Women wear invisible cloak of homelessness

By

Posted Fri, Aug 1, 2014

DENVER — Denver’s Civic Center Park is bustling with well-dressed people weaving between gourmet food trucks jammed into its center.  Some drift toward the Greek pavilion to make selfies in front of the fountain and turn to nod at the woman sitting on a park bench.

Little Runaway flies a sign on Santa Fe Drive July 21, hoping to get money for food and alcohol.  Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu

Little Runaway flies a sign on Santa Fe Drive July 21, hoping to get money for food and alcohol. 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 one of the guests where she stays.  Yokota 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, with a backpack and bedroll.

Nearby, on Santa Fe Drive, Little Runaway flies a sign for drivers in the morning rush; most look away.   Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, she walks with a spring in her step, dark hair flying across her face in the breeze.  Traffic speeds past, its noise almost erasing the sound of her voice.  Her face is etched with a weary but resolute expression.

Homelessness is unacceptable in Japanese culture, Yokota, who doesn’t use drugs or alcohol, says. She sips 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 a real breakfast.  Yokota, who is Japanese-American, has been homeless for two years.  She and Little Runaway are just two of the 1,303 homeless women now in the city and county of Denver, according to Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s 2014 point-in-time survey.  As a group, they are sometimes invisible, but constant presence.  And, Yokota says, though her basic needs of food, shelter and clothing are being met, the system isn’t solving the problem of homelessness.

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

Catherine Bracken, who sleeps in her car in a Walmart parking lot, agrees.  Bracken averts her eyes, saying, “Housing is horrible in Colorado.  Horrible.” She is neatly groomed, wearing tasteful jewelry with her dark hair pulled back.  She has just taken a shower at The Gathering Place, a daytime shelter for women, children.  “There’s no words on this earth,” Bracken says, “But I thank them.  Because of this place, we stand with a little pride and dignity within ourselves.”

Bracken, who will be 68 in October, became homeless when the daycare center where she worked closed its doors.  She doesn’t use drugs or alcohol and says she lives on $1,000 monthly. She qualifies for Section 8, she says, her voice breaking as she looks away, but everywhere she’s called is full.

Across town at the Denver Human Services building, a steady stream of humanity flows in and out, reminiscent of Ellis Island:  women, kids, elderly and disabled – of diverse ethnicity.  Inside, dignified black and white photos of residents of affordable housing hang from the interior walls.

Upstairs, Bennie Milliner, the executive director of Denver’s Road Home, confirms that Denver’s Section 8 housing is full.  Many have vouchers, he says, but no home.  Once they have housing vouchers, clients must do the legwork to find available housing under the Section 8 program, a task complicated by Denver’s skyrocketing rent rates.  The Colorado Division of Housing’s June 11 report says Denver’s average rent is now at an all-time-high of $1,073.

But, Milliner says, his office is working to change the dynamic of homelessness.  There’s tons of units going up.” he says, “The only problem is they’re not affordable units for the people that we serve.”

So, Denver is the first major city looking into using Social Impact Bonds to cover the up-front costs of building housing for 300 of the city’s chronic homeless residents, some of whom are challenged by addictions and mental health issues.  The program, which Milliner says is not privatization, would use investor funds to build city-owned housing.  Investors would be repaid by savings generated by the program; it’s not without risk to investors.

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

Yokota says she spends her nights at a women’s shelter and her days at Civic Center Park.  Formerly, she 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.  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 refuge 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.

“When the women are out here, it beats down our bodies,” Yokota says.  “I’m finding reasons to stay positive to survive.”  She glances at her baggage, and says as soon as employers see that, homeless people’s chances at employment are shot.  Things as simple as laundry and bathing are not easy when dragging around baggage.

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.  It’s a burden that Yokota carries everywhere she goes, and that means she must often go on foot.  She says 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.

Little Runaway flies a sign on Santa Fe Drive July 21, hoping to get money for food and alcohol.  Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu

Little Runaway flies a sign on Santa Fe Drive July 21, hoping to get money for food and alcohol. Photo by Melanie J. Rice • mrice20@msudenver.edu

Brenda Roush, vice president of community engagement at The Gathering Place, says they advocate for the homeless with the RTD, but “a lot of the times it feels like banging your head against wall. It’s complicated because RTD is trying to balance a budget and the homeless population can’t help them do that.

And, Milliner says storage is something his office has considered, but his primary goal is housing and services.  Government can’t solve homelessness alone, Milliner says.  He urges people to get involved – to advocate, be a voice and to volunteer.  “When we start building affordable housing,” he says, “There are gonna be neighborhoods that don’t want it.”

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

Roush says services do change quickly and even with intensive effort, it’s hard to have everything current.  Milliner hopes to change this – by streamlining the process with a common assessment and coordinated entry program.  He says this would also prevent clients from having to repeat their painful stories to each provider.

And, many of their stories are painful, indeed.  Little Runaway remembers watching her brother get shot when she was 11 years old.  “My mom was a workaholic.  After she got off work, she’d have to go to the hospital to see my brother and left me with no parent’s guidance or nothing,” she says. “So I came to the streets, and that was my family then.”

Her new family introduced her to drugs, drinking and stealing.  She’s been homeless off and on for several years.  “I was a permanent employee at Coors, and my family – everytime I get back up on my feet – they take me back to the gutter,” she says.

Now, she’s thankful.  She says she doesn’t steal or do drugs anymore.  Instead, she flies a sign and people give her money.  “I’m glad I’m not a heroin addict or a crack head,” she says.  “I’m just an alcoholic.”

Like Yokota, she says she longs for simple things, like spending a night in a hotel room to watch TV and the news; her voice cracks as she shares this wish.  She says she knows about shelters, but she has a man and doesn’t want to leave him behind to seek services.

Bracken says she tried a housing option for a couple of months, but it didn’t work for her.  She had a neighbor who kept her awake all night by playing video games, and the management wouldn’t intervene.

And, Bracken says homelessness is different for women than for men.  She volunteers at a facility that serves mostly male veterans and says the men are more likely to turn to drugs, alcohol or women when faced with homelessness.

Roush says women on their own face safety concerns that men just don’t have.

Though Bracken sleeps alone in her car, she says she’s not afraid.  She credits God with keeping her safe and giving her hope.  “I’m not afraid,” she says.  “You know, when your time comes, you can’t stop death. When God calls you, he’ll let you know.”

But, Yokota says she’s wary of men.  She says other homeless women watch her things when she slips away to use the restroom and email family at the public library.  They depend on each other.  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.

Being homeless doesn’t mean being without community.  Shelters, service providers and bonds formed on the streets provide a support network and opportunities for homeless women to care for others.  “I cry a lot,” says Bracken.  “A lot, because I cry not just for myself, but I cry about these people that are on street.”

Their stories are as diverse as they are heart-wrenching.  They all live under the cloak of homelessness, trying to navigate their way out of a system that may help meet urgent needs, but today, does little to remove them from homelessness.  It’s evident that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  In fact, Milliner doubts we will completely eliminate homelessness.  Jesus said, ‘The poor you’d have with you always.'” he says. “So I’m not in a position to argue with him on that point.”

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.  Her older sister has just recovered from a stroke and is back to work, and trying to make room for Yokota.

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

But for now, when 4 p.m. comes, she repacks her belongings to return to the shelter.  “They need to understand that something happened to cause us to be here,” she says.  “Don’t prejudge.  Get to know me as a person; respect me. We need to be heard.”  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.  She shuffles off down the sidewalk, hoping that tomorrow will bring some answers.

, , , , , , ,

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

Leave a Reply

*