Denver park draws more than foodies

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Posted Fri, Jul 11, 2014

DENVER — Well-dressed people weave between gourmet food trucks jammed into the center of Denver’s Civic Center Park. Some drift over to the fountain near the Greek pavilion and nod toward the woman sitting on a park bench.

Yoko Yokota spends the day at Civic Center Park on June 25, 2014.  Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu

Yoko Yokota spends the day at Civic Center Park on June 25, 2014. [Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu]

Yoko Yokota’s day started at 4:30 a.m., a bit earlier than usual. Another woman woke her by shouting at another guest. She is wearing the same capris and T-shirt as yesterday. Her shoes sit on the ground in front of her not-so-clean bare feet. An overflowing rolling cart and duffel bag sit by the bench, along with a backpack and bedroll. Yokota is one of 1303 homeless women now in the city and county of Denver, according to Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s 2014 point-in-time survey.

Homelessness is unacceptable in Japanese culture, Yokota says, sipping coffee from a Starbuck’s cup. It gets tiring – not being able to relax and watch TV, linger over a cup of coffee, or have an actual breakfast. Yokota, who is Japanese-American, has been homeless for two years.

She says she spends her nights at a women’s shelter, and her days at Civic Center Park, enjoying its scenery, peace and quiet.

Yoko Yokota arranges her belongings July 1, before returning to the women's shelter where she sleeps at night.  Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu

Yoko Yokota arranges her belongings July 1, before returning to the women’s shelter where she sleeps at night. [Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu]

The Denver police bike officers have cleaned up the park, Yokota says. They helped make it safer and cleaner. Not all homeless people are drug and alcohol abusers, says Yokota, who says she doesn’t use either.

Formerly, Yokota lived with her younger sister, but they argued over drugs. Since then, she’s learned to navigate the complex world of life on the streets, and that comes at a price.

“When the women are out here, it beats down our bodies,” Yokota says. “I’m finding reasons to stay positive to survive.”

Yokota says that people treat her better than a year ago. “They need to understand that something happened to cause us to be here.”

She glances at her baggage, and says as soon as employers see that, homeless people’s chances at employment are shot.

Duct tape sheathes the handle of her cart and wraps the remaining two wheels. The other two fell off, meaning she must wrestle it over sidewalk cracks and curbs. In it are all of her possessions in the world – clothing, a cell phone, food, toiletries, paperwork and bedding.

Yoko Yokota secures food to her pack on July 1.  Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu

Yoko Yokota secures food to her pack on July 1. [ Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu]

It’s a burden that Yokota carries everywhere she goes, and that means she must often go on foot. She says some bus drivers won’t let her board with her gear because of a recent RTD rule change intended to make more room for disabled passengers.

She must leave the shelter by 7 a.m., even when it rains. On those days, she drags her belongings to Civic Center Park, and takes shelter under the Greek pavilion.

On Wednesdays, she gets in line for a hot meal served by a local church, but she has no one to watch her stuff this time. Instead, she munches on chips that she purchased with her small income. I get enough food, she says, but not good nutrition.

Yokota says she faces many challenges on the streets. Things as simple as laundry and bathing are not easy when dragging around baggage. Though her basic needs of food, shelter and clothing are being met, the system isn’

t solving the problem of homelessness.

She clips the filter end off of a cigarette and lights it. Resources are sometimes difficult to access, and the communication is not there, says Yokota.

She says other homeless women watch her things when she slips away from the park to use the restroom at the public library or court house. They depend on each other. But, she’s wary of men.

I don’t trust any guy, she says. “There’s always a catch.” And, many homeless women are raped or killed, she says. It’s not the same as for men.

After 4 p.m., she repacks her belongings to return to the shelter. She loads food on top of her cart and fiddles with the wheels. One fell off again this morning, she says, as she pushes her glasses back up her nose. They too, are held together by tape.

Yoko Yokota walks 45 minutes to get back to the women's shelter on July 1.  Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu

Yoko Yokota walks 45 minutes to get back to the women’s shelter on July 1. [Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu]

Yokota says she emails her family from the library, to keep in touch. Her older sister has just recovered from a stroke. Now, she’s back to work, and trying to make room for Yokota.

Yokota hopes to be off the streets soon, but she says she would like to see truly affordable housing and storage facilities that would help homeless people find jobs and transition out of homelessness.

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About Melanie J. Rice

Melanie Rice is a journalism student at MSU Denver, with an emphasis on both visual and written content.

View all posts by Melanie J. Rice

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