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An Exercise in Empathy

At its recent "Our House" event, the Denver Public Library invited the public to learn -- and to care -- about homelessness.
How do you get the average person to care about homelessness? Bring them together with people who are experiencing it, let them eat and create and listen to one another. Let them stand and think in the shoes of another -- and realize that, for many in metro Denver, homelessness is one job loss, rent increase, accident or illness away.

That was the premise of "Our House: An Empathy Project," a daylong program that drew 600 visitors to the central branch of the Denver Public Library (DPL) on Sat. July 16. "Our House" was a project of DPL's new Community Engagement office, which seeks to give voice to individuals in the community, especially members of marginalized populations.

"A portion of our population, our customers, at the Central Library are experiencing homelessness," says Brenda Ritenour, the library's community engagement manager. "We want the library to be a place that they can spend their days, that is safe and that also gives them resources to reach that next step, to relax, to find something to feel passionate about."

She continues, "We want our other customers to feel comfortable as well, and to invite them to think about times when their lives intersected with the kinds of experiences that can lead to homelessness. We wanted to help people understand how easy it is to suddenly be in that situation, and the challenges you face when you are, and how hard it is to get out once you are there."

Signs of hope and love

The program was both practical and poetic: At the Care Fair, community service agencies shared resources to help with housing, healthcare and other issues with about 150 people experiencing homelessness. Visitors made cardboard signs (which will remain on display at DPL through July 25) and wrote poetry with Write Denver, activities that challenged participants to distill human circumstances into small squares and lines of verse.

On the sidewalk, a team of three gave free hugs.

"Often people who are experiencing homelessness don't get a lot of human contact," says Ritenour. "One gentleman told me he had not been hugged in over a year. He is a regular in our Community Technology Center. We wanted them to feel welcome, to make it warm."

When Ritenour and DPL staff realized they had a good problem -- a larger-than-expected crowd for the community dinner -- they called out for pizza to supplement offerings from Scratch Catering, run by David Bondarchuck, a formerly homeless man who is now a chef and TV personality.

"The goal was really to humanize a portion of our population that is easy to ignore," Ritenour says. "One way we did that was by inviting people to share space, to eat. One of the people we'd hired to work that day as supplemental staff had tears in her eyes. She said, 'Thank you so much for inviting me to work here today.' It was tangible. It felt like many people really walked away with something real."

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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