Artistic outlets amid hardship for Denver area's homeless

People experiencing homelessness find a ‘getaway’


Within a single week, dozens of regulars find their way to the 2300 block of Arapahoe and Curtis streets in Denver.

Steven Barth, a jazz keyboard player, leaves the homeless shelter he’s been staying at for eight months, headed to a weekly dance group at the St. Francis Center, a daytime shelter on Curtis Street.

Ashley Anderson and Paul Laurendine, a married couple who met at the day shelter, also make their way to Curtis Street each week, drawn to the dance group where they first bonded.

Richard Beck, an artist who goes by the name Gonzo, walks from his Denver home to the RedLine Contemporary Art Center on Arapahoe Street — where, having once slept behind the building each night, he has since accepted a position as studio coordinator.

Every week, these individuals are drawn to the arts programs that happen to run in the back-to-back buildings. On Tuesday and Saturday afternoons, RedLine invites aspiring artists to the Reach Studio at 2350 Arapahoe St. And on Thursday mornings, ballet company Wonderbound holds a dance group at the St. Francis Center, 2323 Curtis St.

The Denver arts groups, which each began within the last decade, seek to serve people experiencing homelessness in the metro area. More than anything, participants say the programs are about momentarily leaving behind the negative to embrace the positive.

“We’ve been coming to this for years. It’s been our getaway,” Anderson said of herself and her husband.

Participants also say that programs like these are few and far between.

“I wish it would last longer. There’s not much else to do,” said Barth, who often sits on the edge of the dance floor in the St. Francis Center’s clothing room, using drumsticks to keep the beat while others are dancing.

“It feels good to move,” he said. “It makes your heart beat.”

Programs’ purposes

While the programs seek to achieve a common goal, each one approaches that goal differently.

The Pari Passu dance program — named after the Latin term for “equal step” — specifically engages those served by the St. Francis Center. Every Thursday, participants decide how to spend the hour, whether that means dancing together or simply discussing music, said group coordinator Heather Sutton.

“This is a population that is told a lot what they can and can’t do, so we try to meet whatever the demand is that day,” Sutton said. “One of the first things people lose when they’re experiencing financial hardship is access to the arts. It’s important for us to provide that.”

Directly after the hour wraps up at the center, Sutton holds another group at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, 2111 Champa St., Denver.

Sutton also coordinates for group members to occasionally watch Wonderbound dance rehearsals or attend local shows.

Pari Passu participant Debra Ann added that for her, the program is more than a chance to enjoy the arts; it’s also an opportunity to encourage those who are facing the same hardships that she is.

“I like to lift people up. Instead of sitting out there alone, we can come here and have fellowship,” said Debra Ann, who asked that her last name not be used. “No matter what you’re going through, music’s good for your soul.”

MORE: The Bayaud approach to homelessness

Meanwhile, through its Reach Studio program, RedLine invites any artist to visit the studio and access the program’s workspace, storage space and materials.

Reach Studio also provides “professional development and opportunities to sell artwork,” said JC Futrell, RedLine’s education director.

Participants’ work is featured in permanent exhibitions at RedLine and Saint John’s Cathedral at 1350 N. Washington St., Denver. The studio’s core artists, who have regularly participated for six months, receive additional benefits including access to scholarships for the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design.

“This studio really means connection and it really means safety,” Futrell said. “I’ve got artists who tell me that before coming in here, they didn’t really see themselves as artists, and now they do.”

That’s been the case for Reach Studio coordinator Gonzo, who first came to the studio about a decade ago, hoping to leave behind a life of financial hardship and crime, he said.

“I came into this building trying not to be anybody anymore. The minute I’d leave here, there’d be drugs, people who were addicted to things,” he said. “We’re always on the verge of being unsettled, but what’s kept me sane is consistency.”

Since joining the studio, he has accepted the coordinator position, sold numerous pieces and found stable housing, he said. He attributes the turnaround to his pursuit of an art career and says that, for many others, he’s seen the same transformation take place.

“I’ve created a whole new person,” he said. “I don’t do the things I used to do, and that’s what makes life worth living.”

‘It saves your life’

Though many of the artists live within walking distance of the studio, some have a longer commute, coming in from the surrounding suburbs.

“We get artists from Arvada, Wheat Ridge, Englewood, Thornton — they come from all over to be in this space,” Futrell said.

Artist Patti Kurtzman commutes to the studio from her home in Golden, connected to the program by her passion for art and her brother’s past homelessness, she said. Juannean Young, who left her job about two years ago to become an artist, drives to RedLine every week from Aurora, where she recently moved into a shared-living home.

Young and many of her fellow artists said that through the studio’s sales and connections, they feel they have started to make names for themselves in the art world.

Vanessa Constanti is one artist who’s found this success. In the past, the artist faced housing insecurity; she has since found stable housing, but she continues to visit the studio as she cares for her daughter, who has significant special needs, Constanti said.

In addition to selling artwork and being a part of exhibitions, the program provides something even more important, she said.

“When you’re dealing with special needs or housing insecurity, you’re never self-actualizing. You’re mired in just surviving,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve been able to have an outlet for my art. I think most of us will use the same terms: It saves your life.”


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