Fighting the good fight on Jeffco’s Mean Streets

A nonprofit struggles to help the homeless, but the issues are stacking up

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 12/28/20

He used to be a cowboy. In a different life. In a much different place. Cowboying is good work for someone who’s not a people person, he said, for the kind of person who prefers the company of …

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Fighting the good fight on Jeffco’s Mean Streets

A nonprofit struggles to help the homeless, but the issues are stacking up

Posted

He used to be a cowboy.

In a different life.

In a much different place.

Cowboying is good work for someone who’s not a people person, he said, for the kind of person who prefers the company of horses and a good dog. But cowboying was a choice, like creating neon signs, running a successful company or sitting on the board of three corporations. He’s been there and done that, and they were good choices, all. But this work, he said, is a calling from God.

James Fry doesn’t look like many preachers. He’s a big guy, with a greying beard and black boots. He looks, well, like a cowboy. But holding court in the inner-sanctum of Mean Street Ministries, a sub-leased portion of a run-down church building on Ammons Street in Lakewood, it’s difficult to imagine him doing anything else. Mean Street provides the homeless, and those in need, with food, fellowship, fresh clothing and a place to escape the cold during winter mornings. There’s a cafe in the gym, and they’re fixing up some broken-down showers.

He wears a cross around his neck, and on a tour of the cluttered facility, he’s all business. Why shouldn’t he be? The topic on his mind, that he spends much of his day working on, is solving homelessness in Lakewood. And on that topic, he’s got serious issues.

Winter

It’s getting cold at night. It’s freezing and there’s snow covering the ground. In times of severe weather, Mean Street hands out vouchers for motels. The kind of places one sees along Colfax Avenue and wonders who stays there. Fry understands the need for emergency cold-weather shelter for people with nowhere else to go, but doesn’t love the program. He thinks it’s a good way for the city to avoid scraping up frozen bodies off the streets the morning after a storm, or when the temperature plummets. But in his opinion it’s a disassociated answer to the problem. It offers none of the services many of his patrons need. And it makes homelessness, for some, too easy. 

“It should be uncomfortable. I think homelessness needs to be inconvenient. You’re not going to reach anyone unless you make it inconvenient. The severe weather network used to be a group of churches that let people in to sleep on the floor, use the bathroom, get cleaned up, but drinking wasn’t tolerated. It was a good solution for our [homeless] singles,” he says. “We had a very successful family shelter going here for 4 years. We were packed, working at capacity, every night. We helped get people from here, into apartments.” 

But the plug was pulled on that program. Fry says the Lakewood city manager shut them down over code violations. Mean Street is located in an outdated concrete building with no fire sprinkler systems. Once shut down, Jeffco cut their funding, he said. And by the time they worked it out, the landlord got cold feet about the program. Lakewood has no homeless shelters. Jeffco has no homeless shelters. 

Danger

With the voucher program, the intolerance for drinking and drug use that existed in the church network doesn’t apply. No one’s watching what goes on in the motels. In Fry’s opinion that makes it less safe. But it’s not just substance abuse he’s concerned with.

“They house registered sex offenders in those motels,” he says.

A quick search on the Colorado Bureau of Investigation web site confirms his claims. In fact, there are currently 28 registered sex offenders living in low-entry motels along Colfax Avenue between Sheridan and Kipling alone, with multiple others in Colfax adjacent motels along the same stretch. Fry thinks a system that houses vulnerable families and people who may be suffering from various substance abuse issues and untreated mental illnesses, in the same building with convicted sex offenders, is immoral. He said government entities should be helping the people, who help the people, not imposing regulations that make the job of offering assistance more difficult.

The wrong kind of growth

The other thing making life on the street more dangerous for Jeffco’s homeless is the shifting demographic, according to Fry. 

“We have a very steady crowd here. They’re much more like hermits. They don’t want to be seen. A lot of veterans — people with PTSD. They just want to be left alone and to hide. So they come out for food and shelter when necessary…and that’s it,” Fry said. “But the drug posses, they’re dangerous.”

He said there are meth-fueled homeless groups pushing into Jeffco from Denver. He describes them as younger and much more violent, making things more dangerous for Jeffco’s traditional homeless, especially the women he works with, many of whom have mental health issues that make it difficult for them to scream for help or fight back. He believes that as this violent group has pushed the limits in Denver, law enforcement has pushed back harder, and the more violent homeless have moved further west. There are lone-wolves out there, he says, but the theory of safety in numbers leads to homeless camps and tent cities — communal living in creek beds and under bridges. 

“It’s a sub-society, and that becomes your world, so therefore you don’t know how to get out of it,” he said. “Some of the forts that they build are quite defensible. They can tap into the electrical — I go down there and they’ve got stereos, heaters, stacks of wheelchairs to up their earnings panhandling. You see it in the lower levels of the New York subways. It’s the same thing here. And it’s tribal. There’s someone keeping the [panhandling] money. Somebody giving the orders. In Denver you have to pay to get a popular corner [to panhandle on]. If you don’t believe me, go get a sign and stand on a corner and see how long it takes you to get bumped.”

Lakewood PD, Public Information Office,r John Romero said he spoke to sergeants on the Department’s Commuity Action Team and was told they hadn’t noticed a uptick in violence from Denver homeless moving into Jeffco, but they don’t track those specific statistics. Fry ackowledged the difficulty in trackng those instances, but opined that it’s rare for homeless victims of violence and crime to seek help from the police.

Keeping the faith

“We’re truly walking among the dregs of society. This is the broken.” Fry says.

He’s worried about the growing need for food, services and shelter. He’s worried that the eviction moratorium is about to expire and increase demand for his help. He’s worried that he typically has 35 severe weather vouchers and 85 people who need one. In the 20 years he’s been doing this, Fry has seen a lot, but says his faith isn’t shaken. He talks about the power of forgiveness, especially forgiving ones self, to help turn lives around. He believes the darkness he’s surrounded by doesn’t test his faith, but rather, confirms it. He describes random acts of kindness he’s witnessed, as everyday miracles. And says, without a hint of irony, he’s awash in God’s grace, while telling stories of being threatened when trying to minister to the homeless under a bridge.

“When you get out of your comfort zone, it reveals character,” he says. “True heroics come when nobody’s looking. When it’s gonna cost you, to do something good. That’s heroics.”

For now, the old cowboy is doing his part, trying to meet the needs of his people. In his estimation, 35-90 people come in every day to find food, warmth, a helping hand and, hopefully soon, a hot shower… “God and some industrious plumbers, willing.”

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