DENVER -- The sound of heavy traffic whirls in the background as Jerry Burton brings a towel to his face and wipes the dirt of the streets away. The homeless man starts many of his days this way.
“I have to wake up in the morning, making sure that I’m up early enough to keep from the police stopping,” Burton said. “You have to be sitting up or the blanket has to be away from you if you’re laying down.”
According to the 2016 Point-In-Time survey, about 14 percent of Denver’s homeless choose to sleep outside like Burton does. They would rather risk confrontation by police officers enforcing the urban camping ban than sleep in a shelter.
“Why would I sleep on the floor, which is hard, when the ground gives,” Burton explained.
Burton is no stranger to this way of life. He’s been on and off the streets since 1986, and most recently, since October.
He is among a fast-growing segment of Denver’s homeless population: veterans. In 2016, 12 percent of the nearly 4,000 people surveyed in a Point-In-Time count once served in our military and are now living on the streets.
Burton has post-traumatic stress disorder and a degenerative bone disease. He is in pain much of the time. He says sleeping on a thin mat close to large groups is difficult for him.
Is it really that bad?
Denver7 went inside one of the largest men’s shelters in the city — The Rescue Mission — to see what Burton and others are turning away from.
“When you talk about overcrowding, that’s probably a true statement,” Alexa Gagner, of the Denver Rescue Mission, said. “We maximize the space that we have, because we feel it’s safer to be inside rather than outside on the streets.”
The Rescue Mission can sleep up to 350 men. About 200 more can be bussed to an overflow shelter nearby. Some of these men will get a bed, but many will find themselves on a mat for the night, keeping a watchful eye on their belongings.
“They would just keep their stuff with them,” Gagner said. “The sort of guideline is that you can only bring what you can carry.”
It’s a reality that most Denver residents have never had to confront. But overcrowding, anxiety about personal belongings and potential exposure to various illnesses such as skin disorders keep people like Burton away from shelters like the Rescue Mission.
“You get tired of checking your dignity at the door when you come in,” Burton said.
The Rescue Mission does have security cameras and staff on hand to keep the peace. The shelter also requires those who stay to shower at its facilities.