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Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

What It’s Like to Experience Homelessness During a Global Pandemic

Life, loss, fear, and hope in one Denver homeless encampment as the novel coronavirus upended services for some of the city's most vulnerable citizens.

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Amid a neighborhood with homes pushing $1 million, Alan Mayfield and Sam Mills sat on the grass in a Capitol Hill park figuring out where they might spend their next night. Earlier on that mid-May day, Denver police officers had cleared them from their latest resting spot, a nearby strip along 14th Avenue, outside Saint John’s Cathedral. Dozens of their acquaintances had been forced to take down their tents and pack their belongings, as well, though no one who looked official could give a good answer as to where they should go next. The city was in its first months of the coronavirus pandemic, a growing crisis for which there seemed to be no plan. “It’s like a ghost town,” Alan said to Sam, placing a partially smoked cigarette between his lips and leaning against his oversize black bag. “The whole world stopped.”

Alan Mayfield
Alan Mayfield sets up his tent in August. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

Alan was 42. He had dusty gray-brown hair, and the skin at the corners of his liquid blue eyes was creased. He wore a red sweatshirt that hid his soft, middle-aged belly. He hadn’t showered in 24 days.

At one point in his life, Alan had been a college student in North Carolina who dreamed of becoming “a happily gay Methodist minister.” He partied too hard in school, though, dropped out, bounced around a few jobs and a few cities, had his heart broken by a longtime partner, and became addicted to crystal meth. In this, his ninth year on Denver’s streets, he seemed both younger and older than his age. He had a graying beard that ran toward his neck, and his teeth were worn nubs. Still, he smiled often, and anyone who met Alan was immediately drawn to his friendly, outgoing personality.

He took a drag off the cigarette, pulled a sleeve of peanut butter crackers from his bag, and offered a few to Sam, whose knees were pressed to his chest. Sam was in his early twenties, addicted to heroin, and in the throes of withdrawal. His face was sweat-slickened; his cheeks were red. He waved a hand at Alan’s offer. “Nah, man,” Sam said. “Thanks.”

The two began hanging out this past fall, when Alan was living in an alley next to a dumpster in Capitol Hill. He offered to share the space for a while, no strings attached, if only because Sam looked lonely. They both got tents of their own, and the two developed a friendship. They eventually left the alley and moved outside the cathedral, living under a canopy of old shade trees. Now they were moving again.

“I can’t believe they kicked us off,” Alan said. “I barely had time to pack.”

“You’ve got this coronavirus shit, and they’re pushing us around?” Sam said. “That’s not right.”

“This is never gonna get back to normal,” Alan said. “I guess this is reality now.”

Sam looked over at his friend. He chuckled.

“I’m pretty in tune with reality,” Sam told Alan. “And reality sucks.”

The pair pitched their tents at the corner of 14th Avenue and Clarkson Street later that evening, outside the two-story brick building that houses Morey Middle School. Their new strip of grass was near a stoplight, across Clarkson from the cathedral. It was a strategic position that allowed the men—and dozens of others who also made the move—to stay close to familiar surroundings, including the few services that remained open during the early days of the pandemic. The space was far from perfect: Drivers revved their vehicles’ engines at the corner, and some purposefully laid on their horns late at night as they sped past the block.

Alan tried to remain hopeful. “There’s no reason to get down about this, because how could I get up?” he said as he charged a phone at an outlet outside St. John’s a couple of days later. Alan’s story of hardship and alienation was typical among those at the new camp. He’d come from Aurora, where he and some roommates lost their apartment in 2011. Before that, he’d lived in Thermopolis, Wyoming, where he worked as a gas station attendant; in southwest Florida, where he worked as an accounting clerk at a bank; and in Virginia and North Carolina, where he attended Catawba College for one semester, majoring in religion and philosophy.

He came out as gay to his parents when he was 18, and the announcement caused a rift between him and his family. After leaving Catawba, Alan moved to Florida, got a job, met a man, and fell in love. They were together for eight years before their breakup sent Alan into a tailspin. He started partying and shooting up methamphetamine. “It was a wonderful way to mask my feelings,” he said. “That’s how I got hooked.”

His mother was diagnosed with cancer a few years after Alan landed in Denver. Following her death, Alan’s father and brother said they no longer wanted to see him.

Among his friends at the encampment, Alan was considered to be a tech wizard. His talent had currency, and he fixed dozens of cellular phones each week. Alan was given a few dollars here and there, sometimes drugs or rubber tubing, which he bartered for other things like pants or the holiday lights he rigged to work off a battery pack in his tent. Someone recently gave him an Xbox. For the most part, no one messed with Alan. He did his work, he paid his debts, he was an obliging and conscientious neighbor. “I have to remind myself that something good is coming,” he said, tapping on an outdated Samsung cell phone someone had given him that morning. “I can feel it.”

He’d entered a housing lottery a few months earlier with St. Francis Center, hoping to get an apartment of his own in Capitol Hill. But by March, COVID-19 had begun to spread throughout the United States, and Alan never heard back from St. Francis. When it came to the nearly 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in Denver, the focus had shifted to the virus and away from everything else.

As fears over COVID-19 grew this past spring, shelters and other social services temporarily closed, slashed staff, and otherwise cut back. During the pandemic’s first weeks in Denver, the city partnered with Catholic Charities of Denver and the Denver Rescue Mission to create two mega shelters—one for men, at the National Western Complex, and one for women, at the Denver Coliseum—where nearly 1,000 temporary residents could get a socially distanced cot, hot meals, and showers and have their clothes cleaned regularly. Mayor Michael Hancock touted the city’s goal to “relieve some of the pressure” on the city’s shelters, but the effect was negligible. Many of the new beds simply offset the loss of beds elsewhere in the city, at places like the Mission and the Salvation Army’s popular Crossroads Shelter, where hundreds of men once lined up each night. “People want to pat themselves on the back and say what a great job everyone is doing, but nothing is really being done,” said Terese Howard, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud, an advocacy group that has been critical of the city’s response to the pandemic. “We’ve got COVID, we’ve got a continuing health and housing crisis beyond the virus. What’s getting better?”

Denver secured hundreds of hotel rooms for those who were awaiting coronavirus test results, who might be more susceptible to the virus, or who were recovering from the illness. The city’s actions seemed at best disingenuous to those who were living on the street, especially as Denver continued sweeping encampments throughout the spring and summer, against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations during the pandemic. City officials eliminated the camp outside St. John’s, and more camps were swept in Five Points, along Broadway, and in other parts of the city. Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) executive director Bob McDonald defended DDPHE’s encampment removals across the city; he explained that Denver experienced shigellosis, trench fever, and hepatitis A outbreaks among unhoused populations around the Mile High City. The situations at these camps were “significant,” he said, and created a “public health and environmental health risk that would be irresponsible not to address. We’ve got human waste, biohazards, trash. Adults and kids were going to have to pass through that. My experience is that generally, the longer you leave [an encampment unchecked], the more it goes downhill.”

“When I came back to my tent, it was gone,” said a 27-year-old woman named Kay, who often visited Alan and Sam at their new site and had also been removed from another encampment in the city. “Everything in my life was inside there.” Congregation points were cut off. The bathrooms in Union Station’s Grand Hall were closed. The nonprofit Network Coffee House was forced to restrict indoor service because of social-distancing requirements. Thrift stores locked their doors. Churches stopped allowing people inside. Food pantries temporarily shuttered. The central branch of the Denver Public Library closed, and thousands of residents experiencing homelessness were suddenly cut off from decent toilets, a safe place to escape from the cold or heat, and internet access, which they used to communicate with their families.

“Instead of helping us, it’s like they’re trying to kill us off,” Sam said. Each day on the street was stressful and uncertain. Now there was also confusion. “People already saw us as walking disease machines, and now we’re going around like we’re lost,” Sam continued. “What are they going to think of us now?”

Homeless belongings
A sweep left one man with receipts for his belongings. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

As the pandemic dragged from spring into summer, the sidewalks and grass around Morey became cluttered with various items: yoga mats. Bicycle frames. Blue plastic tarps. Camping tents. Pop-up tents over camping tents. Bookcases. Shopping carts. Cardboard boxes. Couches.

Several times a day, every day, someone would walk past Alan’s and Sam’s tents to say hello, to ask Alan about his progress with a phone, to ask the whereabouts of others in the camp, or to bum a cigarette. Most all of them, Alan thought, had at least some form of mental illness, drug addiction, or both. A majority of the residents around Morey were men, but there were several women in the group as well. There was Kay, who hung with her boyfriend, a tall, gaunt man nicknamed Junkie. There was Gypsy, who carried a beat-up guitar across the back of her flowing red dress. She preferred folks around the block to most everybody she’d come across in Denver, if only because she thought she could trust some of them. “He knows me. I know him,” she said and pointed at Sam, who was in his tent. “There’s a mutual respect. I mean, as a woman, I know he’s not going to get up one night and rape me.”

Aside from basic safety, the camp’s residents had many pressing issues. The story of COVID-19 was everywhere—on news reports they picked up on their cracked phone screens and inside the building where they gathered to get clean hypodermic needles and refreshments. Governor Jared Polis was asking hotel owners to consider making more rooms available. By late May, there were 5,706 reported COVID-19 cases in Denver alone. The beds at the National Western Complex and the Denver Coliseum were near capacity some nights.

Yet, as work was underway to attempt to fix the big problem, lots of little problems were piling up for those around Morey. Clean water and sanitation were spotty. (The closest portable toilet was nearly three blocks away; portable plastic washing stations the city and homeless outreach groups provided also required a walk.) Publicly accessible power to charge phones was scarce. Getting an identification card for basic government resources felt impossible.

Many of those without housing distrusted anyone or anything that appeared official. Ensuring the safety of thousands of people, some of whom were insistent they didn’t need it, was a Sisyphean task, and city representatives and nonprofit workers seemed overwhelmed. On top of that there was the fact that even if Colorado could flatten the curve of infections in the state, COVID-19 would not be going away anytime soon. “There’s this never-ending list that’s only getting bigger and scarier the longer this pandemic goes on,” said Lisa Raville, the executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center in Capitol Hill, which serves around a hundred unhoused people each day. “Everything’s fucked right now.”

One day in late May, Alan sat in a circle with a few friends, discussing the virus. No one was concerned about the pandemic. “It’s all bullshit,” a man with stained jeans and a T-shirt said.

“When you’ve been through the shit we’ve been through…” said a man nicknamed Phelixxx. The men around him nodded.

“It’s like we’ve got these super-charged immune systems,” Alan said. “Think about it. We’re outside all day, every day—sun, rain, snow. If that didn’t kill us, right?”

This was the general consensus around the Morey camp. While the city and service providers talked about COVID-19 like a scourge within the homeless community, the people without anywhere to stay were significantly less concerned. By early summer, no one at the Morey encampment knew anyone who’d become sick. (Extensive testing on the block in July by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment indicated five people were sick with the coronavirus. By early September, 602 unhoused people in the city had tested positive for COVID-19.) Before moving to Morey, Alan had gone to the National Western Complex for five days, he told his friends, but the location was too far from the services he was dependent upon, and he didn’t know any of his neighbors. “Everyone was packed in there, that roof over your head,” he said. He waved a hand in the air. “And now here I am, in the fresh air. Doesn’t that seem like a better place to be?”

Rumors were rampant, and theories about the virus passed from tent to tent, eventually becoming disjointed gospel. The virus was fake—one story went—and was being used as a reason to clear those experiencing homelessness from major cities. The virus was real—another went—and was developed for biowarfare but had turned on its government creators. Everyone became a medical expert: Smoking methamphetamine fortified lungs and prevented coronavirus. Masks hindered air circulation and might lead to hyperventilation or overheating. “Something’s definitely not right,” the man with the stained jeans told the group. He said he thought the virus was real but that Denver’s response was “going to be used against people like us, to say we’re a threat.” He paused. “Just watch,” he said. “This is how they make us go away.”

Of those who called the Morey block home, only Sam seemed to take COVID-19 seriously. In the pandemic’s first months, he was consumed with the idea that he might get sick. “I’m scared,” he admitted. “We all should be.” Every cough or ache or slight fever sent him into a quiet panic. He cleaned his hands whenever he could. He’d been given a small bottle of hand sanitizer and applied it liberally, slathering his palms and rubbing it around each digit. His hands began to feel like sandpaper.

Sam’s body was constantly rebelling. He’d been low on resources to buy or barter for heroin, which he needed to function. Many of those within the camp had gotten $1,200 federal stimulus checks by early summer, and the money was often spent on drugs. Sam tried to get his check but discovered his father was claiming him as a dependent even though the two hadn’t spoken in a year. “That greedy asshole,” Sam complained one day, long after everyone else’s money was spent. His friends seemed indifferent.

The aches and fevers from withdrawal imitated the coronavirus symptoms Sam had heard about. As summer wore on, he often sat in his darkened tent, sweating away the hours, oblivious to the world outside. His days became a chemical tightrope that threatened to snap beneath him.

Sam’s father lived about 10 miles away, but Sam didn’t think he would help. He’d had little stability in his early life—he told his neighbors his mother died when he was four. He spent 13 years in foster care, started using heroin as a teenager, graduated high school, and eventually wound up here, perspiring in his tent.

Running into Alan the previous fall provided a modicum of stability to his life, the rare person he could actually trust. Now even Alan seemed to be giving up on him. “I worry, but there’s only so much you can do,” Alan said. As Sam suffered through withdrawal, obsessed about how his father’s selfishness had screwed him out of a government check, and worried about the pandemic, his friendship with Alan was the last thing on his mind.

By June, the Morey Middle School encampment had grown exponentially larger. More than 50 tents occupied three sides of the school’s property. A superstructure of tarps, scraps of cardboard, and stained linens rose along Clarkson Street and behind the school, on 13th Avenue.

Many of the new residents were refugees from earlier encampment sweeps, or they wanted to escape the nightly battles outside the Capitol during the Black Lives Matter protests. The population explosion around the school had already gotten the attention of neighbors in the townhomes and apartments nearby. They complained to police and to city leaders that the area around the school was no longer safe. There were fights on the sidewalks. Open-air drug dealing and using became common. Housed neighbors said they’d been accosted and threatened for simply walking past the school. “This isn’t a tenable situation for anyone,” Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds said after one of his many visits to the encampment this summer. “But it’s also not an issue that can be fixed overnight.”

Pepper Sprayed Man
Officers pepper-sprayed a man recording a police sweep. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

With its decision to move those experiencing homelessness from camp to camp during the pandemic and its inability to control the booming population outside Morey, the city had unintentionally created a crisis in Capitol Hill. The camp’s original residents sensed the shift around the block as more people arrived. The newcomers at Morey appeared harder, more violent, and unafraid of confrontation. People like Alan and Sam felt themselves getting squeezed out by “aggros,” the name given to the more aggressive people experiencing homelessness who’d been pushed to Morey. “This place is fucking scary,” one of Alan’s neighbors said one night, after a scuffle over an unpaid debt spilled into the street.

Alan was sure he heard gunshots some nights. Music blared from tents and kept him awake. Car horns honked. Some of Alan’s neighbors stopped walking the three blocks to the portable toilet in the parking lot off 14th Avenue. They defecated in bushes in front of the school. They urinated on brick walls. Drug abuse was always part of the camp, but the original residents were generally mindful to keep their business inside the tents. As the camp grew, the facade of discretion crumbled.

By mid-June, Alan finally had enough. He ceded his piece of grass near the stoplight. He packed his belongings and rolled up his tent. He walked up 14th Avenue, then made a right on Emerson Street, where the sidewalk was mostly empty. To the west, a tall chain-link fence separated the campers from the school’s outdoor basketball court. To the east was a cluster of modern-looking townhomes—all right angles and massive windows—some of which had sold for $750,000 over the past year.

Alan unpacked his belongings. He unrolled his tent. Soon, Sam did the same, moving off the grass along 14th Avenue and setting up his tent to the right of Alan’s. Eventually, Sam added a pop-up and pulled it low toward the ground, so that it resembled a covered front patio. Soon, a grocery cart was placed between them. Another tent moved in next to Sam, and then another, and another. A couple set up their small tent, put a pop-up over the sidewalk, and tied their dog to the fence. One morning, Alan unzipped his tent and found a futon sitting on the sidewalk in front of him. A swiveling office chair was added sometime later. Shredded cardboard piled up in the grocery cart. Empty food containers and torn clothing suddenly appeared.

Neighbors complained. By mid-summer, police had been called 252 times. Those calls resulted in 140 Denver Police Department responses on everything from assault to drug dealing to theft to arson. A Zoom meeting about the encampment hosted by Hinds drew more than 400 participants. A change.org petition asked the city to clear the encampment, and nearly 2,500 people signed. Morey’s principal asked the city whether she’d be able to open her school’s doors. No one had an answer. “The city has completely failed us,” said one townhome resident, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution from his homeless neighbors, some of whom he’d filmed defecating in front of his garage. “This is dangerous and wrong. I look out my window, and I see someone shooting up or buying drugs. I hear the screams at night. How much longer is the city going to allow this?”

Emerson Street filled quickly. The new residents began to take note of their neighbors in the townhomes, who pulled into garages in their luxury automobiles and spent afternoons stuck at home. Alan could see them staring out their windows at his tent below.

The block was certain to get cleared. Everyone knew it. No one could figure out the day or the time, but it was a constant source of speculation. No way they let us stay.

Police Sweep
Denver Police overseeing a sweep. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

Alan preferred not to listen to the chatter. “I’ll move when I have to, and I’m not going to consume myself with what-ifs,” he’d told his neighbors. He had other things to concern himself with. He’d been dealing with a series of splotchy marks on his shins, which he scratched incessantly. The splotches eventually became bloody and then scabbed. Alan was given ointment by a volunteer at the Network Coffee House, and he wrapped his wounds with bandages.

When the scabs on his legs finally began to heal, he got a text from his father informing him that Alan’s 37-year-old brother in Virginia had recently been diagnosed with kidney cancer. Alan worked on his phones, pretending the news didn’t matter, although it clearly did. He smoked cigarettes more frequently than before. He scored and used drugs. He injected other people. Others injected him. He and Sam talked with their friends: KC, Phelixxx, Doc, Junkie, Kay.

At night, as his neighbors talked outside and Sam watched pirated movies on a beat-up phone, Alan would slip away. “I wish I could go somewhere and just rest,” he said from the shadows of his tent. “But where?”

A few nights later, one of the townhome residents captured a shooting along Emerson, near Alan and Sam, on video. No one was hurt, and no one was talking. The residents of the encampment suddenly felt fear that hadn’t existed before.

One day in early July, Alan was walking with Phelixxx to the food pantry that had recently reopened at the Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies, four blocks from the encampment. It was a rare moment of hopefulness—a sign, Alan thought, that the rest of the city would be reopening soon. Maybe his housing application would get another look.

Alan and his friends subsisted mostly on handouts, which had become scarce in the era of COVID-19. After shooting up most mornings, Alan would light a cigarette, work on some phones, and figure out where his next meal might come from. There were the breakfast burritos at the Harm Reduction Action Center, where Alan disposed of used needles, and he enjoyed his coffee with cream and sugar at the Network Coffee House. But that was it. Sometimes a do-gooder would pull up on Emerson with a truck bed or car trunk filled with a mishmash of foodstuffs: a chocolate birthday cake, frozen chicken nuggets, crackers, whole red onions, apples, uncooked cheesy bread. The sweets generally went first. The uncooked food was left behind to rot in cardboard boxes.

A few blocks from the church, Phelixxx spotted a blue tarp ruffling in the breeze. It was attached to some metal poles in the place where cars would usually park on the street. A brunette woman wearing a white T-shirt and shorts was on her back, eyes closed, motionless. Phelixxx took a few steps past the woman, then stopped. He called over his shoulder at Alan. “Please check to see if she’s breathing.”

Alan stopped, bent at the waist so he could get a better look at the woman’s body. He studied her for a moment, saw her chest slowly rise and fall. “We’re good,” Alan said.

Alan and Phelixxx were handed tags with numbers on them. Alan’s friend, a tattooed man named Jason, showed up a few minutes later and got in line behind them. Jason’s dog, a mixed breed named Muttley, sat obediently under a shade tree. Alan playfully squeezed the dog’s face between his hands.

“Muttley buttley!” Alan laughed. “Who’s the best doggie? You? I know it’s you.”

The food pantry was in the parking lot out back. Worn laminate tables were filled with cans of Supreme brand brown rice, split peas, dried fruit, nuts, cans of cream of mushroom soup, sliced peaches, and tomato sauce. A volunteer in a black face mask handed Alan a cardboard box. Another volunteer held up a small bag of pretzels. “No, but thanks,” Alan said. “No teeth.”

Alan moved in a half-circle, from right to left, picking up a loaf of bread, a half-gallon of chocolate milk, frozen pears, and small bags of Cheetos. A volunteer dumped some oranges and bananas into the box. “You need anything else?” the volunteer asked. “Peanut butter?”

“No, I’m good,” Alan said.

“I’ve got pop-top lids of soup,” the man told Alan. “I’ve got a six-pack of crackers.”

“Yes!” Alan said. “I love crackers.”

Alan stopped at the last table and grabbed three plastic bottles of Pepsi Zero Sugar Wild Cherry and two cans of Dr. Dynamite Soda. “Well,” Alan said as the volunteer at that table handed over the cans, “I guess this is one of the good days.”

Alan Mayfield
After learning of his brother’s cancer diagnosis, Alan started smoking more. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen.

On the way back to Morey, Alan was sweating through his short-sleeve shirt. He stopped several times to adjust his box of food, which he’d set on his shoulder. He’d been thinking a lot lately about his time in Denver and his relationships with the men and women surrounding Morey. Over the months, he’d become increasingly disillusioned. Sam was becoming more hopeless, Alan thought. He didn’t know if he could trust his other neighbors. He’d gotten high a few nights ago with a guy who’d punched him across the side of his head. Sam got hit with a baseball bat. A man accused Alan of taking a phone that wasn’t his, then came back later to beg for drugs.

As the summer wore on, Alan understood that some people hung out with him simply because he was useful. He had a big tent and allowed pretty much anyone inside. He fixed phones. He was a good listener. “I feel empty,” he said. “I’m being used. I know it. In some ways, I guess everyone out here is using someone for something.”

He paused for a moment. He was abusing the drugs to numb himself, he admitted, to mask the emotional pain he was feeling. His brother was sick. His shins were scabbed. There was blood on the hem of his shirt. He’d probably eat crackers for dinner and then nod off in his tent. “I don’t want to be alone,” he continued. “I want to feel like I’m helping, or that maybe I can make someone’s day a little better. I have to get to the next day. Maybe then everything will be different.”

Alan’s brother died two weeks later, early on the morning of July 31. Alan got a text from his father that night. He stared blankly at the phone’s screen.

A light rain fell, the drops plinking against the outside of his tent, which Alan had left unzipped. Someone passed by and tossed a cell phone inside. Can you fix it tonight?

“The phone needs a charge,” Alan said.
Sam heard about Alan’s brother. He called from his tent, but Alan didn’t answer. Sam finally pulled his tent screen open, stepped into the night, and saw Alan, cross-legged and silent. Sam climbed inside the tent and sat down. He patted Alan on the shoulder.

“He was so young,” Alan whispered.

“I know, man,” Sam said. He pulled a broken cigarette from his pocket and handed it to his friend.

“You’ll get through this,” Sam said.

“Thanks,” Alan said. One of their friends, a young man named KC, came over.

“Got room in there for me?” he asked.

“If you want,” Alan said.

KC sat down and studied Alan for a moment. “It’s OK to cry,” he said.

“I know.”

“I’m going to give you a hug now,” KC said. “But no funny business, OK?”

Alan laughed. KC wrapped Alan in his arms, and Alan began to sob.

“I know, man,” KC whispered to his friend. “I know.”

Alan woke up on his back a few days later to the sound of garbage trucks driving past his tent. It was Monday. Time to go.

Sometime during that week, the city planned to clear the Morey block, forcibly removing yet another homeless encampment during the pandemic. The mayor and the City Council had openly discussed finding property for temporary encampments, but a decision on that seemed months away. Morey’s soon-to-be-former residents would be made to find another neighborhood, and the daily challenges and battles would begin anew.

Denver Homeless Out Loud helped coordinate an early dispersal of the Morey camp after realizing it was going to be cleared. The city and the police had clashed with homeless advocates at multiple sweeps during the summer, including ones in Five Points and near the Capitol. In Morey’s case, advocates wanted the message to be unequivocal: The people living along the sidewalks were peaceful, decent human beings who simply needed a safe place to stay. They didn’t want trouble.

Sam was hobbling along the sidewalk, an abscess on his hip feeling like it might burst. His tent was down, and his blankets were piled on the ground in front of him. “I can barely move,” Sam complained. KC helped load the blankets into a plastic storage bin. A few neighbors from the townhomes across the street stood outside and watched. A television news camera showed up, then another. A reporter stepped over Alan’s trash.

Some volunteers came by with bags. Alan was on the futon outside his tent assuring everyone he could be cleared out in 30 minutes. The volunteers asked Sam if anything was available to be thrown out. He pointed to a spot near the shopping cart.

“You gonna have everyone do your work?” one of the neighbors called to Sam. Alan laughed.

“Fucking funny,” Sam said. “When’s the last time you cleaned up anything?”

“Over the weekend,” Alan shot back. “In my tent.”

“Yeah,” Sam yelled. “In your tent. That’s all you fucking did. It’s all about you.”

“Shut up, Sam,” Alan said. “Look, this isn’t fun for any of us.”

The volunteers tried not to make eye contact. Sam looked up at them. “I apologize, ladies,” he said.

Alan folded his blankets and piled a couple of pillows onto the futon. He pulled out a broken dresser someone had brought him a few weeks earlier. He took down his tent and shook the contents onto the sidewalk. One of the volunteers swept up the pile. “Told you I could pack fast,” he said.

A van pulled up after 3 p.m. Denver Homeless Out Loud organized the pickup; the driver would take the men wherever they needed to go, provided they knew where they were going. They settled on a site off Marion Street, across East Colfax Avenue, a triangle of grass next to a fire station.

A new friend, a 38-year-old man named Joe, joined Alan, Sam, and KC on the sidewalk. They watched the van’s driver silently load their belongings into the back: worn bags, Sam’s plastic container. The four piled into the van. A television cameraman pointed his camera at the group as they sat. A few moments later, the van pulled away from the corner. No one looked back.

When they arrived at the destination, they found it was wrapped in orange plastic fencing. The city had cleared the area earlier. There was a brief argument among the men. KC wanted to go to the South Platte River. Sam wanted anywhere but here. Joe was indifferent. Alan said there was another grassy triangle on the other side of the fire station. No one could make up their minds. Alan’s plan won.

The van’s driver dropped the men’s belongings on Lafayette Street, then jumped into the vehicle and hustled away without saying a word. Sam and KC put their stuff near a fence that separated the park from a three-story brick building. Another man experiencing homelessness was across the park, headphones on, dancing. A woman in yoga pants stared as she walked a dog along Lafayette. A man and a woman exited their home across the street and stood on their patio. “Don’t tell me they’re coming from Morey,” the man said.

Strips of cardboard were scattered along a nearby fence, a telltale sign of a recently cleared campsite. “Damn it,” KC said, loud enough for Alan to hear. “We needed to go to the river.”

Alan ignored him. Joe looked for a place to pitch the tents. Sam stood over his container.

“That’s trash,” the man with the headphones called to Sam.

“What did you say?” Sam asked.

“I said, ‘You need to move your trash.’ That shit’s trash.”

“Hey,” Alan called out to the man. “That stuff is his. It’s not trash. You need to learn some manners.”

“You want me to fuck you up?” the man yelled at Alan. He took off his headphones and walked toward the men. He started swinging his arms. Neighbors across the street stared.

“This is not the kind of attention we need,” KC said.

The man pointed. “I’ll beat all you motherfuckers!” he yelled. “I’ll take all of you motherfuckers down. You heard me, motherfucker! I’ll fight all of you!”

Just as quickly as he began, the man turned away. He slipped his headphones over his ears and began dancing again. Joe went to the 7-Eleven to grab some sodas. Sam and KC disappeared.

Alan sat on the grass, alone under a cluster of maple trees, and lit a cigarette. He was hunched forward, tired. He had desperately wanted peace this past month, but now it felt too quiet. He felt vulnerable and sad and frustrated. His mind wandered.

He worried about this new campsite—police would be coming any time to move them. He wondered whether this group would continue to stick together, if he and Sam would be able to stand by each other for much longer. Without Sam and a regular place to sleep, the little stability Alan enjoyed would evaporate. Alan thought of his brother. He sighed.

Alan put out his cigarette in the dirt and looked at the sky. He had to set up his tent. The overhead clouds were turning gray. He stood up. Alan needed to work fast. The rain would be coming soon.

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