Life has not been easy for Wayne Graham since he came out to Colorado four years ago. The 60-year-old man came to the state from Georgia with hopes of joining the marijuana industry with his nephew. …
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Life has not been easy for Wayne Graham since he came out to Colorado four years ago. The 60-year-old man came to the state from Georgia with hopes of joining the marijuana industry with his nephew.
But when business with his nephew didn’t go as planned, Graham was forced out of his house because he couldn’t afford to pay rent and has been homeless since.
On Christmas of last year, he says he had a seizure that caused him to dislocate his shoulder and damage a nerve in his back, making it impossible for him to make an income from his profession — painting.
Winter grew colder for Graham when his car, the place where he slept, was impounded three months ago. He does not have the money to get his car back.
With most public places being closed, the combination of the Colorado snow and the COVID-19 pandemic has made this an especially difficult time on a vulnerable population — the homeless.
Libraries where many homeless people go for resources or to stay out of the cold weather are closed. Stores are shutdown, making it even more difficult for the homeless to do something as simple as going to the bathroom or washing their hands. The Severe Weather Shelter Network, which partners with organizations and agencies in the Denver metro area to provide emergency overnight shelter in cases like snowstorms, has also closed its doors — and the homeless are trying to adapt to a world that wasn’t kind to them even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those that work with the homeless population in Jefferson County say it is a grim time for people experiencing homelessness on the west side of the Denver metro area, like Graham.
“I am not scared of (COVID-19) because of the pain I have been through. I would rather have the virus than this pain I am going through because I have a better chance of getting rid of the virus,” Graham said.
During the week of April 13 snow blanketed Colorado with areas like Lakewood experiencing six and a half inches of snow from April 15 to April 16, according to the National Weather Service website. To stay out of the cold, Graham says he has been riding RTD’s light rail until it is time for him to find a place to sleep.
“Everything being shut down is detrimental — it is killing us. All you can do is sit around outside,” he said.
Still providing for those in need
On a snowy day last month, Rev. James Fry of Mean Street Ministry in Lakewood found a man on the streets in a wheelchair with an amputated leg, shivering uncontrollably. The man had black spots on his fingertips, Fry said.
“We called the EMT, they show up in hazmat suits and say it’s not serious enough to take him in,” said Fry. He thinks the EMT’s decision was made out of an abundance of caution to not crowd emergency rooms right now. Fry got the man a motel room for the night and has not seen him since.
Before the pandemic, around 70 to 80 people a day were seeing Fry and the rest of Mean Street Ministry for clothing, its food bank, café and its severe weather shelter before it was closed. But now, Fry said the ministry is serving even more people since the pandemic started. And as Mean Street Ministry has still managed to keep offering its food bank and café despite COVID-19, Fry said all shelters are closed except for those in Denver, but a lot of the people he serves are scared of going to big Denver shelters.
“I don’t go to the shelters, I would avoid a place like that at all cost and not just because of the pandemic — because I have seen them before,” said John, a homeless man who asked to keep his last name out of this story as he is trying to find employment.
Mean Street Ministry shares a building with the Denver Street School, but because COVID-19 has forced the school to close, the ministry has moved its café to Denver Street School’s gym. Residents who use the café sanitize their hands before coming in and are spaced out from each other when they eat at the gym.
“The people we’re working with, they don’t want to get sick either. I’ve got a bunch of veteran homeless, and they know how to swab the deck and maintain order,” said Fry.
As grocery stores have been hit from panic shoppers, Mean Street Ministry’s food bank has had a tougher time getting food, particularly canned goods. The ministry has partnered with other churches like Bridge Church at Bear Creek who hosted a drive through food drive for Mean Street Ministry on April 14.
But despite the help, Fry said finances are getting tough, and a few donors said they can’t provide assistance in ways they normally would. He said Mean Street Ministry is gaining 16 to 20 clients a day who are looking for food.
“Our navigation system (connecting people to services) is just overwhelmed, (there are) a lot of new homeless,” said Fry.
Cathy Alderman, a spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said the organization doesn’t have data available about how many people have become homeless since the pandemic started, but said it is likely some residents who have lost their jobs will enter homelessness. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reported that the unemployment rate increased two percentage points to 4.5% in the state last month — and that number is expected to rise as more data becomes available from the state.
Kory Kolar, participant experience manager at The Action Center human resources organization in Lakewood, said the Action Center sees a lot of the same homeless people as it did when the organization was open under normal circumstances. Kolar said the biggest difference for the Action Center since the pandemic started has revolved around what services it can provide.
The Action Center is only providing food and mail to residents, Kolar says. On snowy days, the organization hands coats out to residents in need, but typically the Action Center has racks of clothes inside its building that residents can choose from.
“It’s just not the same. It’s less dignified to be handed something rather than getting to shop,” said Kolar. He said on average, the organization is serving twice as many households as it did before COVID-19 and added that the Action Center is now offering services to residents outside of Jefferson County.
“It’s a weird feeling. I can’t imagine what it is like if you’re living on the streets, and the world has shut down,” he said. “It must seem so strange and scary to not have anywhere to go.”
Glenn Wallace contributed to this report.
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