Givers Summit explores how to help people experiencing homelessness

6 min. read
Chris Conner, head of Denver’s Road Home, opens his organization’s annual Giver’s Summit at the McNichols Building, Feb. 5, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Talk about confidence.

After hearing her concerns around responding to homelessness by feeding the needy in parks and elsewhere in public, Rev. Jerry Herships suggested Denver's top health inspector head across the street to check out lunch donations at Civic Center.

Of course, Herships had just heard his AfterHours ministry being praised for its efforts to ensure such philanthropy doesn't create problems for any of the users of the park -- including people experiencing homelessness who might be sickened by poorly handled food. AfterHours has organized churches, businesses and community groups to hand out sack lunches and water and clean up afterward every day at century-old Civic Center.

"If you want to see it done right, see AfterHours," said Scott Gilmore, Denver's deputy manager of parks.

Herships was in the audience as Gilmore and Danica Lee, who is Denver Department of Public Health and Environment's director of public health inspections, discussed food donations in public spaces during a daylong "givers summit." The event, the first of its kind, was organized by Denver's Road Home to encourage a collaborative response to homelessness.

Danica Lee, a division director with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, listens during a breakout session during Denver's Road Home's annual Giver's Summit, Feb. 5, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"I hope people can come have a conversation that they didn't expect to have," said Chris Conner, director of Denver's Road Home, a city agency that coordinates homelessness services.

Discussions were held in conference rooms at the Central Library, which has social workers to support people in homelessness; and across Civic Center at the McNichols Civic Center Building and the Denver Post building. As leaders of nonprofit, faith and neighborhood groups; police officers; city workers; activists and others walked from conversation to conversation, they passed people living in homelessness and people trying to help.

"The landscape is certainly part of today's event," Conner said.

Summit topics included accounts of homelessness from people who have lived on the streets and strategies for ending homelessness from organizers of Denver's tiny home village.

The panel on how parks are used came as campaigns gear up for and against the Right to Survive Initiative that Denver voters will consider in May. The initiative proposes a "right to rest" protected from the elements in public. Right to Survive also would allow sharing food in public places where food is not prohibited and sheltering in legally parked motor vehicles. And it would ensure personal property could not be confiscated from people experiencing homelessness.

Benjamin Dunning, co-founder of Denver Homeless Out Loud, attends Denver's Road Home's annual Giver's Summit at the McNichols Building, Feb. 5, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Lee, of the Department of Public Health and Environment, said the initiative may be so broadly worded that it might strip city officials of the tools they need to respond to, for example, the dumping of large amounts of trash in a park. Gilmore, who is in charge of Denver's 260 urban and 40 mountain parks, said he was worried a right-to-rest law would mean he could never close parks.

"There would be no curfew," he said. "It would be really challenging. Allowing people to just live in a tent in a park is not connecting them with services.

"Our goal as a city is to always connect them with services."

Denver City Council voted in 2012 to ban people from sheltering themselves, even with a blanket, in public. Right to Survive, which would essentially overturn the camping ban, was championed by the group Denver Homeless Out Loud.

City Councilman Albus Brooks, a main proponent of the camping ban in 2012, said recently it pushed the city to create more housing. Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud has made a similar argument about Right to Survive, saying if it passes it could result in homelessness becoming more visible, as people without permanent housing would no longer have to hide from police. That, she says, could add urgency to efforts to provide permanent housing.

Howard also argues that if Right to Survive passes the city will still have laws and regulations allowing it to protect public safety and health. She adds that provisions some might see as unnecessary, such as spelling out that food can be shared and cars used as shelter, were meant to keep the city from tightening rules in the future.

Tuesday, at the panel on food, Gilmore and Lee stressed they were not suggesting the hungry not be fed. Gilmore said he regularly gets emails from Denverites complaining about people experiencing homelessness using the parks. He tells them: "First of all, it's not illegal to be in the park. The other thing, it's not illegal to be homeless.

"We're all one decision, one mistake from being homeless ourselves."

Denver residents don't just respond with angry emails. Many try to help. Gilmore said well-meaning people have brought more food to Civic Center than the needy can consume, and the leftovers draw rodents. Lee added that while she has not seen it in the parks, outbreaks of illnesses at agencies serving the needy have been traced to food donated by restaurants or others. Gilmore and Lee suggested that better coordination, perhaps through a voluntary registry, among those who want to give could reduce duplication that leads to waste and allow groups to share good practices that would improve safety.

After lunch when the panel broke up for informal discussions with audience members, Occupy Denver activist Brian Loma offered a glimpse of the range of people dedicated to helping. He mused that while faith groups and nonprofits might be happy to share information on some kind of registry, anarchists who also regularly donate food might see it as a bureaucratic grab for control. He wasn't sure what an atheist philanthropist group he knew of would make of the proposal.

Brian Loma speaks in breakout discussion during Denver's Road Home's annual Giver's Summit, Feb. 5, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Civic Center Conservancy Executive Director Scott Robson speaks in a breakout session during Denver's Road Home's annual Giver's Summit, Feb. 5, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Another panel member, Scott Robson, executive director of Civic Center Conservancy, suggested Denver could adopt a practice he has seen elsewhere. In San Francisco, for example, he described food donations as part of regular events that also offer opportunities to connect with other services, including showers and help getting identity documents, healthcare and employment.  The idea is not new to Denver, which puts on Project Homeless Connect, an annual event at which people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity are offered a wide range of services. What Robson envisions would be more frequent.

Lee, from the health department, followed the minister's advice to observe the lunch donations. She said she was struck by how many people she found lined up patiently awaiting food. The givers, she said, had connected with a need.

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