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//Looking to get out of the house, Erechia Bailey brings her kids to Feed the Teens held outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Aurora, on July 25, 2020. Bailey said one of the women at the food bank she goes to told her about the event. Photos by Esteban Fernandez | sovereign73811b@gmail.com

Homelessness in the Denver metro area has become a prominent issue over the past few months, dominating much of the conversation revolving around the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials are scrambling to find safe alternatives to people camping in residential neighborhoods while experiencing homelessness. Renters are in limbo, facing eviction orders in the wake of losing their jobs. Teens have posted online about being kicked out of their homes for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The homeless rate out here has skyrocketed since COVID hit,” said Ah’Shaye Shaw, founder of the Denver-based organization Generation Drive-Thru. “And with all these protests, we noticed that a lot of teens were being kicked out of their homes in this area due to protesting.”

Ah’Shaye founded the group with the help of her mother, Shana Shaw, who runs the Aurora-based nonprofit Compound of Compassion, which is Generation Drive-Thru’s parent organization. The 19-year-old wanted to bridge the divide between young and old.

“It started off as a very small idea, basically just a way to bridge the generational gap between the youth and the elderly,” Ah’Shaye said. “It started as a mentorship program between the two, a way to just kind of get teens out of their homes and connected with the people in their community.”

Pre-pandemic, the teens provided services like teaching technological literacy and transportation services. Since the start of the COVID pandemic, the teenaged volunteers in Generation Drive-Thru have begun delivering premade meals and groceries to the elderly.

However, in recent weeks they’ve turned their attention toward their own generation.

Volunteers from Generation Drive-Thru and Compound of Compassion held a homeless outreach day at Martin Luther King Jr. Library on July 25. The event focused on helping youth experiencing homelessness, dubbed Feed the Teens. But Ah’Shaye said the resources were there for all people experiencing homelessness, regardless of age.

What started as a plan to deliver 100 sandwiches to the Denver Rescue Mission snowballed into a four-hour event taking over the library’s parking lot.

“[Generation Drive-Thru] wanted to take a hundred sandwiches down to the Denver Rescue Mission and feed other homeless teens like them,” Shana said. “That’s all this was supposed to be! This was only supposed to be a hundred sandwiches. And then Struggle of Love and the food bank [joined]. And then people said, ‘well, I can come and do voter registration, I can do medical screening.’ The community just pulled together to offer a day of love to a community of people who are forgotten about.”

The community rallied behind the organizers, with companies and other nonprofits donating goods and services. Those experiencing homelessness who showed up to the event had access to mental health support through the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Mental Health Center of Denver. Bayaud Enterprises supplied mobile laundry and shower trucks. Shoes, clothes, towels and backpacks full of necessities were available to anyone who stopped by.

Salud Family Health Center provided on-site medical care and testing through its mobile clinic. Maisha Fields, director of community at Salud, said they had already treated several people with urgent medical issues by midday. Fields said that they were present at the event because they’re an ingrained part of the community.

“I think when you’re a part of the community, people know to go to you for resources. We are committed to this work. I’ve been doing work with these people forever,” Fields said.

Food Bank of the Rockies was one of the largest contributors to the event. The nonprofit donated enough meals for 500 people to take away one fresh meal, four shelf-safe breakfasts and lunches each.

LaQuetta Walker, director of programs at Compound of Compassion, said that for the community to show up in the way it did to help the homeless community was astonishing.

“Certain things some of us take for granted,” Walker said. “I’ve been homeless three times in my life. I have a master’s of social work and over 20 years of experience as a social worker and never imagined that I would be in a situation like that. So for us to be able to give back to our community, because I am a part of this community, it just really means a lot.”

Volunteers stuff plastic bags full of food and other necessities at an event called Feed the Teens outside the Martin Luther King Library in Aurora on July 25, 2020.
Tanya, who did not give their last name, stood under the shade of a tree with bags of fruit cups and chip bags. They said the resources were really needed in this area, where many people sleep outside the front doors of the library. For Tanya, the compassion shown toward people experiencing homelessness was just as valuable as the resources available.

“It’s hard being homeless,” Tanya said. “It’s nice to see that people really do care about us, they see us. They’re not just driving past us like we’re nothing.”

Shana said the feeling of being seen is what the day was all about. During the pandemic, people who aren’t living on the streets are more concerned than normal with paying their own bills, feeding their own families, and staying above water mentally and financially. Yet, the community and volunteers still dedicated time and resources to those in less fortunate situations.

“That’s what this day is about, just showing love to every single body,” Shana said. “During this time right now, everybody is struggling and there are so many different uncertainties about what’s going to happen for tomorrow. But this demographic of people were struggling before the pandemic, so where does that leave them?”