.

Jim Scharper, who was once homeless and now feeds those still on Denver's streets. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Jim Scharper, who was once homeless and now feeds those still on Denver's streets. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Jim Scharper has come a long way from making sandwiches in his Mayfair basement apartment to distribute to people experiencing homelessness.

He’s come even further from sleeping in his truck.

“I never envisioned this,” Scharper said as he stood in a warehouse in an industrial neighborhood off I-70 watching volunteers for Feeding Denver’s Hungry, the nonprofit he founded, fill plastic bags with snacks piled into the kinds of bins you might use to sort mail.

A row of refrigerators in the warehouse where Jim Scharper stages food handouts for his nonprofit Feeding Denver’s Hungry. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

A row of refrigerators in the warehouse where Jim Scharper stages food handouts for his nonprofit Feeding Denver’s Hungry. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

“Connections that just continue to keep happening allow us to do more.”

Scharper, who has the look and gruffly reassuring manner of a young version of the actor Wilford Brimley, once worked in construction and remodeling. Now an apartment manager — his conversation in the warehouse was interrupted by a call about an ailing dishwasher — he blames drinking for the loss of that first career and of his home.

Volunteers prepare to fill snack bags for the homeless in the warehouse where Jim Scharper stages food handouts for his nonprofit Feeding Denver’s Hungry. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Volunteers prepare to fill snack bags for the homeless in the warehouse where Jim Scharper stages food handouts for his nonprofit Feeding Denver’s Hungry. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

He spent the winter of 2008 homeless.

The next summer, determined to get sober, he checked himself into a hospital and then got treatment in a Denver Health detox program. He was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous, sometimes going to meetings twice a day.

A few years later, a sober Scharper turned his attention to those left behind on the streets. Soon friends joined him making and handing out sandwiches. When they outgrew his home, a friend made the warehouse available, one wall of which is lined with donated refrigerators. Scharper acquired a board of directors whose members helped him get nonprofit status two years ago.

“My core group of people are just caring people who don’t want to see people go without,” he said.

In addition to the occasional snack bag distributions, once a month Scharper and his volunteers fill a semi with food they give away downtown every month. He gets most of the food he distributes from the Food Bank of the Rockies. A few urban farms supply produce — “any time you can get fresh food to people, that’s the best,” Scharper said. In winter he scours stores and online sites for the best deals on the hats and gloves he adds to the grocery bags.

Scharper’s own experiences inform his charity. He remembers being given peanut butter sandwiches when he was living in his truck. The sandwiches he distributed were meat and cheese, “something substantial.”

Scharper’s monthly distribution point is across the street from the downtown Denver drop-in center of Urban Peak, which provides a range of services for teens and young people who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming so.

“That they (young people) get fed, that’s my No. 1 priority,” Scharper said. “The kids on the street, it’s hard for me to imagine what they’re going though. As an adult, it was hard.”

A number of other organizations supporting homeless people of all ages can be found in the same neighborhood. Urban Peak CEO said she had seen Scharper’s group setting up tables and distributing food but hadn’t realized Scharper was moved in particular to help young people.

“That’s wonderful to know,” she said when that was pointed out. “The services that are necessary for homeless all over our community are so important. Everybody playing their part is so important.”

Scharper also previously distributed food near the St. Francis Center, a downtown homeless center where he once showered. But he had to cut back to Urban Peak because of work commitments.

Still, his team keeps growing.

Friends of friends have joined his volunteer team, as have strangers who come across his Facebook and GoFundMe appeals.

Volunteers who work for Lyft have been among Scharper’s helpers for the last two years. Gabe Cohen, Lyft’s general manager for the Rockies, said the connection started with one Lyft staff member who knew about Feeding Denver’s Hungry recommending it when Cohen was looking for a community project for his team. Fifteen Lyft workers stuffed snack bags last year and 35 this year.

Feeding Denver’s Hungry is small compared to nonprofits like the American Cancer Society or Special Olympics that Lyft has supported and the work differs from free ride programs the company is known for when it comes to philanthropy. Cohen said he was drawn in part by the opportunity to have a big impact, and in part by Scharper and his mission.

“Jim’s story is so compelling,” Cohen said.

“We’ve certainly seen a growth in homelessness in Denver,” he added. Feeding Denver’s Hungry  is “certainly something that our team was enthused about supporting.”

Scharper needs about $2,000 a month to rent the semi and buy supplies.

“I started making 25 sandwiches out of my home six years ago,” he said. “Now, it’s become this machine. I organize and point and direct and things just happen.”

But, he added: “It would be good if we didn’t have to do this at all.”

Scharper can be reached at 720-276-2118. He most needs volunteers at Urban Peak, 2100 Stout Street,  for distribution at 9 a.m. on the fourth Thursday of the month and on the Wednesday before at noon at the warehouse at 4600 Jason Street for filling the semi.