The women fighting hunger and homelessness in Jeffco

Pandemic causing demand for food and shelter to grow

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 11/17/20

COVID-19 and tough economic times continue to take their toll on people everywhere, but for the hungry, homeless, or those on the brink, they’ve made an already difficult situation even more …

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The women fighting hunger and homelessness in Jeffco

Pandemic causing demand for food and shelter to grow

Posted

COVID-19 and tough economic times continue to take their toll on people everywhere, but for the hungry, homeless, or those on the brink, they’ve made an already difficult situation even more challenging. That goes for those trying to help solve these problems as well. As need increases, services for the food insecure are starting to feel stretched. And as winter sets in, homelessness becomes more vexing for all concerned. Compounding and confounding the issues, many in Jeffco and across the metro area are finding themselves facing these difficulties for the first time.

Chelsey Baker-Hauck, Co-founder of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, said they’re not the chronic homeless you may be thinking of.

“They may not even consider themselves homeless,” she said. “Often when people experience homelessness, the first place they go is into their car if they have one.”

In her experience, many of the new homeless tend to be working, some have children or pets and their car is an invaluable asset that can make the difference between stabilizing their situation, or spiraling into longer-term homelessness. Her organization focuses on creating safe parking spaces for people living in their cars. Working in concert with community partners, the goal is not just to create a place for people to safely shelter in vehicles, but coming up with a whole ecosystem — sanitation, ways for people to shower, help with keeping vehicles registered and road-worthy, a formal intake process — to know who’s coming and going from the lots, plus a coordinated system to help individuals tap into housing navigation, food support, resources for healthcare, even assistance in finding or training for jobs.

“There’s a ton of need out there,” Baker-Hauck said. “Hundreds of people, on the conservative side, are living in their cars in the metro-area, and it could be as many as a thousand. We need a network of safe parking sites throughout every community in every county.”

Baker-Hauck said so far, there hasn’t been any push-back from the neighbors where the lots are located. In Jeffco, there’s one safe parking lot in Arvada and one planned for Golden. While she acknowledges the Safe Parking Initiative won’t stop or cure homelessness, Baker-Hauck thinks it’s a viable way to help people rebound into traditional housing.

Working to solve hunger and food insecurity in Jeffco is also a challenge. Several organizations continue to tackle it, but with growing demand, the obstacles to keeping people fed in a global pandemic are still daunting.

Nonprofits see a surge

Barbara Moore started Jeffco Eats in 2017 to make sure kids and their families wouldn’t go hungry. Jeffco Eats primarily works with Title 1 schools, Section 8 housing residents and select nonprofit organizations. They distribute food year-round.

Moore said need is surging.

“In March we were delivering to about 20 sites,” she said. “Now we’re up to 35. The amount of food we’re giving out since COVID-19 hit, has doubled, at least.” It’s a common refrain. Jane Barnes, Executive Director, Benefits in Action (BIA) echoed Moore’s take on expanding need.

“The numbers of folks requesting services are growing like crazy. The demand is outstripping all of our capabilities,” she said. “Food stocks are good through end of year, but who knows what will happen come January.”

BIA recently received a grant through the Jeffco Workforce Development Center, allowing them to hire ten delivery drivers to keep up with growing need.

In fact, the need is so great that Jeffco Eats has outgrown their space. Moore said they’re looking for a building large enough to accommodate all of the food they need to bring in. She said she’d

love to have more volunteers, but remains hopeful Jeffco’s hunger problem can be solved.

“With the cost to buy and rescue food — pantries with the right financial support could really move the needle to 100% in dealing with food needs people have,” she said. “It’s in reach if everybody would do their part.”

Thai Nguyen is doing a lot more than her part. Nguyen, founder of Kaizen Food Rescue, heads up the all volunteer organization that shared 2.6 million pounds of food across the metro area from March through Oct. 2020, a 2,000% increase over the same period of time in 2019, a staggering escalation of need.

Pre-Covid, Kaizen would operate a weekly pop-up, but quickly had to shift to curbside, no-contact distribution. Now, utilizing parking lots, often on church property, Kaizen sets up shop in different locations six days a week, serving up to 350 families each day. Partnering with Food Bank of the Rockies, Nguyen said she does her best to make sure the food boxes her organization gives out are filled with nutrient-dense choices with fresher ingredients and healthier options, rather than highly processed canned foods food banks sometimes provide.

Nguyen said Kaizen concentrates on serving what she calls Food Apartheid communities.

“They’re areas that don’t have grocery stores around them,” Nguyen said. “We don’t use the term Food Desert because deserts are naturally occurring, apartheid is more deliberate.”

In Jeffco, most of the families Kaizen serves are from the Latinx, East African and West African communities. It’s something Nguyen seems to connect with deeply, in part because her family came to this country as refugees from Vietnam when she was a young girl.

“I think it’s part of my healing process,” she said. “I’m paying it full-circle. It’s a privilege to be able to do that.”

According to Nguyen, many organizations like hers see a decrease in volunteers during the winter holidays, and extra help this time of year is always welcome.

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