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10 moves in 4 months: Following one homeless couple’s endless migration around Denver

Inside the reality of living in Denver's roving tent communities through snow, heat, sweeps — and a pandemic

Cyxx and Jay talk about getting a free motel room for the night after leaving an encampment on Pearl Street in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood. The camp was cleaned up by city crews beginning just after dawn on Feb. 17, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It was just after dawn, the sky over Denver tinged a light pink, when the relentless beep of garbage trucks in reverse blared down Pearl Street. Temperatures had dipped into the single digits the night before, and most of the 20 or so people who lived along the sidewalk were still bundled in sleeping bags inside their zipped tents. 

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Cyxx and Jay poured themselves bowls of Fruity Pebbles with milk, knowing they had at least another hour before the city crews would make their way down the row of tents and force them to move along. 

This wasn’t their first homeless sweep. 

The residents of this Capitol Hill encampment knew for seven days that their time was up — a city notice taped to a lamp post warned that unless they did it themselves by the morning of Feb. 17, crews would clear out the tents, the bicycle junkyard, the trash and groceries piled on the sidewalk. Cyxx and Jay stayed inside their tent as long as they could, as close as possible to the trusty propane-powered heater that helped them survive the previous weekend when Denver temperatures dropped to -8. 

Then Jay, a 27-year-old with a Mississippi drawl and manners to match, sprang to work, packing up the couple’s belongings before everything they owned would get swallowed by the chomping end of a garbage truck. As the former Boy Scout folded their fleece flamingo blanket into a perfect square, deftly dismantled the tent, and strapped piles of sleeping bags and duffel bags on a red-cloth wagon, Cyxx, 46, talked. 

“We’ve lived everywhere,” she said. “Everywhere. Everywhere. But we have each other. That’s all we do have.” 

Click the map to see a larger version.

Cyxx, who said she has four grown children living in other states, rushes through her words so quickly that they tumble out in a pile of ideas. She doesn’t talk fast, she says, laughing — “other people just listen really, really slow.” Cyxx said she had 13 brothers and eight sisters growing up in New Orleans. “If you wanted to say something in my house you gotta say it quick and get out of the way.”

On this day, because of the bitter cold, Cyxx and Jay accepted city officials’ offer of a two-night stay in a motel room, a short respite before they had to find a new spot for their tent. They piled everything they owned into the back of a homeless advocacy group’s truck. Jay jumped in the pickup bed and sipped hot coffee from a paper cup while Cyxx showed a police officer her ID to sign up for a free stay at the All Inn on East Colfax Avenue. 

Their time indoors was short, and not particularly restful since the toilet clogged and the bathtub filled with sewer water. By the weekend, Cyxx and Jay were camped in a new spot along Colfax between Broadway and Lincoln Street, in the shadow of the state Capitol. Their tent was so close to the busy avenue that the edge of their blue tarp fluttered in the gutter when buses whizzed past. 

Jay is framed by the door of his tent on Colfax Avenue between Lincoln Street and Broadway with the state Capitol in the background on Feb. 22, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A potato lay in the gravel, the encampment smelled like urine, and a woman in a suit pulling a rolling briefcase shook her head and cursed and she weaved between the tents on the sidewalk. 

The new camp spot lasted only a couple of nights before city human services workers, along with police, notified people living in the row of about 15 tents that they were encumbering the sidewalk, blocking the pedestrian pathway to one of the city’s busiest bus stations. 

So Jay packed up the tent again. 

And so many more times since then.

The Colorado Sun kept up with Cyxx and Jay for more than four months as they moved around Denver, a few blocks east, a few blocks south, mostly in Capitol Hill and downtown. They chose camping spots not along the river or in the shadows of underpasses, but on tree-lined streets near the neighborhood conveniences of restaurants and gas stations. 

Their story is a window into a way of life now entrenched in Denver, a stubborn and visible homelessness that persists even as life returns to normal 15 months after the coronavirus pandemic began. Like a solution to the homelessness crisis, Cyxx and Jay are an elusive, moving target — shifting from place to place as the city chases them along. 

From February through June, they moved 10 times. 

About 2 in 20 agree to move from encampments to shelters

The city did not enforce its controversial camping ban during the first couple of months of the coronavirus pandemic, but now it is on a steady pace of two or three encampment cleanups each week. Crews arrive in the early morning, usually with a garbage truck or two, a Bobcat, and rakes and shovels, to scoop up food and trash, bottles of urine and, if the occupants aren’t around, entire tents and their contents.

Cyxx looks across Denver’s Civic Center Park from under the shade of an umbrella on April 30, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The mega tent cities of last summer are gone — the ones with more than 100 tents that grew in front of the state Capitol, surrounding Morey Middle School, and near the South Platte River at 29th Street and Arkins Court. But smaller encampments remain throughout the heart of the city.

The general pattern is this: A tent or two set up on a city block. More follow. Weeks or months go by, while the complaints from residents and nearby business owners pour into the 311 city services line or the inboxes of council members and the mayor’s office. When an encampment reaches the point of a health hazard, a cleanup is scheduled and a seven-day warning to campers is posted. 

Outreach teams, including “Strategic Outreach to Large Encampments,” or SOLE, approach tent dwellers daily, offering more stable options. “Living outside on the side of a street, on a sidewalk, is not a good option for people,” said Evan Dreyer, the Denver mayor’s deputy chief of staff. “We are trying every which way to provide humane and dignified options for people who are living on the street.” 

If you need housing help:

  • The City of Denver maintains a list of shelter options for men, women and families. 
  • The city also has a resource guide with addresses and contact information for help with mental health and domestic violence, as well as emergency and longer-term shelter options. 
  • Short-term motel vouchers are available at The Gathering Place, The VOA Mission and Samaritan House.

Dreyer attends nearly every cleanup, whether he stays for 15 minutes or four hours. Homeless advocates, who bring hot coffee and muffins to the campers, heckle him — sometimes using megaphones. 

The numbers are tough, Dreyer admits. For every 20 people living in an encampment, two might take the city’s offer of a shelter bed or a tent in a sanctioned camp, and along with it, opportunities for permanent housing, substance abuse treatment and employment. 

“That’s a victory,” he said. “For those two people, that could be life-changing for them.”

Since last spring, the city has provided more than 1,000 nights in motel rooms for people who were homeless during the pandemic, many of them folks who had coronavirus or were at high risk of serious complications from the disease.

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Denver also opened two “safe outdoor spaces,” supervised tent camps operated by nonprofit organizations. The two sites near downtown, intended as temporary camps to replace illegal camping, recently closed after six months. Their replacements are a new safe outdoors space at Regis University and another at Park Hill United Methodist Church that opened last week. 

Meanwhile, the city and various nonprofits have worked to increase shelter space in Denver. The city now has about 2,600 shelter beds, which is more than before the coronavirus hit Colorado. This month, the men’s shelters are 65% full, while women’s are 88% full. 

Cyxx and Jay want nothing to do with any of those options.  

“He’s always down for me and I’m always down for him”

Feb. 22 

Cyxx (pronounced like the number six) and Jay met in March 2020 in Civic Center Park, where Cyxx is a fixture. 

She knows pretty much everyone who hangs out in the green space between city hall and the state Capitol, often spending her afternoons sitting in the grass chatting in a circle of people or lining up for the sandwiches and hot dogs brought by charity groups. They all know her by her first name, the only one she uses.

“There’s not one cat out here that I haven’t helped,” Cyxx said, relaxing in the park while across Colfax, Jay quickly packed up the tent and pondered where they should head next. “I’m not a domestic creature. I don’t like to wash dishes. I don’t like to do laundry.” 

Cyxx has been homeless in Denver for about five years. She didn’t intend to stay so long, but she doesn’t have plans to move. She prefers the outdoors to any homeless shelter. She has little to say about how she ended up living outside, only that none of her relatives are coming to rescue her.

Jay was new to Colorado when they met, trying to move on from the lowest point of his life. In February 2020, his girlfriend was killed in a car crash back in Mississippi. “We rolled. We flipped and she didn’t make it,” he said. “I tried to save her. I tried to get her out of the truck, but she didn’t make it. 

“That really f—ed me up.” 

Jay rests on top of his belongings in the back of a volunteer’s truck after he and Cyxx had to leave a camp on Pearl Street near 13th Avenue because of a city cleanup on Feb. 17, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A few months before the crash, Jay’s mother killed herself. 

“I was really depressed and stuff. I was drinking and getting high, just trying to numb the pain, you know what I’m saying? I was just, like, chasing the drug. That’s what kept me in the street.”

By mid-2020, Jay had given up opioids, he said. “I’m six months clean off opioids,” he proclaimed proudly in February. It’s a claim he hasn’t made since. 

Jay was headed to California after his girlfriend’s death but got stranded in Denver. Then he met Cyxx, who was living alone in her tent. “It made me want to help her,” he said. 

Both of them were emotionally scarred from past relationships and weren’t looking for a new one. But they were drawn to each other, in part because it’s easier to survive outside with a partner. They are a team now. Among the homeless community, where first names and nicknames are the only ones used and pointing at each other across a camp or in the park is how you get beat up, they are known as a twosome — “Cyxx and Jay.” 

Together, they’ve lived in at least 15 camp spots so far.

“I could probably go get housing, but I’m not going unless she goes,” Jay said. 

“I love him,” said Cyxx, who calls Jay “baby.” 

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“We both dealt with a whole lot of bullshit in our lives. We both lost our parents at early phases in life,” she said. “We’re here for each other. We have each other’s back. Nobody else does, obviously. We got in a big old fight last night, and this morning he was still there to help me move, to help me pack my stuff.

“He’s always down for me and I’m always down for him. That’s all it is. I’m always going to be down for him forever.”

Early in their relationship, they lived in Lincoln Veterans Memorial Park, in one of about 150 tents that filled the state-owned property at the foot of the Colorado Capitol. The coronavirus pandemic was raging, and so were nightly protests in downtown Denver in the name of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minnesota. 

In Denver, Cyxx and Jay were pepper-sprayed by police while at home by their tent. “We were not part of the riots — that was a bunch of white yuppies that did that, not even Black yuppies,” Cyxx said. 

Then in late July, state troopers in helmets and N95 masks, carrying guns that shoot non-lethal bullets, cleared Lincoln Park in front of the state Capitol. The massive, early-morning scene was chaotic, with homeless activists screaming at law officers and at crews tossing tents into garbage trucks. People living in the tent city, including Cyxx and Jay, quickly packed up what they could and fled.  

The park has been surrounded by a chain-link fence ever since, giving the grass a chance to regrow after the ground turned to dirt and yellow, dried-up grass last summer. 

“Please bring a Porta Potty”

The city’s cleanups, to residents, business owners and even homeless advocates, seem like a futile, never-ending, game of whack-a-mole. 

After the cleanup on Pearl Street that sent Cyxx and Jay scrambling in February, the local homeowners association put up fencing in the hopes of preventing another encampment. This spring, city crews returned to clean up the alley on the same block after local residents again complained of a homeless “storage area” filled with furniture and bicycle parts. 

Want to help?

Donate or volunteer to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, The Denver Rescue MissionThe Gathering Place, or Denver Homeless Out Loud. To help Denver’s two new “safe outdoor spaces,” contact the Colorado Village Collaborative.

When the city cleaned up a particularly dirty camp on East Fifth Avenue near Lincoln Street last winter, campers evicted from that block simply dragged their tents — without even taking them down — a block away on the other side of Broadway. Workers and trucks scooped up the piles of trash, syringes and spoiled food left behind, including a gallon of milk left in the gutter. 

While the city has many critics, its chief one is Denver Homeless Out Loud, an advocacy group that sued Denver over what it considers unconstitutional sweeps that discriminate against people without homes and violate their property rights. The city calls them “cleanups,” while the group calls them “sweeps.”

So far in 2021, there have been 55, compared with 34 in 2020, according to the advocacy group.

Ana Cornelius, a street organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud, said the answer to the homelessness crisis isn’t forcing people to move their tents. The group has tried repeatedly to put up portable toilets and hand-washing stations, but the city removes them. 

Homeless Out Loud wants the city to provide trash pickup for encampments so people don’t pile garbage on the sidewalks. And the group gives out terracotta heaters so people can keep warm in their tents without using more dangerous options, like propane heaters or open fires fueled by hand sanitizer.

Throughout the winter, soot and ash in the shape of rectangles marked the spots where tents had burned in the night.

“This doesn’t work,” Cornelius said while watching a sweep on Pearl Street. “I’m also sympathetic to businesses or tenants who don’t want poop in the front yard, who don’t want maybe their water tapped into or people in their yard, or garbage in the area of where they walk. I get that. But that’s the city’s responsibility. You can’t fault the people who have no ability to change that for themselves.” 

The city wastes public dollars to clean up a camp, only to have it return — sometimes the next day, she said. “They will be there until the garbage piles up to the point of being a problem and then they will be swept again.” 

But Dreyer, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, says Denver residents dialing the mayor’s office are pretty clear about what they want: the tents near their homes removed and the sidewalks cleaned up. 

“The vast majority of all of the calls and complaints that we receive do not have anything to do with ‘Please bring a Porta Potty to the street down from me,’” he said. “They don’t.” 

Laundry day with catfish

April 16

A spring storm dumped heavy snow in the city, threatening to cave in Cyxx and Jay’s roof. A box of Cheez-Its and a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips they left outside the tent door were buried in snow. 

Everything they owned was damp. 

Jay, in dirty jeans and a fleece jacket, stuffed all of their clothing and blankets into duffel bags piled high on their red wagon, then started the 1.5-mile trek down wet sidewalks to the laundromat. After the two-night stint at Broadway and Colfax, Jay and Cyxx had shuffled their tent around Capitol Hill. 

First, East 16th Avenue and Grant Street for a few weeks, until city crews told them to move on. 

Then three blocks east to Pennsylvania Street, which only lasted a few days — until Denver police told them they were in the way of guests who would attend a funeral for a police officer the following day. It was the private ceremony at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception to honor Boulder Officer Eric Talley, who was shot to death running into a King Soopers on March 22 to save shoppers and employees from a gunman who had already killed nine people. 

The eve of the funeral, Cyxx and Jay packed up and moved a few blocks north, to Logan Street, between 17th and 18th avenues. 

There, about 10 tents were staked in the shady strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road, just around the corner from a row of hip Uptown restaurants and retail shops. Jay and Cyxx parked a shopping cart on one side, a green garbage can on the other, and their groceries out the entrance flap of their tent. 

On laundry day, Jay was grouchy, worn down by days of bad weather, so many moves and the fact that the laundromat was more than a mile west, near the corner of Speer Boulevard and Colfax. It took him nearly an hour to get there, pulling the wagon behind him. 

Jay uses a wagon to haul clothes and blankets more than a mile from their campsite on Logan Street to a laundromat near Colfax and Speer on April 16, 2021. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Cyxx stayed behind in the tent, after dividing up the cash she still had left from her Social Security disability check so Jay would have enough to feed the washing machines and she could go buy them catfish and hushpuppies. They planned to splurge on a real meal after days of eating snacks and soda from the 7-Eleven at the end of the block, where they bought something nearly every day but were never allowed to use the bathroom. 

Sometimes, they walk all the way to Union Station to use a public toilet. Every week or two, they go to the St. Francis Center or the Denver Rescue Mission, the one with the neon “Jesus Saves” cross, for a shower. 

“Mostly I just take bird baths,” Jay said, meaning he washes up in the tent with baby wipes. 

At the laundromat, he tossed loads of dank clothes and blankets into five machines like he was on a timer, shoving them in and spinning around to the next pile, the next machine. Each load was $5.25. Jay was out of cash and starving, and his phone screen was cracked so he had no idea if Cyxx was getting the catfish and where he was going to meet her. 

“I’m hungry as hell,” he complained. 

How much longer can he live outside? “I don’t even know,” he grumbled. “I just live one day at a time.” 

For one ugly day, they thought they won the lottery

May 5 

As Cyxx and Jay packed up on Logan Street, the garbage trucks beeping and chomping up tents during another city sweep, Cyxx found a lottery ticket swirling around in the blowing trash. 

The way she read it, the ticket was a winner — $120,000. For a day, Cyxx and Jay were ecstatic, believing they had found their literal ticket off the streets. They held onto it as they hauled their belongings several blocks to the south and west, setting up along Elati Street.

It was early May and it had been raining for days as they set up camp again.

The next morning, Jay slipped out of the tent while Cyxx was still asleep, and later that day, she would tell friends at Civic Center Park that Jay split with a winning lottery ticket. She was abandoned, she said.

Jay packs up belongings on Feb. 22, 2021, after police and city human services workers told him their tent was encumbering the sidewalk along Colfax Avenue. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But by the next day, both Cyxx and Jay chalked the whole thing up to a great misunderstanding. Jay wasn’t running out on her, only going to meet a friend, he said. When he returned to the tent, Cyxx had already left for the park. 

“Hell no, I wouldn’t do that,” Jay said. “If I left with the ticket, I’d take Cyxx with me.”

And the lottery ticket wasn’t a winner after all, according to the clerk at the gas station. 

They stopped dreaming about how they would spend the money and went back to reality — trying to stay dry during a soggy spring. They mostly stayed in the tent, and sometimes sat outside on an overturned bucket under a black umbrella. 

Cyxx and Jay were the only tent on the block on Elati Street, near West 13th Avenue, camped outside a utility garage where they had once slept back in 2020. Now, the strip was blocked off with orange mesh fencing, but Cyxx and Jay slipped through an opening and set up camp between the building’s brick wall and a leafy tree that dripped rain on the tent. 

Most of the places they’ve camped, from Capitol Hill to the Golden Triangle neighborhood, were filled with mesh fencing or so-called “hostile architecture.” Large rocks, wooden planters, gravel instead of grass — anything to make setting up a tent difficult.

This spring and summer, Denver is decorated with a lot of orange mesh. 

Orange construction fencing along Pearl Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood blocked a strip of grass that a few days earlier was home to about 20 campers. (Andy Colwell, special to The Colorado Sun

On a rainy afternoon, Cyxx was drinking a bottle of cold green tea in the tent, explaining their system for choosing a spot to sleep. They don’t return to a block they’ve been kicked out of for at least a few months. “We go a few blocks away,” she said. They try to camp alone, but inevitably, others will follow. “If there are more than four tents, you’re destined to get swept.” 

After so many years, Cyxx is used to it. It helps that Jay can pack up faster than the garbage truck coming for their stuff. He leaves the campsite as clean as he found it.

No matter how many sweeps, she said, she’d rather live outside than in a shelter or a city-sanctioned outdoor camp. Cyxx likes fresh air, hates the early-evening curfews and worries about the coronavirus. “I have not had to go home at 7 o’clock ever, in my whole existence,” she said. “You’re not going to put me in a cage. You’re not going to lock me in a glass room. It’s a petri dish.” 

Someday, she said, they will get a house together. She has no plans for how.

Cyxx insists she’s fine, but her sociable, chatty personality of a few months ago is fading. Some days, she doesn’t feel like talking much at all. 

The constant moves and living outside were wearing on Jay, too. A “drunk yuppie girl” walking down the street late one night started kicking their tent, he said. “Get out of here! You don’t belong here!” he remembers her saying. 

“They ain’t got nothing else better to do than f— with the homeless folks?” he asked. “It sucks.”

A “house fire” in 100 degrees

June 16 

Denver was climbing toward 100 degrees as Cyxx and Jay stretched out on top of piles of blankets and sleeping bags inside their tent, just a few blocks from city hall. Between them was a cooler filled with ice, burying a few bottles of water and pop. 

Their prize possession was a tiny fan, which circulated the stale, hot air in the tent. 

“We had a house fire the other day,” Jay said, lifting his arm to point to a few burn holes and melted plastic bags of groceries in the back corner of the tent. 

Cyxx was alone and sleeping when the fire started. She doesn’t know what happened but suspects somebody walking or driving down the street threw a cigarette at the tent. 

A police officer stopped by recently after someone reported that Cyxx and Jay were using drugs. It was only marijuana, they said, and the officer left them alone.

Theirs was the only tent on the block for two weeks, and they had hoped it would stay that way. The more tents, the more trouble, they suspect. But another tent popped up next to Cyxx and Jay’s this week. 

Outreach workers have come by, passing out water, offering information about housing options.

Cyxx and Jay still have no interest. “We stay here until they say something,” Cyxx said. “We’re all right.”

Cyxx waits in a food line in Denver’s Civic Center Park on Feb. 22, 2021, while Jay packed up their belongings to move from an encampment along Colfax Avenue. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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