Last Thanksgiving, Tony Jones scrounged together more than $100 in food stamps to buy three turkeys, mounds of mashed potatoes and gravy, and macaroni and cheese from King Soopers.
It was a fitting, and a bit lavish, meal for a man who lives on the streets of downtown Denver — one he shared with about 80 other homeless residents.
“And they ate all the food, thank God,” Jones, 63, said. “All they left me with was the carcass. I didn’t even get my turkey leg.”
A year later, Jones still doesn’t have much. He often sleeps in his car, a brown Subaru with a starter that won’t turn over and tape over the driver’s side window because someone smashed it with a rock.
And he’s dying. He’s supposed to be dead already.
Yet, despite his battle with cancer, multiple heart attacks and the little he owns, Jones is once again planning a Thanksgiving spread for the homeless population in his stretch of town. There won’t be turkey this year or any of the traditional side dishes, but there will be chili — at least six pots of it — to feed dozens of his neighbors who are also scraping by on the streets.
Collaborating with local businesses whose workers have become closer to him than many of his own family members, Jones will hold the Thanksgiving gathering-turned-chili-cookoff Friday in the parking lot of a string of stores and restaurants that hug the corner of East Colfax Avenue and Josephine Street. And he is calling on the community to donate warm clothes, blankets and money so he can purchase long underwear and thick socks and hand out some extra dollars to help them survive the biting winter months ahead.
It’s a gesture of both thanks and giving from a man who has leaned on the same businesses where he used to panhandle. In return for their generosity, he has pitched in to help them behind the scenes, trying to keep the surrounding neighborhood safe and simply offering an ear to listen.
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Jones, who has been homeless for four years, sat on that street corner for a year and a half, holding a sign that read: “Homeless and hungry. Anything helps. Lost everything because of my cancer.”
At the time, he was sleeping in Cheesman Park in a spot beneath a canopy of trees right next to an alleyway, where he would throw down a layer of cardboard and a blanket or sheet and try to nod off in the cold. He’s chased sleep at all kinds of places throughout Denver that he can easily rattle off, including at a vacant house on Colfax Avenue and Race Street and in a dirt field along Akron and 14th streets.
“It’s hard,” said Jones, who estimates he has shed 70 pounds from his illness and lost most of his teeth. “It’s rough. And I’ve learned a lot. It’s not easy.”
But Jones hasn’t always teetered on the edge of stability. He moved to Denver in 1980 and, the next year, opened a janitorial business that he ran for nine years, followed by a tow truck business that he operated for five years. He later started two restaurants: One was Rockin’ Roosters Wings with an Attitude on the border of Denver and Aurora, and then Wolf’s, which he launched with a business partner in Aurora. He closed both of those restaurants.
“And then everything went downhill from there,” Jones said.
He said he was first diagnosed with lung cancer four or five years ago. It has now spread throughout his whole body — “from the tip of my toes to the top of my head.” Doctors told him three different times he was supposed to be dead already. He’s since stopped listening to them, tired of the depression that follows their prognosis.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” Jones said.
But he can feel himself growing weaker, with trouble maintaining his balance while walking; tingling throughout his legs, arms and hands; and pain that leaves him exhausted and unable to move. Sometimes, his urine turns red with blood.
Cancer has also robbed him of the ability to work steadily. While seeking treatment, Jones often couldn’t make it into work and was laid off from a job setting up for events. Other employers would turn him away because they needed someone they could count on full time.
Eventually, he made a cardboard sign.
“That’s the only thing I could figure out to do, is hold a sign,” Jones said.
“Homeless people deserve love, too”
Traffic and passersby weren’t the only ones catching sight of him.
Jojo Martinez, owner and operator of Phone Repair and More Denver on East Colfax Avenue, was preparing his business to open about three years ago when Jones approached him about taking on odd jobs while hanging out on the corner trying to collect spare change.
Martinez was apprehensive at first, but not for long, as Jones remained persistent and showed the business owner how reliable he was.
“He’s hard not to like right away,” Martinez said, adding, “little by little, we started trusting him more and more.”
He shoveled snow and took care of the parking lot, trying to make the area safer by urging people openly doing drugs to leave, a challenge in a neighborhood where substance abuse, gunshots and stabbings pose dangers to businesses and a nearby high school. The job has come with a heavy price: Jones’ own wellbeing. Two-and-a-half months ago, someone robbed him, stabbed him twice in the head, sliced him underneath his nose and broke his nose two blocks from the phone repair store, sending him to the hospital for stitches.
Still, Jones remains the keeper of East Colfax Avenue, watching over storefronts and checking in with business owners like Bex Schimoler, gallery and event manager of oddities shop The Learned Lemur, to see if they need a hand with anything. He helped Schimoler build a dressing room for a monthly sideshow hosted at her store. And any assistance he gives often comes with a smile and a joke.
“He’s just great to have around,” she said, “and he’s one of the faces of Colfax that we love to see.”
Jones has also become righthand security for Regina Gayton, a manager at a Subway on East Colfax Avenue who met Jones about two years ago.
Whenever someone in the restaurant becomes agitated and won’t leave, she turns to Jones to intervene, banging on the wall the venue shares with the phone repair store next door where he spends most of his days.
He also swoops in when she needs a bug squashed, when she needs food — he’ll bring her Red Bull and gummies from a convenience store down the way or cook her burritos — and when her truck breaks down. Or when she breaks down in tears in her truck and needs someone to pull her through a bad day.
“He cares for everybody,” Gayton said. “Don’t get me wrong, he’ll check somebody if you need him to, but he’s always there for you.”
She calls him the brother she’s never had.
To Martinez, Jones is more like an uncle — someone who is constantly there lending support, someone who pushes him to do better and someone he includes in family holiday gatherings. The two consider one another family, and Jones is someone Martinez depends on to help his store weather challenges day by day. He handles maintenance jobs and looks after Martinez’s dogs, Kratos and Dracula, as well as sells devices, checks in customers and is starting to learn how to repair phones.
“Everybody deserves a chance,” Martinez said. “This is a very rough street, and when you see somebody going out of their way to help others, they definitely deserve another chance.”
He stands out from many of the other regulars who plant themselves along East Colfax Avenue, some of whom instigate fights and others struggling with addiction, said Matt Kinslow, owner and director of operations at the phone repair store.
“You can tell he’s trying,” Kinslow said.
In return for Jones’ hours on the clock, Martinez and Kinslow pay him commission for the devices he sells. They also open up a back room in the store for Jones to sleep and hope to employ him full time to help with marketing so he can one day afford his own place.
“He does not ask for much, but I want to see him do better,” Martinez said.
Jones knows the streets and how to talk to the people on them — whether he’s trying to spread the word about Martinez’s phone repair store or nudging drug users away from the block.
“I think because he’s been in their shoes, they respect him a lot more,” Martinez said.
Jones wishes more people would try to live outside and understand the relentless hurdles that come with life on the streets. Many people assume that homeless residents are dirty. Some people, he said, even spit on them.
“Homeless people deserve love, too,” he said. “They deserve someone to care for them. A lot of them out here don’t have families. They’ve got nowhere to go. I figure, let Tony be the family.”
The chili cook-off will be held Friday at noon in front of Phone Repair and More Denver, at 2344 E. Colfax Ave. To donate clothes, blankets or money, call the store at 720-809-9999.