For a 12 months this group offered water and rubbish companies to the uninhabited individuals of Denver each week

Almost every Sunday last year, a small group of volunteers gathered at 10 a.m. at Benedict Fountain Park in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, equipped with shovels, plastic bags, latex gloves, and an intricate homemade water system.

From there, the group spreads out across the city in search of homeless camps, where they offer garbage collection services and water stations where people can wash their hands and refill their water containers – conveniences that the members of the group, who the City would offer.

“We never really expected this to continue like this,” said Michelle Christiance, who started volunteering at Headwaters Protectors in August 2020 and runs with it. But of course that didn’t happen. “

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The group has now trained over 350 volunteers and celebrated its one-year anniversary on August 1st. The idea for the group came about in the first months of the pandemic after Ean Thomas Tafoya, an organizer of the environmental organization GreenLatinos, invited his friend, Matthew Kowal, on his local radio show. On the show, Kowal, who designs water systems for music festivals, started talking about how his job is like building temporary cities.

“Ean had me on his radio show and said, ‘Well, this stuff is great when the festivals are up, but right now there’s a homeless crisis and it’s 100 degrees outside and there’s no water,” recalled Kowal. “So he said, ‘So why don’t you bring this stuff out tomorrow.'”

Ean Thomas Tafoya, co-founder of the local aid organization Headwaters Protectors, which provides garbage and water services to undocumented residents, stands in front of his truck before lining up for the group’s one-year anniversary celebration at Benedict Fountain Park on August 1, 2021. (Moe Clark / Colorado Newsline)

Then Kowal’s brother Jeremy donated more equipment and helped them develop their mobile water unit from the back of a pick-up truck. (They have since been upgraded to a detachable trailer.)

One year of development

In the first few months, the growing group teamed up with local companies to refill their water barrels. “We also helped people cum a little on the street because we didn’t know people only needed one chance to have some hygiene,” said Kowal.

He said that every time they offered water services, they handed out garbage bags and offered to drag them away. The city “always uses the trash as an excuse to evacuate and says it is a nuisance,” he added.

Although the city hasn’t signaled that they want to take over the project and scale it as the group hoped, the Denver Parks and Recreation Department has donated shovels, brooms, and garbage bags for the group to use and distribute. The city will also pick up the garbage for free once it’s been collected by the volunteers.

Will Peete, a volunteer with the Headwaters Protectors mutual group, fills a water bottle with their makeshift portable water system in Denver. (Courtesy Michelle Christiance)

“I mean, that’s something,” said Christiance, who is also the operations manager for the local nonprofit food distribution organization. Denver food rescue. “We really didn’t see anything of the city. So it was a big win to see even the smallest thing. It was a big deal for us. “

However, the group continues to invite city officials to join their efforts. In the fall, Denver city council member Amanda Sandoval came and volunteered with the group.

“So that was cool,” said Tafoya.

The city’s last official point-in-time poll – considered to be significantly outnumbered as it only counts the number of people homeless in a single night – found so 6,104 people were homeless in January 2020.

A more comprehensive analysis by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative found that 31,207 people had experienced homelessness in the subway area between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020. The city’s emergency accommodation system offers space for approx. 2,200 people per night, so the city administration.

“When we show up, people are excited”

Christiance said whenever the group shows up at a camp, people are “excited”.

“They see the gloves and garbage bags and they just say, ‘Damn it, yeah, I’ll clean right away,'” she said. “People don’t want to live in the dirt. You are forced to live in the dirt. “

She said sometimes neighbors would come and help clean up. Other times they complain.

Headwaters Protectors mutual aid group volunteers work with uninhabited Denver residents to collect rubbish. (Courtesy Michelle Christiance)

A photo taken after volunteers from the Headwaters Protectors mutual group removed a large heap of rubbish from a Denver homeless camp. (Courtesy Michelle Christiance)

“They don’t want water to be provided to people or they don’t want the garbage to be cleaned up because they want the warehouse to be swept,” she said. “But there is actually no connection, because the city does what it wants.”

The group also sells consumables such as sunscreens, tampons and safe needle disposal boxes, which they sell through a partnership with Denver’s. Receive Action center for harm reduction, a public health agency working to reduce drug-related harm.

Christiance said one of the most frustrating things is when her group shows up at a warehouse recently removed from town and finds the floor covered in trash. She said a few days after the town was removed a large warehouse in Five Points in December she found 15 to 20 needles on the ground.

“It’s just ridiculous for the city to do this to protect public safety, but then they leave all the needles open while, if they hadn’t, they come in and traumatized displaced people hide the needles in people’s tents had and were “not easily available to the public,” she said.

Headwaters Protectors mutual aid group volunteers work with uninhabited Denver residents to collect rubbish. (Courtesy Michelle Christiance)

A photo taken after volunteers from the Headwaters Protectors mutual group removed a large heap of rubbish from a Denver homeless camp. (Courtesy Michelle Christiance)

Danica Lee, director of the Denver Public Health Investigation Department, told Newsline in December that the Five Points warehouse was closed due to the accumulation of trash, the existence of combustible materials, the presence of rats, improperly discarded syringes, and reports of human feces in the adjacent river.

“It just makes you realize that there are still people out there who still care and try to fight for the homeless.”

The first camp that Headwaters Protectors visited regularly was one on the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street, which was removed from town in October 2020. Now the streets are lined with large boulders to forbid people from pitching their tents.

Sophie Elias was one of the residents of the camp at the time. When she thinks back to the morning when the police woke her up and told her to go, tears well up in her eyes. She said mutual aid groups like Headwaters Protectors had helped her get through the past ten months.

Sophie Elias and Michelle Christiance pose for a portrait during a celebration at Benedict Fountain Park on Aug. 1, 2021. (Moe Clark / Colorado Newsline)

“You just notice that there are still people who are still caring for the homeless and trying to fight for the homeless,” Elias said at the group’s one-year anniversary celebration. “These people have changed my life and will always have a place in my heart because they did more for the homeless community than they really realized.”

Christiance wants city officials to join the Headwaters Protectors on a Sunday to see what they do.

“If I had a wand I would bring them out, learn how to help people effectively without causing more trauma, and create more arguments within the community, create more barriers between people,” she said. “I would like to see how you work with the people who are supposed to protect you.”

“If we can irrigate our gardens, we should be able to provide water to our people,” she added.

For Dara Hargrave, volunteering in the group paid off as she was able to help immediately.

Headwaters Protectors mutual group volunteers pose for a photo at Benedict Fountain Park in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood after cleaning up the area. (Courtesy Michelle Christiance)

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we’re still seeing the sweeps. And so everyone deserves to just provide the basics of life, clean water, garbage collection, ”said Hargrave, who volunteers with her 13-year-old son.

One of their most important lessons learned from volunteering is how often uninhabited residents are harassed on the street. “I don’t really understand why, but so many people come over and we’ve seen them yell at people, they just walk over, scream and throw things,” said Hargrave, a massage therapist who has been for 15 years

That’s why she says the work is important.

“To be able to just walk in and be kind, not be judgmental and just say, ‘Hey, we have this when you need it,'” said Hargrave.

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