From the T-intersection of 17th and Wynkoop streets, Greyden Charlesworth stops and surveys the scene before him.
He's not always sure who needs one of the care packages — socks, granola bars, toothpaste and other essentials — stuffed into his backpack. He's accidentally offered them to French tourists, and on this Wednesday morning, he'll try to hand one to two travelers sitting in the shade behind Denver's iconic Union Station.
But 23 years since he first walked into the St. Francis Center, a downtown homeless shelter, and asked if he could volunteer, Charlesworth has developed a sense. From the intersection ahead of Union Station, he swivels his view from right (a trio of black-clad security guards standing together) to left (the water fountains that shoot out of the ground in front of Union Station). He watches the security to see if they're responding to any particular person, and he checks the fountains to see if anybody's using them as a shower.
The security cluster isn't responding to anybody, at least outwardly, and the fountains splash water onto nothing but concrete. He hikes up his bag, which is so full it hangs open, and turns right, looping around the massive building and back toward the tracks and concourse.
He does this every Wednesday morning, approaching people — some strangers, some familiar — in and around Union Station to ask them if they need a little help. He acknowledges repeatedly that he's a bit socially awkward — his voice is a little shaky, and on this day it's particularly hoarse — but that helps, he says. No expectations, no glad-handing. Just, here's a baggie if you need it.
Before he'd been distracted by the security guards and splash fountains, he was talking about the complexity of homelessness, a problem with which Union Station has become bound. Police have made 1,100 arrests in the area this year alone, many for drug offenses, and the Regional Transportation District says it plans to make millions of dollars in changes to the place to limit access to only those who are actually traveling or visiting one of the businesses within.
City officials acknowledged last month that despite the extensive arrests and the focus Union Station has received this year, core problems — housing instability and substance use chief among them — remain largely unaddressed. Many of the people driven away from Union Station have simply moved elsewhere, officials said, including to the intersection of Colfax and Broadway, just down from the Capitol.
Before homelessness became a pattern at Union Station, Charlesworth says as he approaches the platforms behind the station, it was the pattern at Civic Center Park. He did outreach there, too, and was shocked by "the brutality of the human condition" on display.
"People are inhabiting spaces in a way that we've never experienced before," he says. "Why is that?
"If you're angry with people experiencing homelessness, you're not paying attention because this is not an issue that requires anger," he continues. "This is an issue that requires level-headedness to look at the bigger problem and to acknowledge that it's a complex problem with many layers, and we need to address those layers."
He stops walking for a moment. "Am I getting preachy?"
'Why use cheapest emotion'
A native of the city, Charlesworth grew up with teachers for parents — his mother was a feminist, with a lowercase F, and his father was a Republican, with a lowercase R, he says. He always felt he understood the human condition, and with his yellow laces tied tight, his backpack full of Ziplocks, and his floppy hat shading him from the sun, he ponders it.
"That's really important for me as a life philosophy: 'If I'm angry, why am I using the cheapest emotion? If I'm afraid, why am I using the cheapest emotion, and not investing in some of the more expensive but more useful emotions?'" he says. "Because that's where the problem solving is. Problem solving is a big deal for me. And so if I'm going to problem solve, I need to invest. I can't just be a sledgehammer and do demolition."
In the shade of the station's main building, he approaches a man eating breakfast and offers him a baggie. The man politely declines, and Charlesworth moves on, to a pair of men sitting just outside one of the entrances. The younger one explains to the older one, who's seeing-impaired, that Charlesworth is doing outreach and offering them a care package. They wave him on, too: The older man just got five new pairs of socks.
"Give it to somebody else who needs it," the younger one says.
There's reality to the narrative around Union Station having issues with crime, he says. But that moment — two men turning down essentials because they didn't need them right then — there's the humility and humanity that's missed, he says.
Up the way, by one of the platforms, he stops by a man who introduces himself warmly as Preacher Man. He smiles and takes three of Charlesworth's care packages to hand out. He says he's been "baby-sitting" Union Station for five years, looking out for other people who hang around. It's already 90 degrees, and he says pointedly that they need water.
He calls out to a group of passing RTD workers and asks for water. When they glance at him and keep moving, he sharpens his tone.
"Look at me like I'm talking French," he says. "I have no water. Do you have any?"
One of the men stops and says he only has his coffee cup. Preacher Man asks for a sip of that; he'd give the worker some of his water or coffee if he had any, he says. The man begs off and leaves.
City says situation improving
After some more pleasantries, Charlesworth walks away and shrugs, not tracking some of what the man had told him. He tries to take a "feathered out" approach with people: Soft, understanding, focused on how he can help and letting the rest pass by with a nod and attentive gaze.
As he nears the doors to the underground bus terminal, he suddenly realizes he doesn't have his phone and wonders if it was taken by one of the people he'd been talking to (it had fallen beneath the seat in a reporter's car). Charlesworth shrugs again — "an occupational hazard" — and offers a package to man in a military jacket. He thanks him for his service, asks him if he wants to talk. The man declines.
Charlesworth says COVID-19 found a society already cracking and whacked it with a hammer.
"People say, 'This is a drug problem, this is a homeless problem,'" he says from the top of the escalators. "I try to tell them, 'Yes, but it's also a societal problem,' which is really looking at it as a societal problem with these symptoms. Union Station, that's just one symptom of the problem. We have a societal problem. Drug addiction isn't anything new. The fact that it's on such a scale and so intense is new. But that's a symptom of a declining societal dynamic. So, we need to work."
The city spent much of this year working on Union Station. Officials last month heralded the results of a multi-agency approach to address both the criminal justice and public health issues there, and they said that the situation is improving, albeit with the arrival of other "hot spots" downtown.
Denver's Department of Housing Stability — HOST — has deployed outreach teams to Union Station for the first time; previously, they'd relied on contractors, like Charlesworth's St. Francis Center. HOST's early-intervention teams are here each Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to noon, said Lana Dalton, the city's director of homelessness response.
"Can we help you get reconnected, can we provide you transportation to this area, can we provide you shelter, can we do these different things in our realm to get individuals into permanent housing," Dalton said by phone last month. "That's really what we focused on as the early-intervention team."
During those three weekly hours, the department's early-intervention teams have contacted 146 people, enrolled 13 of them into services like Medicaid, referred a dozen to medical services, and provided harm-reduction and legal services. The teams have enrolled 18 people on housing waitlists, and she said the city's made strides in recent years to improve access to housing.
"But really it comes down to is, 'Do we have affordable housing for folks who are unsheltered?'" Dalton said. "That’s my arena. We really need to have enough affordable housing units for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. … Right now, it is difficult."
'These awkward moments'
Down in the bus terminal, Charlesworth walks past travelers and commuters waiting within. He passes a few men sleeping; they may benefit from a care package, but he doesn't want to interrupt their sleep.
Up in the sunshine again, by the back platforms, he hands out care packages to several people as an RTD officer directs them to leave. As they walk away, he grimaces.
"These awkward moments, sometimes I don't judge it," he says as a train rings its arrival and looks back at the officer. "I don't think I judged it really well there because I don't want the officer to think that I'm going to show that I'm a good guy, and (he's) the bad guy. I just felt like, 'I just want to go in and start.' I don't know, I made a mistake."
He's sensitive to his position here, to the inherent motive and beliefs an outreach worker seems to give off. He sympathizes with the business owners and the residents concerned about safety, about customer comfort, about crime. He's been yelled at, by passing motorists and by business owners, for handing out care packages here. He doesn't get angry, he says. He understands why they're upset just as he understands why it's important for him to hand out plastic baggies with socks and granola bars and toothpaste.
"I can tell you, as a 23-year veteran (of social outreach), there has been a decline, but in society," he says, "not with homelessness. Because yes, that's, that's been on the rise, but there's been a decline in society."
At the back of the station, beyond the platforms, the city's Wellness Winnie — so called because it's a retooled Winnebago — sits parked, the street closed off around it. Like HOST's early-intervention teams, the Winnie, run by the city's Department of Public Health and Environment, has been here every Wednesday morning from 9 to noon since April to do outreach.
The Winnie provides everything from substance-use support to vital records services for people who need identification to enroll in services. The team gives bus and taxi vouchers so people can get to resources elsewhere, helps them with case management, distributes Narcan kits to reverse opioid overdoses. In all, Winnie's team has made 726 contacts, some of which were repeat visitors, in its eight months of weekly visits to Union Station.
Shawna Darling, the Winnie's program administrator, said she thought the program's impact had been "huge." The Winnie has been a steady presence, offering services and building trust, she and others said.
But it's time at Union Station is over, at least for now. It's last day was Aug. 31. It will now spend its Wednesday mornings at the corner of Colfax and Broadway, where city officials say Union Station's "challenges" have now migrated.
Asked what had been solved at Union Station if the "challenges" have only moved, the health department's deputy executive director, Ann Cecchini-Williams, said the agency's intention wasn't to solve, not necessarily.
"I don't think we’ve solved anything," she said. "I don't think we’re there to solve. I think we’re there to assist and support."
A couple hours after he arrived, Charlesworth completes his lengthy loop of Union Station, his backpack much lighter. A man is washing his face in the splash fountain, and Charlesworth lets him be. As he walks down 17th Street, he repeats again that he has no politics.
"The way I come at it, it's very — I want to be part of the solution," he says. "I'm not gonna worry — yeah, I vote, I pay attention to that, but I'm involved, directly, as a person in my community.
"I can't make sense of the world otherwise."