Rhondell Burton was trying to sign up for food assistance when the 3-month-old baby strapped to her chest began to squirm.
Khamaj, dressed in a gray sweatsuit and tiny black hightops, was hungry.
Burton, 22, found a table in the midst of a crowded Colorado Convention Center exhibit hall to change her son’s diaper and mix up a bottle.
“Days when I feel like it’s super hard, he makes me happy,” said Burton, who came to Project Homeless Connect on Thursday hoping to find housing and childcare.
People who are homeless lined up outside the convention center in downtown Denver before the doors opened Thursday morning. One came specifically because the zipper on her winter coat was broken. Another needed a new backpack to carry his belongings. Others wanted a haircut, a wound check from a nurse, or a bath for their dog.
It’s been 13 years since the city of Denver, under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, announced its 10-year plan to “end homelessness,” a goal that proved elusive. By the latest count, the number of homeless people in the seven-county metro area makes up 1 percent of the nation’s homeless population. That’s more than 5,300 people, up from 5,100 a year ago.
Each night in the city, about 1,500 sleep in shelters.
“We were charged from the beginning with ending homelessness, and that’s work we do every day,” said Chris Conner, director of Denver’s Road Home, which oversees city funding to combat homelessness and coordinates with nonprofits.
Denver spends nearly $50 million each year providing services to people who are homeless, plus $40 million on affordable housing.
Burton, who moved to Denver about a month ago from Pennsylvania with her new son, zeroed in on booths that offered housing and services for single moms.
Within a half-hour, she had plans to sign up for an orientation at Warren Village, which provides housing and children’s programs for low-income single parents. She also chatted with staff from Urban Peak, which runs a shelter and apartments for homeless youth.
For now, Burton lives with a friend, but the arrangement is temporary. She had connected with a housing program before she came to Denver, but when she arrived, the program couldn’t help her, she said. Burton chose Denver because she heard there were plenty of jobs.
“I didn’t expect it to go like this,” she said. “I thought that if I came out here, I’d have a better chance at giving him a better life.”
Project Homeless Connect, organized by Mile High United Way, Denver’s Road Home and dozens of other agencies, is basically the one time each year when all of the city’s services to help the homeless are in one place.
A vast exhibit hall inside the convention center is filled with hundreds of volunteers in yellow shirts, each ready to pair up with someone who walks in looking for help.
Attendees can sign up for Medicaid health insurance, get government IDs and eye exams, and walk down an aisle of booths operated by companies looking to hire.
The jobs range from commercial laundry service to construction to stints at the National Western Stock Show as parking or livestock attendants.
Employers reported making job offers to 157 people by the end of the day. An estimated 1,400 who are homeless attended Thursday, after hearing about it from shelters, Denver Human Services or word of mouth.
Maxine Mares waited in line to get dog baths for her two Chihuahua mixes, Mimi and Chewy. The dogs, which sit atop a cart she pushes around town, stay with Mares each night when she takes a bus from downtown, where she spends her days, to a shelter in northeast Denver on Smith Road.
Mares got a massage and a library card, and scheduled an appointment — along with a ride — for a women’s health checkup at Denver Health.
David York, 49, got his strawberry-blond beard trimmed after picking up a blue-and-maroon winter coat and a sack lunch with a turkey sandwich.
York sleeps outside most nights, and sometimes at the Denver Rescue Mission downtown. He has been trying for weeks to come up with the money for a bus ticket back to his wife in Arkansas.
York said he left because his nearly 30-year marriage was struggling, mostly due to his alcoholism. A former electronics technician, York is ready to get his life together before the arrival of his first grandchild this spring. The main goal for Thursday, though, was to get a new, sturdy backpack, since his was stolen a few days ago. He found only a drawstring bag.
“Lord will come through,” he said.
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