Homeless for the Holidays

By Hannah Smith ’20

Mr. Doug Johnson wakes up at seven a.m. every day. If he has enough money saved, he treats himself to breakfast at McDonalds. Otherwise, he gets in line at the Denver Rescue Mission or Samaritan House and waits “for the floodgates to open.” Johnson is one of over half a million homeless Americans according to a study conducted in 2016 by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. If he is lucky, he sleeps in a shelter for the night, which is preferable, he says, to the streets.

“Everything that normal society takes for granted is a game of chance for me,” Johnson explains. “Where I sleep, what I eat, it’s all in God’s hands. Some days are better than others, of course, but even on those good days it’s a gamble.”

The worst days for Johnson, however, are holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. His family lives out of state, and “even if I could, I wouldn’t want to go home for the holidays because I don’t want to be a burden,” he says.

Stories like Johnson’s are why Mr. Brad Meuli, president and CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission, takes great care to “become the family for folks that are experiencing homelessness.”

“Holidays are always a very difficult time for people that are experiencing homelessness and one of the reasons is because they are so alone,” Meuli states.

In an attempt to combat this loneliness, the Denver Rescue Mission has taken several initiatives to bring both ready volunteers and homeless together for seasonal traditions.
“We do a great big Thanksgiving banquet which is a very special thing. We’ll have probably five to six hundred people there. We also do ‘Thanksgiving Banquet in a Box’ which is for people who aren’t homeless yet, but are close to it. They’ll go down to Sports Authority and drive up in their car and we give them a turkey and everything in that box that they need for Thanksgiving. About 3,000 families will come and receive these food boxes,” Meuli details.
Christmas, too, is specially marked by a meal and gift giving.

“For the folks in our ‘New Life’ rehabilitation program, which today is about 240 people, we do a thing called ‘Bless Our Brothers’ that includes a gift of their choice, meaning that they have two or three choices of things that they might like to have and we buy those gifts and give it to them, and in that moment, that’s their Christmas,” he continues.

Life-giving work at the Denver Rescue Mission and other shelters in Colorado is not limited to holidays as Mr. Meuli explains that daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner has aided innumerable homeless over the years. The extent of this outreach, however, has its limits as Ms. Jeannette Suarez knows all too well. She has been homeless for five years, her sixtieth birthday is in March, and has received minimal support from shelters.

“At my age, and I don’t have children. It’s hard to be able to get into a homeless shelter. I have tried to get in a lot of shelters and they won’t let me in because I have a car to live in.”

At Women’s Homeless Initiative, run through St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church, “(Who gets in) is based on a lottery system. The women sign up at the beginning of the day and then in the morning, around 9:30, at the homeless day shelter they choose a number and if your name is signed next to the number then you get the bed for the night,” explains Ms. Christina Vela, moderator of the volunteer-based club here at Regis Jesuit.

A lack of beds is not the only problem faced by local shelters. While meals and beds are year round, volunteers come in waves as Vela observes, “Thanksgiving, Christmas, this is the time when people start to think, ‘Oh, I’m going to donate something now.’ There are so many donations that come in during this time period. Sometimes it would be nice to have some of those donations in the middle of July when people are all on vacation and there aren’t as many bodies to be around helping. That’s the time when we struggle the most to get people to come and help support.”
Despite this want of help and beds, Johnson still considers himself fortunate when he is granted a place to stay for the night as difficulties that come with life on the street prove far worse to those in shelters.

Homeless deterrence technology has encumbered the process of finding a place to sleep, archdaily.com, an online architecture news organization reveals. Benches with armrests between each seat as well as individual bucket seats prevent sound and comfortable rest. As winter approaches, sleeping outdoors is made all the more difficult with the ever looming threat of hypothermia. In 2012, Denver’s anti-camping law, which forbade “unauthorized camping on public and private property in Denver” according to the Denver Post, now prevents homeless from sleeping on tarps or blankets which are crucial for warmth. Not to mention the complications from too common drug usage and theft. More than 170 homeless men and women living on the streets of Denver died in 2016 reports the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Such inhospitable living conditions make it all the more important for those that have the means to reach out to those in need. Our Jesuit heritage demands it of us. Service clubs like Arrupe, RJ for Life, and Women’s Homeless Initiative are just three of the many ways to get involved within the Regis Jesuit community. The Denver Rescue Mission offers one time signup slots or recurring positions for those able to give more of their time on a regular basis. The only way in which shelters can improve the quality and availability of the services they provide are through the active involvement of dedicated citizens.

The Regis Jesuit Christian Life Community has been delivering Christmas food baskets that serve over 1,000 people to St. Joseph’s Parish since the mid 1970’s. As part of the Season of Caring and Sharing, both the Girls and Boys Divisions will be hosting canned food drives sponsored by this club. A toy drive in the Girls Division and a “Help Kids Hit the Slopes” drive in the Boys Division, sponsored by Cadre and Arrupe, are two additional ways to get involved.

Not only do these opportunities count for service hours, but they can also provide meaningful memories that last a lifetime, as Vela recounts. “One of the girls made cookies for the women and when she gave the cookies to them, they were just so touched. I think that was a pretty impactful thing because for us to make cookies for our family is not a big deal but they were touched by the fact that somebody would have taken the time to make cookies for them.”

If you cannot volunteer, “There are a lot of ways to serve the poor,” Meuli says. “Donate to organizations that are trying to make a difference in people’s lives…and be mindful of the fact that most of us have things pretty good.

“There’s always people that run into tough times. It’s not always drugs and alcohol, it could be a medical condition; the high cost of housing has forced a lot of people to be homeless for the first time in their lives. I think we’ll always have people to serve, but I really think that’s what we need to do is serve them and try to help them get off the street,” Meuli concludes.

Most of all, “Pray,” Johnson requests, “and be thankful that the Lord has blessed you.”

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