A Denver tale of homelessness and hope, told in comics

Capitol Hill artist Karl Christian Krumpholz’s “Nothing but Suitcases” will be unveiled today as part of a citywide multimedia storytelling project.
6 min. read
Artist Karl Christian Krumpholz speaks with a reporter at a Capitol Hill coffeeshop, March 20, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Artist Karl Christian Krumpholz is drawn to dark tales. He is, after all, the author of the autobiographical comic book "An Introduction to Alcohol," in which his late father's alcoholism is a theme.

So Krumpholz, who lives in Capitol Hill, had to be nudged toward hope when he took on an assignment to create a comic about homelessness for a new city storytelling project. In the end Krumpholz said he is happy with "Nothing but Suitcases," and learned something about stereotypes around homelessness as he put together the eight-page comic that will be unveiled Thursday as part of I Am Denver, a citywide multimedia storytelling project.

"Nothing but Suitcases" details the real-life experiences of a woman who came to Denver for a job that fell through and ended up camping with her two young children for a time at Cherry Creek Reservoir. The woman is working again and volunteering for Family Promise, a nonprofit that helped her find an apartment. It's a story with a happy ending that contrasts with others Krumpholz heard as he interviewed subjects for the project.

The subject of "Nothing but Suitcases" asked to remain anonymous, a measure of her concern about the stigma that surrounds homelessness.

"Whenever people find out I was homeless, they always think the worst," she says in one panel. "Yeah, it can be bad, but it's never what you think."

Krumpholz did not include details about her new job or her children. He said that while the words are hers, his drawings don't resemble her.

"I think the story's a little more powerful (because of) not mentioning those facts," Krumpholz said, saying he hopes it will help readers realize that his subject could be anyone because homelessness can happen to anyone.

"It was eye-opening," he said.

"People think it (homelessness) is just mentally deranged people screaming on the street," he said. "What the story was putting forward is that this woman had a string of bad luck and just kind of fell through the cracks."

The woman at the center of "Nothing but Suitcases" told him of her frustration with service providers who don't have services for someone who has no drug problems, criminal record or mental health challenges, and with shelters that wanted to split her family up to accommodate them.

Thursday's launch of I Am Denver will include lighter stories as well as stories like "Nothing but Suitcases." Rowena Alegría, the city's chief storyteller -- that's really her title -- said one goal is getting people talking about solutions to problems like homelessness and lack of affordable housing in Denver -- both steps the city has already undertaken and ways it could improve.

"This is first and foremost a community engagement effort," Alegria said. "Residents have issues in this city. We're not going to shy away from these tough issues."

Alegria has been Mayor Michael Hancock's chief communications officer. While in that role, the project to explore the power of storytelling began to take shape at a time when students from East and other area high schools were walking out to demand more focus on racial inequalities and in support of protests following a white police officer's shooting and killing of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri.

That led to Denver Talks, in which the entire city was invited to read Claudia Rankine's "Citizen: An American Lyric!" and talk about race and justice in 2017. The next year the first event at which people were invited to tell their stories was held at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Alegria now leads a storytelling staff of three.

Thursday's I Am Denver event is intended to draw attention to stories that have been collected so far with the help of partners such as the Denver Public Library, DCPA, Historic Denver Inc. and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Comic artist Krumpholz was brought in after the program manager of Denver Smart City caught him at one of his readings telling a story of a friend who had experienced homelessness. Denver Smart City is piloting ways to use technology and data to improve services for people in Denver, including people experiencing homelessness, and its staff was able to introduce Krumpholz to subjects for "Nothing but Suitcases."

"A large part of Denver Smart City is listening, without predisposed ideas, to what our residents are sharing, whether it is 0s and 1s from data or their stories," said Chelsea Warren, who is communications coordinator for the city's Technology Services department. "For this effort, we want to hear stories of underrepresented residents -- giving them a voice and embracing their experiences as part of the fabric of Denver."

All the stories are archived in writing, as audio and video recordings, as photos and drawings. And a comic book, which Krumpholz said a can be more inviting than a page of narrative and more intimate than a film.

"It's like reading a movie in your head," he said.

Alegria said among her favorite stories in the collection are a Five Points family's audio memoirs and a video slam poem about Denver. A website and social media campaign will also be launched Thursday and information will be shared about upcoming opportunities for Denverites to record more stories.

Krumpholz said he felt early in the process that the city wanted a public relations exercise, but that that was dispelled months later when he started working with Alegria, a former journalist.

"She literally wanted to do stories rather than a commercial," he said.

Still, "the story we eventually did has a lot more hope in it" than some of the other stories he heard during his research. He's planning to dive back into his notebook and produce a longer comic featuring some of those biographies of struggle, drugs and violence.

"I would prefer to do the darker story," he said. "But that's just the person I am."

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