DU Students and Professors Mobilize to Help Unhoused Migrants in Denver
University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) doctoral student Sierra Coye was on her front porch decompressing after class earlier this fall when a mother and her two young children walked by and in Spanish asked where the school was located. Coye decided to walk them to the nearby elementary school. Those steps turned out to be the first in a long journey walking beside a migrant family that had recently arrived in Denver.
The family — Alejandra and her children, ages 9 and 5 (names and other identifying information have been changed or omitted to protect the family’s privacy) — had left the shelter at 7:30 that morning and had been walking all day searching for the elementary school where they hoped to enroll. Just days before, they had arrived by bus from the southern U.S. border in Texas following a months-long journey on foot fleeing violence in their South American home country.
The kids were hungry, so Coye invited the family to join her for dinner. “That’s when I found out the shelter wasn’t providing [enough] food, they were in a room with 10 other people, they only had two sets of clothes each and no toiletries, and the 5-year-old’s shoes were falling off.” Coye called fellow doctoral student Olivia Hunte, MSW ’15. “I told her I need to activate mutual aid, now.”
“I thought we’d be able to figure out what was happening, we’d be able to activate mutual aid and we could pass them along to an organization that would help,” Coye says. “I was severely mistaken.”
That’s because government and nonprofit agencies in Denver and throughout Colorado have been swamped by the magnitude of the need. More than 32,000 migrants from Venezuela and other South or Central American nations have arrived in Denver from the U.S. southern border in the past year, bussed to Denver by the State of Texas and left — often in the middle of the night and without food, shelter or winter gear — on city streets. The City of Denver provides temporary stays in hotels, but once their shelter time is up, migrants are released to the streets, where hundreds have ended up in sprawling tent encampments.
Coye and Hunte mobilized their personal and professional networks to help, including other doctoral students and Associate Dean for Doctoral Education Jennifer Greenfield. Some people translated, others provided the clothing and supplies the family needed, and others shared information about processes and resources.
As they sought medical care, housing and to get Alejandra’s kids enrolled in school, “We called every single organization on Denver’s list of resources and were told they don’t work with that population because they require refugee or asylee status, or they didn’t answer or the number was wrong,” Coye recalls.
A month went by and the family still hadn’t made much progress in getting settled, despite having a group of dedicated social workers helping them. “If I as a social worker who is trained in navigating systems can’t make headway, people who are coming from another country and don’t speak the language can’t make headway,” Coye says. “There are not enough case managers in the world because the level of services and finances needed is so great.”
At a town hall hosted by the Denver mayor’s office and city council, Coye spoke up, warning that the city’s migrant crisis and housing crisis were about to converge, with potentially catastrophic consequences. No one seemed to hear her, she says.
“Politicians often fall short on delivering, and the people who need the support the most are the most left behind,” adds Hunte, who immigrated to the United States from Sainte Lucia at age 10. “It’s not that we don’t have the resources. We do. It’s who is deemed worthy and deserving of the resources. Caring for people should not be political, but unfortunately it is.”
Systems in Crisis
Just before Thanksgiving 2023, the tsunami of need that Coye had predicted hit the city. The shelter time limit for hundreds of migrants was up and they found themselves out on the street as a severe winter storm moved into the city. Meanwhile, more migrants continued to arrive, sometimes hundreds in a day. Activists scrambled to get everyone outfitted for survival as they pressed the city to bring families back inside.
“I became painfully cold after hours outside helping in the camps, and I had top-of-the-line winter gear,” recalls DU alumna Chelsey Baker-Hauck (BA ’96), cofounder of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative for people experiencing homelessness and one of the thousands of Denver residents involved in migrant mutual aid efforts by that time. “We got several inches of snow, but we still had people out there without hats, gloves, coats, boots, tents. They were pleading for help. I was terrified someone was going to die out there.”
The city did bring families with children back into the shelters and opened warming centers for adults without kids, but many migrants wouldn’t stay. “They didn’t feel safe or respected in the shelters and were worried about losing their tents and other belongings, so at 7 a.m. the next day, we found that virtually everyone was back in camp, and they were freezing,” Baker-Hauck recalls. “My heart sank. That’s when I realized that this mutual aid effort wasn’t going to conclude anytime soon. We have to get through an entire winter, and unless something significant changes at the state or federal level, volunteers are going to have to be in these camps every day, indefinitely.”
Meeting Basic Needs
Alejandra’s challenges aren’t unique. After months and sometimes years spent crossing from South or Central America to the United States, much of the journey on foot, migrants are often sick, traumatized and exhausted, physically and financially. Then they must navigate a foreign and fragmented service system with significant gaps and barriers.
Like Alejandra, most of the migrants arriving in Denver over the past year speak little or no English, but most of their immigration paperwork is in English only and often written in legalese. Without help with translation, migrants may not even know when or where they have to appear. And often, although they may be bussed to one city, they may have to appear in court in a city across the country, with no means of getting there.
Because the traditional organizations and systems that help immigrants were long-ago overwhelmed by the unprecedented influx of migrants, an extensive mutual aid network sprung up in Denver virtually overnight. Volunteers like Baker-Hauck serve as organizers working in migrant encampments and the wider community to coordinate efforts and meet urgent needs — from cooking and serving meals for hundreds of people twice a day, to collecting donations, organizing those donations in spaces where migrants and others in need can shop for free, delivering drinking water and other supplies, hauling trash from encampments, or providing rides to appointments. Others volunteer as translators, street medics or provide pro bono legal services. Some work one-on-one with migrants to help them find jobs, housing and navigate services, and some even host migrant families in their homes. One local social worker started a peer support group for mutual aid volunteers.
“Everyone has something they can contribute,” Baker-Hauck says. “Maybe that’s knowledge. Maybe that’s 10 pounds of pasta from their restaurant that we can turn into a community meal, time to take someone to a medical appointment, or hiring a migrant to shovel snow. I even watched a man take off his socks and shoes and put them on someone else’s feet.”
“Mutual aid is about more than money,” Hunte explains. “How do I leverage what I have to support those around me? It’s considering how we actively demonstrate and practice showing up in care for ourselves and each other."
“I hope that social workers can connect with these mutual aid networks to be reminded of the untapped power that exists in our communities,” says Greenfield. And, she adds, organic social aid networks can benefit from social work skills such as navigating systems and locating resources. For instance, Greenfield leveraged her own social work network to find safe, affirming housing for a trans woman from Venezuela who was seeking asylum. “Social workers tend to see what’s needed in a crisis,” Greenfield says, “and we are trained to organize response efforts and maximize efficiency when resources are stretched thin.”
Importantly, Greenfield says, social workers also understand the value of self-determination when someone is in crisis. “This is critically important as we welcome these newcomers, who have already demonstrated tremendous strength, resilience and problem-solving skills in their journey here. Their right to determine what they need and when and how they want to receive help should be front-and-center as we mobilize community resources to help meet their needs.”
After initially helping Coye by providing clothes and books for Alejandra’s family, Greenfield has stayed involved. Greenfield and Associate Professor Inna Altschul and their children helped to prepare and serve food and distribute supplies on Thanksgiving Day. Greenfield has also been directly supporting two families — including one living in a tent with two young children — and joined other volunteers and housing advocates to develop a strategic plan for advocacy at the local, state and federal levels.
“There is an obvious need for reforms in our federal systems to expedite the asylum and work permit processes, to make them more logical and accessible, to give equitable access to all those who seek the safety and opportunities offered in the U.S., and to address the global economic forces that are driving mass migration in the first place,” Greenfield says. “We also have an urgent housing crisis here in Denver and elsewhere and already had a major humanitarian crisis unfolding on the streets of Denver before the current wave of newcomers arrived. I hope that issue does not get lost in the current conversation.”
Coye continues to stay involved as well, helping Alejandra’s family when needed (the family is temporarily housed until January and has started the asylum process), meeting with City Council members and encouraging more GSSW students to get involved in advocacy efforts.
“We need to push people in power to act on this. It’s going to be a very long crisis if we can’t get support,” Coye says. “If we grow ambivalent, if it’s easier for us to pay attention to stuff far away, we can’t wish for something better in our communities.”
Greenfield says she’s been “inspired and energized by the powerful organic response of our Denver community — strangers helping strangers, not because they have to or because they have been trained to do so, but because they see the injustice of families sleeping on the streets in shorts and sandals and they want to help.”
“It’s incredible to see hundreds of people join together to make things happen,” Greenfield adds, “and it reminds me why I got into social work in the first place: It feels good to make an immediate, meaningful difference and to be connected with so many caring and committed people working together for change.”
Visit this resource page to learn how you can support migrants and unhoused people in the Denver metro area.