Every two weeks or so, Deidra Bates wakes up to the same gift: several boxes of unperishable food stacked in front of her fence.
“I’m not sure who does it, because I’ve never seen them,” the Denver resident said. “They do it at night, in fact.”
This anonymous gift is just one of many donations Bates receives for the food box stationed in front of her house. The box, which Bates set up last September at her home on West Exposition Avenue in the Westwood neighborhood, serves as a miniature food pantry to provide for those in need.
“It’s a place where people can bring food they aren’t going to use, and other people that might be able to use it can pick it up,” Bates said. “There’s no fees involved, and it’s totally anonymous.”
The food box is one way the mother of five gives back to a community in which many people struggle to afford the necessities, including food and shelter. Since 2017, Denver County has seen an increase in its homeless population, according to data from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.
There are 3,445 individuals in a homeless living situation in Denver County, according to the report. That number is up from 3,336 the previous year.
Of that total, 991 are chronically homeless — they have been homeless for more than a year, or have been homeless on four separate occasions during the past three years, and also have a disability. In 2017, there were 701 chronically homeless people in Denver County.
These increases are likely linked to the rise in Denver home prices, said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
“The cost of living in the Denver metro area is out of reach for so many people,” Alderman said. “People cannot find places to live that they can afford, and some are getting pushed out of the homes they’ve been in for years because rents are increasing so substantially.”
This increase in both rent and property taxes is especially problematic for those who are living on fixed income and are unable to budget more for housing, she said.
As a result, many of these people turn to shelters. Others continue to pay for housing but sacrifice transportation, health care or food in its place—which, Alderman said, may cause its own set of problems.
“One of the biggest concerns we’re seeing is how undernourished so many children are,” she said, “and how difficult that is for them in terms of educational attainment, social development and emotional development.”
According to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, households with one or more children account for 710 of the people experiencing homelessness in 2018.
To address this issue, Bates set up the food box in her yard, which she advertises through word of mouth. Further, she volunteers as assistant director at Joy’s Kitchen, a Denver food pantry that often sets up shop at Westwoods Community Church, 7700 W. Woodard Drive in Lakewood.
The pantry also hands out food at different Denver locations, posted on its website, www.joyskitchen.org. Between these and its regular location, the pantry distributes approximately 45,000 pounds of food per week, according to Bates.
To complete such a large task, the pantry is “constantly looking for volunteers,” she said, encouraging those interested to get involved.
Likewise, anyone can contribute to the cause by setting up his or her own food box, said Bates, who set up her box with the help of her family.
“My dad and stepfather built the box, and we put it in the cement ourselves,” she said. “Then my daughter did a painting of Pikachu on it.”
Shortly after, Bates’ father set up a food box at his home in Wheat Ridge, located off of West 38th Avenue and Jay Street.
Today, the food boxes practically run on their own. Bates doesn’t have to do much more than check that the donated food is usable, which she estimated takes her less than half an hour per week.
Even so, with people stopping by the pantry every day, this initiative and others like it can make all the difference, Alderman said.
“Having those partners on the ground is really important,” she said. “It really does take a community to address the issues of homelessness and hunger.”
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