The tents that make up the roof of the main terminal at Denver International Airport Wednesday, June 10, 2020, are reflected in the windows of the adjoining hotel as travelers deal with the effects of the new coronavirus. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

By Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS

Denver International Airport handles a massive amount of luggage every year. In 2019, 69 million passengers traveled through the airport with bags in tow. Some of those travelers left their empty bags behind.

Sometimes people will throw away their luggage because they want to consolidate their things to save on baggage fees. Or, maybe a wheel or zipper breaks and they leave a suitcase at the airport. DIA collects whatever is left behind.

“Once we find that luggage that is clearly being abandoned—being set next to a trash can—we don’t want that just to be thrown away in a central landfill, especially when there is […] a higher and better purpose that it can go to,” said Scott Morrissey, the vice president of sustainability for DIA.

Enter Denver Rescue Mission. The nonprofit organization works to create lasting change in the lives of people experiencing homelessness in Denver. Part of their mission includes the Ministry Outreach Center, located in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver.

“One part is the warehouse, the home of all of our supplies. Any non-cash donation comes through the warehouse and is received here, stored here, sorted out, and then distributed from here,” explained Jesse Ludema, the director of the Ministry Outreach Center.

At the Ministry Outreach Center, the abandoned pieces of luggage get a new purpose. About every month or so, Denver Rescue Mission picks up a batch of empty suitcases and bags from DIA to distribute to the unhoused community it serves.

“For many people in the homeless community they have very few belongings,” said Ludema. “And so if you’re walking around and trying to get back on your feet, having something to store your possessions in is really important.”

This particular partnership with a focus on luggage donations between DIA and Denver Rescue Mission started about three years ago. In 2018, Morrissey said the airport donated 835 pieces of luggage and in 2019, it gave 719 pieces. Morrissey does say in 2020, that number was much lower, likely because the number of passengers who went through DIA dropped significantly due to COVID-19.

“Not a huge amount in the context of 69 million passengers. But they are bags that can go and have a second life and support the clients of the Denver Rescue Mission,” said Morrissey.

However, 2021 donations are still lower than at the start of the partnership, again with passenger numbers not quite at where they were pre-pandemic. But any donation can make a big difference in a person’s life.

“[It is] a need that we don’t often think of. We think of food, clothing, the essentials, but something to carry that in is critically important. So it is a need that is expressed often,” said Ludema.

And that need has grown even more in just the last year. The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative conducts a “Point in Time Count” to determine how many people are experiencing homelessness in the Denver area. This year’s count found the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first-time doubled from 2020 to 2021.

[Related:Study: First-time homelessness doubled in Denver area over the past year]

“I think anyone who has worked with the homeless community here in Denver has seen the need increase for more resources, for more items just overall,” explained Ludema. “It seems like we need to find a better way to help our homeless brothers and sisters in need.”

It seems now more than ever nonprofits like Denver Rescue Mission could use the help. Thankfully, Ludema says this luggage donation partnership is just one of many beneficial partnerships. Most major grocery store chains in Colorado donate leftover food, several food banks help out regularly, and different individuals or companies often come to Denver Rescue Mission with donations.

“There’s just probably hundreds of companies that may do drives every single year or twice a year, and may say, ‘Hey, we want to get our company together and collect coats, or we want to collect hygiene products, or what is it that you need us to collect?’” said Ludema, “I’m really blown away by people’s generosity to help.”

And that’s exactly how the relationship with DIA started. At first, it was donations of unused food from the airline flight kitchens as well as some food and beverage concessions. Then it grew into this new baggage partnership.

“You can have those conversations in real time to say, you know, ‘We have this product, is it something that can be beneficial to people?’ And they [Denver Rescue Mission] understand what those needs are,” said Morrissey. “It’s really important for us to find those opportunities to positively contribute to the community.”

“Just all across America in our world, there’s so many problems,” said Ludema. “And so to experience generosity firsthand, and to see people really are willing to give and help is certainly very encouraging.”