Food is a basic human need—and so is shelter. In many urban areas, people in poverty are forced to choose: groceries or rent; nutritious meals or heat and electricity. For Emerson Fellows Ashley Burnside and Michelle Loo, who worked with Denver Urban Matters and 9to5 Colorado, fighting hunger in Denver takes the form of preventing evictions and building community power.
For the past five-and–a-half months, I have worked at Denver Urban Matters (DenUM) in Denver, Colorado through the Emerson National Hunger Fellowship. DenUM is a local basic human services provider that includes a food pantry, employment services, rental and utility assistance, ID and birth certificate vouchers, a legal and health clinic, and an Urban Education program. DenUM has always focused on implementing client engagement projects into their organization and policy advocacy within their practices. During my time working with them, I focused on implementing several client engagement projects with DenUM clients.
My first project was registering clients to vote before the November election. DenUM staff and volunteers also helped clients pledge to vote and gave them reminder calls about when, where, and how to vote leading up to Election Day. I created a resource guide that explained the proposals and amendments on the Colorado ballot in accessible language to help clients know what they would be voting for. During this project, I was reminded of how inaccessible our political system is to so many people because of how much background knowledge is needed to have even a basic understanding of our government and what an amendment or proposal does.
My other main project was leading meetings of the DenUM Community Leadership Team (DCLT). The DCLT is a group that provides 5-10 DenUM clients with the opportunity to develop their leadership skills and to discuss community issues that matter most to them. With the facilitation and assistance of DenUM staff, the participants then construct action plans to address those community issues. The DCLT provides DenUM clients with the opportunity to develop their leadership and advocacy skills, while also building a coalition between DenUM staff and clients. The clients I worked with were eager to learn about how to get involved in their local city councils and about homelessness and high transportation costs. I learned a great deal about group facilitation and various Denver community issues through leading the DCLT during my time at DenUM.
Many of the lessons I learned while at my field site were gained just from working day-to-day at the food pantry. I now better understand how TEFAP works, and the relationships that exist between food banks and food pantries. I learned that many food pantries require a proof of address from their clients to access food, and all of the conflicts that arise from this requirement. I recognized through hearing personal anecdotes from the clients just how small SNAP monthly payments can be, even when this is the only source of income the family is collecting. I learned which food items clients oftentimes get most excited about, about the controversy among food pantries regarding how much unhealthy food to offer, and about the challenges of getting fresh produce in the pantry during the winter months. I also now understand diaper sizes much more, since my office was where the infant items were stored!
I was able to do a lot of new things outside of work in Denver, too. I climbed my first mountain and explored so many incredible parks. I had never even really seen a mountain before going to Colorado! I tried green chile sauce for the first time and saw my first bison at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. I was reminded of how far behind some major U.S. cities are in providing reliable and affordable public transportation and learned more about homelessness and housing rights.
For the latter half of the fellowship, all fifteen Emerson Fellows will be in Washington D.C. for their policy placements. I will be working at RESULTS, an anti-hunger and anti-poverty organization. My project focus will be to help folks with the lived experience of poverty tell their stories and to reach out to target states to get more community advocates involved with the RESULTS REAL Change Fellowship. I will also be researching and creating resources on tax policies. While my project will continue to have a community focus, it will be on a federal scale. I will carry the knowledge I learned from DenUM with me. Through working at DenUM, I now better understand what hunger looks like interpersonally and locally.
I am now two weeks into my policy placement at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and I am feeling lucky to have built such a foundation of anti-poverty and housing work at 9to5 Colorado. I was placed at 9to5 Colorado, in Denver, for the first half of this fellowship. 9to5 is a national non-profit that organizes low-wage working women to fight for economic justice through advocacy and leadership development. They are most known for their work on labor issues, such as paid family leave, pregnancy discrimination in the work place, the wage gap, etc. They have been moving towards a more intersectional framework on women’s issues and therefore have begun work on Ban the Box, housing as a human right, and more!
I worked directly with the housing organizer at 9to5 Colorado and quickly learned the housing landscape in Denver. Like many other growing cities in the nation, low-income communities are being leveraged for development. There has been increasing development of the downtown areas and expansion of the public transit system in Denver – both of which have been displacing low-income communities and forcing many into homelessness. Following national trends, there is an increase in the number of renters but the vacancy rate in Denver is less than 1%, lower for affordable housing and higher in luxury apartments. Most of the community members we worked with at 9to5 Colorado no longer live in Denver because they have been displaced.
One of the worst ways people are getting displaced in Denver is by getting evicted. Colorado is the third most landlord friendly state, meaning housing policies favor landlords more than they protect renters. For example, rent control is unconstitutional in Colorado, application fees are unregulated, landlords do not need a good or just cause for eviction, there is no housing court system, legal aid is insufficient, and the list continues. At the end of any given week, approximately 130 families are evicted from their homes. Evictions are devastating – they stay on the record for up to seven years and make it even harder for families to find housing.
It is in this housing crisis that I was tasked to develop an eviction defense toolkit. The purpose of the toolkit is to support and mobilize those who are in immediate need for eviction defense. In putting together the toolkit, I kept asking myself, “how do I build power?” I learned that the fight for housing rights and social justice is much more sustainable and powerful if we not only connected the people most impacted with the immediate resources they need, but also mobilized them to take actions and help build a larger movement. The way that I have incorporated building power into my toolkit is by understanding the process in three steps, (1) engage and connect those most impacted with resources, (2) gear them with their rights and tools, (3) plug them in to the larger renters rights movement.
My toolkit begins with referrals to rental, utility, and food assistance, as well as information for free legal clinics through out the Denver Metro Area. This is a great way to engage people with our work because they are already looking for resources. The next part of the toolkit gears people with their rights and tools so that they can defend themselves against the landlord and in housing court to the best of their ability, especially since most cannot afford a lawyer. The last part of the toolkit includes information on the ways that individuals can continue fighting housing injustice, even after their eviction proceedings are over. This last part is really important for long -term change.
It was really exciting putting this eviction defense toolkit together. I connected with tenants, lawyers, judges, advocates, and organizers to try to collect all the helpful information that is in our community and consolidate it into a toolkit to redistribute the knowledge. It was a great way to begin building a mental map of the stakeholders in the housing justice movement and understand the demands that are being asked. My experience has already informed so much of the work I am doing at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. I will be working on housing rights from another angle this spring, which is through the framework that the right to housing for all is the solution to ending homelessness.