The new urban norm of people camping on the streets collided in Denver this week with another intensifying phenomenon – extreme weather — as an arctic blast snowstorm threatened to plunge temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero.
“Sometimes I go to sleep and get too cold,” said Justin Davis, 28, flying his “anything helps” sign along Colfax Avenue east of downtown, a GED high school graduate from Paris, Texas.
Camping is “doable” but he’d already seen enough of the perils during the blizzard two years ago in Dallas, Davis said. A man in a shelter lost several fingers from frostbite.
And on Wednesday as the storm approached, Davis clenched his sign with fingers severely cracked and infected. Nurses at St. Joseph’s Hospital had bandaged them recently, warning him that hard living in the cold was deepening the cracks. He lacked mittens.
Shortly before noon, wind gusts swept up dust, scattering dry leaves, buffeting Davis by his suitcase and piled garments. He’d collected $4 in two hours, not near enough for a motel. He wasn’t sure what he’d do.
“Normally I’m a real rougher, don’t even put up a tent, just use blankets.” Yet over the past month in Denver he’d “most definitely” felt the cold, he said.
“Those nights, I just try to stay awake. I wrap myself in blankets and walk around. I have an emergency blanket that helps, too.”
Maybe he could stay with friends, he said. “I might try to get into a recreation center… I need a down coat.”
City officials have banned camping and, on Wednesday, opened the Denver Coliseum as an emergency shelter.
The private Colorado Village Collaborative also has established three Safe Outdoor Space (SOS) tent camps, fully staffed and offering portable toilets and shower trucks along with electrical outlets in each tent. These were full.
At the SOS camp in northeast Denver, the manager on Wednesday was monitoring forecasts to determine whether temperatures would drop much below minus 8 degrees. He’d lined up emergency space in a church nearby where residents of the 41 “thermal” SOS tents could stay warmer.
But with an electric heater, “it is pretty comfortable,” said resident Michal Stafford, 61, inside a tent with his bicycle and other belongings. “Beats sleeping on the ground or on concrete.”
On a typical night, around 1,500 metro Denver residents are out on the streets, with another 2,500 or so placed in shelters. More — city data isn’t clear on how many — sleep in vehicles. In Colorado Springs, authorities estimate roughly 1,000 people live on the streets and camp, many in tents south of downtown along Fountain Creek.
Economically displaced people living on streets and camping is a rising phenomenon, and “we are likely to see more and more of it,” said John Parvensky, director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for the past 38 years, who has advocated for a humane approach through four mayoral administrations.
“Over those 38 years, we’ve never seen the extent of people literally sleeping on the streets of our cities to the extent we do today,” Parvensky said. “When Denver changed from what was a relatively affordable city to a pretty unaffordable city, the shortage of affordable housing, and the lack of short-term housing, contributed to the rise of the number of people on the streets. Even though we’ve added shelter beds, these are not enough,” he said.
“Minimum wage does not pay enough to afford housing in Denver, even though the minimum wage has gone up… It is so ironic that here in the richest country in the world we have the highest rate of homelessness of any industrialized country.”
Among U.S. counties, Denver ranks 107th with a 28-to-1 ratio between the top 1% average income and the bottom 99%, according to the Economics Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C. The average top income in Denver was $1,687,561 compared with the bottom 99% average income of $60,245.
Back in the 1890s when mining tycoons amassed huge wealth compared with laborers, poverty was confined in Denver to a “skid row” along Larimer Street, historian Tom Noel said. “It is a relatively new phenomenon that the poor are so visible,” Noel said.
At the same time, climate warming has created atmospheric conditions that scientists say favor increasingly extreme weather — more summer heat waves with temperatures topping 95 degrees and, at the other extreme, anomalies such as this week’s arctic blast.
“Heat is uncomfortable. But cold hurts. It hurts your ears, your eyes,” said Paul Napoli, 54, who knows too well from the past three winters the perils of camping around Denver in frigid conditions.
A college graduate from Boston who earned a law degree from the University of Denver and once ran a business, Napoli suffered from health troubles stemming from a drunk driver slamming into the back of his vehicle, ending up without shelter, other than his tent, until he secured an emergency housing voucher two months ago.
Napoli endured temperatures as low as 5 degrees below zero camping solo in hidden “nooks and crannies” around metro Denver, he said, lauding the SOS camps as “a good start” to giving better options for getting off cold streets.
“I stuffed hand-warmers into my sleeping bag and watched a movie on my laptop,” he said.
“You need the best sleeping bag you can get ahold of.”