Denver Pays Homeless Residents to Help Clean Up the City

Brett Hart never imagined he’d end up homeless. The Denver-based engineer spent years working maintenance jobs and earning a decent living, until a bike accident upended his life.
“I was T-boned by a car,” he says. “And so unfortunately when that happens, you end up in the hospital… You spend 30 days in the hospital and you’re not working, so you can’t pay the rent for those 30 days. So you get evicted and you lose your job… So you find yourself pretty much on the street.”
Living temporarily in a camper and desperate for cash, Hart discovered a program that could help him get his life back on track.
Denver Day Works was launched by the city’s Human Services department in November 2016 to provide low-barrier employment opportunities to people experiencing homelessness. Modeled after similar programs in other cities, Denver Day Works pays participants $12 to $13 per hour to help with city projects like cleaning up the streets, landscaping and general maintenance. Participants also receive breakfast and lunch while they’re working, bus fare to get to worksites, and access to employment specialists who can help them find long-term work opportunities.  
“Maybe a subtitle for this program is MythBusters, because I think a lot of people, including myself, weren’t sure how successful this would be,” says Don Mares, executive director of Denver Human Services. “We had so many people sign up … that we had a waitlist of folks to come and do that work.”
Boosted by the legal marijuana market and a booming aerospace industry, Denver’s economy continues to thrive. But with its economic resurgence, the city must also grapple with rising housing prices and a recent spike in homelessness.
Watch the video above to learn more about how Denver Day Works is helping people like Hart and others who have fallen on hard times get a fresh start.
More: Day Jobs for Panhandlers, America Resurgent: Denver

America Resurgent: Denver

In the 1980s, Denver’s economy faltered. Its steel industry contracted, resulting in the loss of 30,000 jobs in the city alone, while the overall unemployment rate in Colorado rose to 8.5 percent.
But the city has experienced an economic resurgence over the last two decades. Since 2000, the metro area’s GDP has almost doubled, while the population has grown 17 percent. Aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing took advantage of Denver’s unique location in America and paved the way for over 130 aerospace companies to exist there today, with some support from local universities like the University of Colorado Boulder.
At the same time, recreational marijuana was legalized by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014, which brings $14 million in taxes to Denver every year, and, to date, $769 million to the state of Colorado.
Despite these advances and the growing Denver economy, the city’s homeless population grew over 20 percent in 2017 alone, while the average price of a one-bedroom home surpassed $500,000.
Watch the video above to see how Denver’s resurgence changed the trajectory of the Mile High City.

#AmericaResurgent is a five-part series that elevates the changemakers, approaches and innovations that are driving urban revitalization across the nation. See the rest of the series here, and watch for the next three installments in the weeks to come.

The Journey of an Idea: This Entrepreneur Took a Cross-Country Trip to Fine-Tune His Higher Education Gamechanger

Seated in a 1930s Pullman train car, Phillip Ellison carved a broad arc across the country: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Milwaukee, Detroit. Ellison had no final endpoint toward which his locomotive was rushing: he was simply riding the rails, as part of the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), a nonprofit venture with Comcast NBCUniversal, a lead partner of the journey. Along with 25 other young adults, he was making a nine-day, transcontinental trek this August to open himself to new ideas for ULink, his new startup that’s in the works. “[MTP is promoting] American innovation, entrepreneurship and trans-regional understanding of the United States, by allowing people doing social impact to come together,” Ellison says.
In the early stages of developing a tech platform to assist community college students, Ellison wanted to spend the 3,100-mile journey homing in on his product’s capabilities and its growth potential, while discovering what other young people were doing in their hometowns. As the American West rushed by his window, he engaged the other social entrepreneurs and rising nonprofit leaders in conversation: Where were they all headed, and how could they help each other get there?
Onboard MTP, Ellison hammered out ideas for ULink, a website that will help community college students engage with on-campus resources (such as advising sessions to map out the credits that four-year colleges require or counseling to help deal with tough emotional situations) and successfully transfer to a four-year university. Ellison, a one-time dropout wrapping up his bachelor’s degree at Tufts University in Massachusetts, wanted to hear what had helped his peers navigate their undergraduate experience and whether community college counselors and transfer advisors, faculty members, students and IT programmers in each of MTP’s five stops would be open to using the platform. Aided by their insights, he’s planning to launch a beta pilot of the website within the next year at a community college in the Boston area.
“Community college is often a head-down experience. Students do not know what’s happening on campus, and they’re not accessing resources until it’s too late,” Ellison explains to NationSwell. On the administrative side, counseling “processes are not quite modernized, digital or up to date. You see the limitations of a human being in terms of resources.” ULink is still in beta development, but once launched, it will help counselors manage their students, see who’s coming in and who’s been out of touch and send text message check-ins through a mobile app — allowing them to reach more students all at once.
Ellison knows about the necessity of college advising more acutely than most. He was forced to leave Penn State University prematurely due to a lack of financial aid. “That was one of the darkest times in my life, to be frank,” he says. Like many students arriving at four-year institutions, he says he didn’t fully comprehend higher education’s blockbuster price tag, even at a public school. Looking back, he wishes he had known more about the financial aspects of college. (For instance, public schools charge more to out-of-state residents, and with rare exception, student loans stick with most people even after a declaration of bankruptcy.) Constantly worrying about his bank accounts, Ellison’s grades fell precipitously. He dropped out and returned home to East Harlem.
That’s not to say Ellison was giving up. “I decided to go home and spend some time thinking about what I was going to do, to right the ship basically,” he explains. Almost immediately, he went to work as a manual laborer. Alongside middle-aged underrepresented workers, the teenager manned demolition projects in Brooklyn and moved corporate furniture in Manhattan. No boss seemed to value worker contributions at those temp jobs, he noticed. They didn’t provide healthcare benefits, and they offered no job security — a daily reality for millions of Americans who never obtained a college degree, he saw.
Eventually, Ellison was accepted to serve as an AmeriCorps member with City Year, assisting a green energy startup. (There, he met one of ULink’s current co-founders, Parisa Esmaili.) He leveraged that into a job at Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that provides extra hours of instruction at public middle schools. He also worked on campaigns for Obama’s reelection and a failed primary bid by Reshma Saujani (the founder of Girls Who Code) to be New York City’s public advocate. In retrospect, he says the series of jobs taught him leadership: by watching how a founder made tough decisions, by practicing at the front of a classroom and by trying to elect principled leaders.
In his off-hours, Ellison started attending classes at Eugenio María de Hostos Community College, one of the City University of New York schools near the Bronx’s Grand Concourse. Once again, working families surrounded him. He saw many of his classmates pulled away from their education by the need to get a job to pay for their kids. Others, closer to him in age, didn’t seem to know how to navigate the school’s bureaucracy. On his second attempt at higher education, Ellison realized that community college students don’t know what four-year universities are looking for in applicants and understaffed counseling departments couldn’t provide all the help needed. “I saw folks stopping sometimes, because they didn’t know what their end goal could be or how to get to that point,” he says. “The mentors were not checking in on them. It’s not a seamless transition.”
After a long hiatus from a four-year college, Ellison returned to school at Tufts last year. At times, he feels out of place, coming from the South Bronx to a bucolic research institution with a billion-dollar endowment that predates the Civil War. There, he lived with Jubril Lawal (a former classmate at Hostos and current co-founder of ULink), and together they translated their own experience negotiating educational barriers into ULink’s platform. ”By merging tech and human interactions in a strategic way,” says Ellison, who regularly folds business school lingo into ULink’s sales pitch, “our premise is that closing some of the advising and engagement gaps will promote completion and persistence and improve the overall student experience.” Where Ellison once felt disconnected, he hopes the app will provide clarity and direction, those touch points that tie a person to a larger institution.
Through conversations with other train ride participants and with people at various city stops, Ellison deepened his understanding of the community college system. He asked why certain schools have off-the-charts transfer rates, while others are dropout factories. How can his platform make a student feel at home on a two-year commuter campus, in the same way that a student living in the dorms at a four-year institution participates in the school’s history and traditions? Will a few text messages be enough?
His cross-country sojourn confirmed that he’s asking the right questions. At a City College of San Francisco, he showed the school’s chief technology officer his beta product, and the administrator shared insights about the inadequacies of older education planning software and his decision-making calculus for new technology. Ellison speculated ULink may have just gained “a key adviser.” Back on the train, he discussed his ideas with his mentors and other social entrepreneurs. Fauzia Musa, from the design firm IDEO, reminded him that if students found some real value in the product and used it to solve their challenges, then colleges would quickly fall into line. Those “new understandings and unique opportunities for growth” proved vital to understanding what ULink could be.
Now it’s a matter of Ellison putting his answers into practice. The steaming train may have pulled into the final station, but his real journey is just beginning.
This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.
Homepage photo courtesy of Millennial Trains Project.

The Volunteer Army That’s Powering Denver’s Environmental Revolution

A decade ago, inspired by Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Denver residents Sue Okerson and Kevin Suchlicki met up with other neighborhood activists to chat about climate change. Grand ideas like protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and tax credits for wind and solar energies were mentioned, but everyone really wanted practical ways to help the planet right now. Having a light bulb moment, Sucklicki tossed out, “Well, what about something as simple as changing out everyone’s front porch light?”
Soon after, Okerson and Suchlicki started by handing out compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) at a local food bank and canvassing their neighborhoods. “We just went out and bought the bulbs, knocked on the door, talked to people and said, ‘What do you think?’” The pair explained to homeowners that CFLs use only one-quarter the energy of a traditional incandescent bulb — saving about $30 in electricity costs over the light’s lifespan. (Not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions it removes the environment.) After hearing the benefits, most let Okerson and Suchlicki switch out their porch bulb.

This team is taking sustainability to Denver’s streets.

After they’d covered nearby blocks, this two-man light bulb brigade reached out to Groundwork Denver, a local nonprofit that could take their idea across the Mile-High City, focusing on low-income neighborhoods. Today, the Porch Bulb Project’s work goes beyond spiral-shaped light bulbs, offering to revamp homes with the latest green technology — all for free. To date, 4,500 volunteers have swapped out 21,400 front porch bulbs, completed 2,480 home energy assessments, made major energy improvements (like adding insulation or replacing furnaces, water heaters or refrigerators) in 1,132 houses and planted 2,660 trees. “The light bulb just became the foot in the door for a bigger conversation about climate change,” says Wendy Hawthorne, executive director of the Porch Bulb Project.
When Okerson first started knocking on doors, she had a dim view of how quickly Americans could change their ways. “People are lazy,” she remarks. “It isn’t going to happen in my lifetime that the seas will rise and everything will go to hell in a hand-basket… It’s not a crisis in their face.” Yet when Okerson last went out to with a Porch Bulb Project delegation, she noticed many houses with CFLs already lighting their entryways. “Okay, so we have done something,” she thought to herself. “That’s a really good feeling.”
Hopefully that feeling will keep these environmental soldiers dedicated to their mission for a long time.
MORE: Can Americans Accept This Environmentally-Friendly Burial Method?

The New Way to Govern: Paying for Progress

For too long, government has dumped millions of dollars into treating the effects of social ills without ever addressing their causes. Lacking funds or political will, it’s routine for legislators to salve the symptoms rather than cure the disease — let alone prevent new outbreaks. But the pioneers of a new public financing model claim there’s a better way for government to do business.
New partnerships between public and and private, known as social impact bonds (SIBs), are fronting the money for much-needed, underfunded social programs. More importantly, the sponsors argue, these bonds introduce data-driven performance metrics in order to find the greatest return for taxpayers.
These bonds redefine our conception of government. Striving to better the public good doesn’t cut it anymore. SIBs require programs to be successful and to do the work at a cheaper price. They also tilt the emphasis from activities to outcomes. Chances are, there won’t be a second New Deal or Great Society these days. But the innovators of this new form of financing hope to change government, using data to reshape it into an agile, efficient and performance-driven machine that can achieve our most ambitious goals.
SIBs are generating buzz nationwide as an innovative way to fight the most intractable social problems, ones that indiscriminate government spending — without demanding innovation or results — has yet to make a dent in. The bonds (or as they’re now often called, “pay for success” contracts) allow nonprofits to scale their operations with private investment dollars. If their programs prove more efficient at solving problems than the current public services, corporate funders turn over long-term financial responsibility to the government. Taxpayers repay the investors’ up-front capital (with interest and a small return) only if the program works. Otherwise, if agreed-upon benchmarks aren’t met, the public’s off the hook — and backers lose their entire investment.
Governments are already using these bonds to address juvenile justice, chronic and family homelessness and early childhood education. Advocates say the alternative funding model allows cash-strapped governments to experiment with preemptive action that’s normally cut from tight budgets, rather than paying for expensive remedial programs later.
“If we procured music the same way we did social services, we’d all be listening to 8-track recording machines. Thirty years ago, we would have said, ‘This is great technology,’ and there’d be a law that you could only play music if it was on great technology just like this. That really is what social services look like in America,” says George Overholser, CEO and co-founder of Third Sector Capital Partners, a nonprofit with the goal of bringing data-driven performance metrics to government. The public sector has “a hard time recognizing when something new and better comes along,” he believes, but pay for success provides that for communities with “measurable ways that lives can be improved.”
Overholser’s firm serves as a “project intermediary” (essentially, a middle man) between lenders, the government and a nonprofit for the country’s largest SIB to date, an initiative that is aimed at reducing recidivism among at-risk young male inmates in Boston, Chelsea and Springfield, Mass., through behavioral interventions, educational prep and job training.
Here’s how it works: Third Sector Capital raised $18 million in cash from private investors — such as Goldman Sachs’s Social Impact Fund, plus five charitable foundations. Third Sector turns all of that money over to a service provider, in this case, Roca, Inc., a nonprofit that’s been around for 25 years and has developed a four-year program to help young men exit prison’s revolving door and enter the workforce. Over the next seven years, Roca will target a group of 929 men, ages 17 to 23, who are either on probation or aging out of the juvenile justice system.
“This project can be viewed as a laboratory. We are testing and evaluating the types of interventions to prove their worth, quantify their impact, and determine whether . . . this would make a meaningful impact on other young people,” Glen Shor, the state’s former secretary of Administration and Finance, tells The Boston Globe.
With this bond, the investors are repaid by the government (which does not provide any initial funding) only if the program reduces re-incarceration by at least 5.2 percent compared to a control group. The goal, however, is to reduce recidivism by 40 percent. That may seem like a huge discrepancy, but it’s the level at which the Bay State will start saving money. Any less than that, and the program breaks even; any more, and the investors are entitled to a fraction of the savings — which are called “success payments.” That’s because the bonds operate just like any stock market investment, providing a return on a successful investment (though at a much more modest rate, given the risk compared to the market). For Roca and the nonprofit brackers (like Third Sector Capital, the criminal justice-focused The Arnold Foundation or Boston-based New Profit, Inc.), most of that return would be recycled into further scaling or future bond projects.
For a social impact bond to work, “so much needs to be just right: a rigorous way to evaluate impact, a strong cost-benefit analysis, a service provider that can scale with quality, government partners that are willing (and able) to engage deeply, investors and boards that have an appetite to understand and embrace new financial constructs, and last but not least, a willingness by all parties to communicate, communicate, communicate as the multiparty problem-solving process tumbles forward,” Overholser reflected as the Massachusetts initiative began.
The pay-for-success model has been thrown around among policy wonks as “the next big thing” since the early 2000s. During a time when public and charitable coffers are hard pressed to respond to all the existing need, SIBs emerged as a new stream of funding. Shortly after the first pilot project in England (also targeted at recidivism) launched in 2010, the model journeyed across the Atlantic. In 2012, New York City embarked on the first American bond to provide therapeutic treatment to teenagers locked up on Rikers Island, its central correctional facility.
Though none of those projects have been completed, the purpose of the model is already shifting from its early origins. For one, insiders now shy away from the initial term “bonds” since it’s a misnomer because investors aren’t guaranteed payback. More importantly, proponents argue that SIBs are not merely a new revenue stream, like municipal bonds, but a new way of doing business. Because all the funding is centered on data-based outcomes, it forces all the partners involved to rethink their programs. The public is paying for success, not services.
Many of the first bonds focused on recidivism and homelessness because they could be measured with simpler data sets and figures that were readily available — a person’s either in jail or not, for instance — but they are now targeting increasingly complex problems. Projects in Massachusetts and Denver, for example, started out with simple Housing First programs to provide homes to the chronically homeless. But a project launched in December in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, is targeting the much thornier issue of helping mothers who have been in homeless shelters avoid being separated from their children. Additionally, as data capabilities increase, pay for success programs promise to find the best investment of funds for problems like asthma, maternal depression and child welfare, advocates say.
“Historically, the obstacle was that we had no way of measuring social outcomes, but the information revolution has finally reached government,” Overholser says. “It’s now tuned not to what sounds good, but to what’s actually helping communities advance their goals. … We are, in a sense, retooling the way folks get paid to deliver services to the community.”
At city halls and statehouses across the country, lawmakers are studying whether to implement the pay-for-success model in their own jurisdictions. Currently, there’s seven projects underway in five states — rural and urban areas, red as Utah and blue as California — and at least 30 more on the horizon, says Nicole Truhe, government affairs director for America Forward, the nonpartisan public policy arm of New Profit, a venture philanthropy fund. Even the federal government is getting in on the action. Congress already approved legislation appropriating $600 million to assist in repaying bonds related to workforce development from successful state or local projects. Another bill pending would do the same for education dollars, Truhe adds.
“Elements of pay for success resonate with both conservatives and liberals,” she says. “There’s the cost savings efficiency piece to it, and there’s the focus on issue areas that are important to both parties, whether it be juvenile justice, early childhood education or healthcare.”
The question of whether social impact bonds will prove a lasting model or just the latest fad will likely depend on results from these early projects. Some skeptics say that private sector dollars are only being fronted for the bonds to boost a corporation’s image or even to make a profit. These observers say governments could realize the savings through their own pilot projects, innovation labs and direct contracting with established providers. Advocates respond, however, that mustering bipartisan political support for multi-year, multi-million-dollar projects hasn’t happened before and likely won’t anytime soon — especially since, as critics point out, the government must budget for full repayment of the bonds anyways, when a program is successful.
There’s also the question of how to calculate a government’s savings, some analysts worry. One problem stems from the concept of “fixed cost fallacy.” Calculating the expense for each day a prisoner spends in jail, for example, is often done by dividing the total cost of running the facility by the population. Keeping one person out of jail might mean saving on food and medicine, but there’s still the overhead costs, which don’t decrease unless the location is closed, argues David Juppe, senior operating budget manager for Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services. Another criticism leveled at SIBs is “creaming” — resolving the easiest cases or creating short-term gains in order to win success payments — and leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill for the long-term problems that remain unsolved, Juppe adds.
While the full-scale calculations and evaluations are yet to be completed, Roca’s work is already improving the lives of those it reaches. Ralph Bonano, a 20-year-old who grew up across Boston’s Mystic River in the dense suburb of Chelsea, had been assigned to probation after an unarmed robbery. He tried to dodge Roca’s counselors, but they tracked him down and talked to him every chance they had.
After more than a year, Bonano finally softened and started attended Roca’s job training program. He now has a job in a manufacturing plant that makes military equipment and is working toward his G.E.D. Bonano says it gave him and “other kids an opportunity to change and to be treated as a normal person, not just a criminal.” He credits the program with helping him “stay out of jail.”
Before, Bonano’s story would be evidence of success. A life changed. Case closed. The intervention worked. But today, arbiters will consider Bonano as just one data point among many. Along with hundreds of other men, he’ll be entered into a complex calculation of avoided incarceration costs, Roca’s price of services, interest rates and income tax. Analysts will see whether Bonano fits the trend or is an outlier and question whether he changed enough to become a profitable member of society. In the emerging era of data-driven governance and payment for success, social good is only worth it if it saves us cash.
It’s still too early to tell whether Bonano is worth the price.

The App That’s Making Roadways Safer for Both Drivers and Pedestrians

Larry Stevenson, a former member of the Denver Police Department, believes that no car accident victim should ever be left bleeding in the street as a perpetrator speeds away.
Yet this is exactly what happened within the greater Denver area more than once a day: 446 people were injured and 22 were killed by hit-and-runs in 2014 alone. That’s why Stevenson proposed a simple plan to solve the most elusive of crimes. Similar to the Amber Alert system for kidnapped children, Colorado mobilizes law enforcement, bus and taxi drivers and regular motorists to catch offenders fleeing the scene of an accident. Known as the Medina Alert, Stevenson’s ingenious idea led to arrests in 14 of the 18 serious hit-and-run cases in which the alert beamed across the Mile High City, he says.
“Since we started, there’s been 12,000 hit-and-runs [in Colorado]. Imagine if it were 12,000 stabbings. Don’t you think we would know about that?” Stevenson says. “We have to sound the alarm. This stuff is happening right in our community.”
Not every car accident prompts a Medina Alert to be issued. A hit-and-run has to result in serious injury or death and be considered solvable, meaning witnesses know the car’s make and model, copied a partial license plate number and may have caught a glimpse of the driver. “It can’t just be a grey car,” Stevenson explains. “But if it’s a grey, two-door Toyota with damage to the front right driven by a Hispanic male and the license plate contains 395 [for example], we can work with that.”
If a case meets the criteria, details are shared across the state. They’re radioed to police officers, mentioned on radio and TV broadcasts, flashed on highway signs and passed on to citizens through email, text, social media and the Medina Alert phone app. Suddenly, the criminal who thought he could drive away unnoticed has the entire state hunting for him. [ph]
Last week, while speaking with NationSwell by phone during a short break from testifying at the Colorado State Capitol, Stevenson added a word of warning: “Just because you release [an alert], doesn’t mean you’re going to solve it. There’s still some out there.” Earlier that morning, a hit-and-run had killed a 42-year-old pedestrian. The accident (which is still unsolved more than seven days later) seemed to weigh on his mind. “Each case is very personal for me,” he says. “It’s a roller-coaster of emotions. But when you solve one, there is no greater feeling than to tell a mother, ‘We found your child’s killer.’ It’s a sense of relief and joy that they don’t have to relive this every day. Their loved one can finally rest in peace.”
Stevenson’s involvement in the alert dates back a program called Taxis on Patrol (TOP), which trained cabbies to be “extra eyes and ears on the streets, calling in crimes or traffic accidents.” Within hours of the program’s official launch in January 2011, the inaugural call went out after a hit-and-run turned fatal. Jose Medina, 21, had been working his first shift as a nightclub valet when he was plowed down by a drunk driver in an SUV.
A taxi driver who’d completed the TOP program witnessed the collision, followed the vehicle and wrote down the license plate number. After some quick police work, authorities tracked down Norma Vera-Nolasco, an undocumented immigrant with a history of hit-and-runs, in Phoenix, on an airliner that was just seconds away from takeoff out of the country. She’s now in prison serving the maximum 12-year sentence.
After his wife suggested the idea, Stevenson came to realize that stopping crime required help outside of law enforcement. He set to work drafting plans for the Medina Alert, named in memory of Medina’s tragedy. “Hit-and-run accidents are one of the most unsolvable crimes. You are looking for a ghost,” Stevenson told The Denver Post at the time. “We can’t always expect law enforcement to fly in with the red cape and solve the crimes. We have to do our part.” After higher-ups at the local police department bought in, the alert system commenced in February 2012.
In March 2014, after seeing the results in Denver, state lawmakers near-unanimously agreed to give Stevenson access to the Department of Transportation billboards and expand the alert across Colorado. “It doesn’t cost us a lot of money, but it allows us to dramatically increase our ability to apprehend criminals,” says Gov. John Hickenlooper. Since the bill was signed, seven alerts have gone out, and five have been solved, Stevenson reports. His next goal is to extend the statute of limitations, giving detectives a decade to track down the culprit in cases of serious injury and an unlimited window for deaths just as they do for homicide cases.
Beyond the Rockies, Stevenson is now advocating to take the program nationwide. He’s met with interested leaders from the states of Washington, Utah and Arizona as well as the cities of Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; Oklahoma City and Philadelphia.
“The goal for me personally is to see the alert in use in all 50 states,” he says. Once it becomes established, it can change the culture on the nation’s roads. “If you know that everybody around you could be watching and reporting, we can play a part in preventing these horrible accidents.”

Why is This Man Making Homeless People Do Push-Ups?

Boot-camp workouts, which include grueling regimens of push-ups, squats, sprints and more, are a privilege usually reserved for people of means. But in Denver, one volunteer is bringing the benefits of good health and strenuous exercise to homeless people.
Mark McIntosh, who was a sports reporter for many years on Denver’s CBS affiliate and currently works as a life coach and motivational speaker, is leading homeless men in workouts that he hopes will be life-changing.
McIntosh calls his boot-camp program A Stronger Cord. Participants once lived at Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter and through good behavior, earned individual rooms at a former motel turned shelter, The Crossing.
On the night that Jennifer Brown of the Denver Post visited them, they were grinding out sit-ups and running laps. “A sweat a day keeps the doctor away,” McIntosh tells Brown, “and the surgeon and the shrink.”
Several of the participants say that exercise helps them ward off depression and prevents them from returning to drugs and alcohol. Gulf War veteran Darwin Ben agrees. He has suffered PTSD since serving, and he says, “My life has been an up-and-down roller coaster ever since.”
McIntosh continues, “The physical piece is important — you get the endorphins going, but it’s also the teamwork. All men, when we are bummed out about life, we tend to go into our caves. This brings us all together.”
A Stronger Cord seeks volunteers to help lead the workouts indoors and outdoors (yes, even in the winter) near The Crossing and in downtown Denver. McIntosh hopes to expand the program through city funding, donations and more volunteers.
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When Cities Get Connected, Civic Engagement Improves

With tighter budgets and fewer resources, local governments are turning to technology to stay connected to residents and improve their systems. According to the Digital Cities Survey published by Government Technology magazine, four major tech trends are visible across most of the participants, which range from cities with populations of 50,000 to more than a million.
1. Open data
Transparency is important for governments and thanks to technology, it’s easier to achieve than ever. Leading the pack of cities with easily accessible data records is New York City. The Big Apple started its open data system in 2012 and now has 1,300 data sets available for viewing. Chicago ranks second with over 600 data sets, while San Francisco scores the highest rating in U.S. Open Data Census for open data quality.
Open data isn’t limited to the country’s biggest cities, however, as mid-size Tacoma, Wash., offers 40 data sets and Ann Arbor, Mich,. has financial transparency data that is updated daily, according to Governing.
2. Stat programs and data analytics
These types of initiatives originated in the 1980s with the NYPD merging data with staff feedback, but have expanded to other cities. Louisville, Ky., now has Louiestat, which is used to spot weaknesses in performance and cut the city’s bill for unscheduled employee overtime.
Governing reports that data analytics are also a popular tool to gauge performance. In Denver, Phoenix and Jacksonville, Fla., local governments use them to sort through all their data sets in search of patterns that can be used for better decision-making.
3. Online citizen engagement
As social media becomes more prevalent in daily life, governments are getting on board to stay connected. Through social media sites and online surveys, local governments are using social media to engage their residents in local issues.
One such city is Avondale, Ariz. (population of 78,822), which connects a mobile app and an online forum for citizen use. Citizens can post ideas on the forum and then residents can vote yay or nay.
4. Geographic information systems
Although it’s been around for a long time, cities are updating the function of GIS to help make financial decisions that will, in turn, improve performance, public transit and public safety as well as organize social service and citizens engagement activities.
Augusta, Ga., recently won an award for its transit maps, while in Sugar Land, Texas, GIS is used for economic development and citizen engagement with 92 percent survey respondents citywide.
Based on all this, it seems that cities have embraced the tech craze.
MORE: Which 3 Cities are Fighting Poverty Through a Tech Cohort?

This 85-Year-Old Knitter Churns Out Hats to Help Homeless Veterans

Seven years ago, 85-year-old Orville “Mark” Skattum, who served in the Army National Guard during the Korean conflict, took up a new hobby: knitting.
He got the idea after seeing a friend work on a loom. After getting one of his own, he started knitting hats to give to family and friends at Christmas. Then, he realized that homeless veterans could use some extra warmth.
“I feel sorry for the ones that have a hard time. They’re homeless and out of work,” he tells Kevin Simpson of the Denver Post. “The least I can do is help out a little.”
Skattum began knitting about five hats a week, each with a tag that reads, “Made by a Vet, for a Vet…God bless.” Whenever he has completed 50 hats, he donates them either to his church or to the Denver V.A. hospital to be given to needy vets. He estimates he’s knitted 1,200 hats.
Last year, his daughter Karla Tillapaugh joked with her father about getting a booth at Holiday ManCraft, a hipster-delighting fair that has been showcasing the wares of crafty men — many of them professional artisans — since 2000. She didn’t realize he’d taken her seriously until several months later, when he told her that he’d knitted 150 caps for his booth. Tillapaugh quickly contacted the craft fair organizers to see if her dad could join.
ManCraft founder Stu Alden immediately accepted him. “How can you say no to that?” he tells the Denver Post. “There was something really touching that he got excited about it.”
Skattum will be selling his specialty hat, called Orville’s Bucket, when Holiday ManCraft takes over a Denver VFW Post on December 5 and a Boulder, Colo., American Legion on December 6.
Not surprisingly, Skattum plans to donate any proceeds to charity.
MORE: How One Veteran Discovered the Healing Power of Art and Made it His Mission to Share with Others

This Immigrant Turned Fast-Food Franchise Owner Has Been Serving Free Thanksgiving Dinner for 23 Years

On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, the line out of a McDonald’s in Denver extended out the door.
The people weren’t clamoring for Big Macs, however. They were there to partake in a complimentary Thanksgiving feast that the owners of the franchise, Geta and Janice Asfaw, have been serving to the poor of their neighborhood for 23 years.
Originally, the Asfaws cooked up a meal consisting of turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing for the area’s senior citizens, but lately, they’ve become even more generous. The event now includes a presentation of scholarships to high school students and a bike giveaway for elementary schoolers.

Senior citizens line up for Asfaw’s Thanksgiving dinner in Denver.

Last year, the Asfaws distributed 250 bicycles to low-income children nominated by their teachers for academic achievement or persistence in the face of obstacles. (Through the years, the Asfaws have united with other Denver restaurant franchise owners and nonprofits to distribute 1,700 children’s bikes.) Last year, Geta told Austin Briggs of the Denver Post, “We want them to hear that it doesn’t matter where they are today, it’s where you are 20 years from now that matters.”
Geta knows a few things about how to bring about personal transformation through hard work. He left Ethiopa to attend college in America in 1972, and after a coup in 1974 made it impossible to return home, he stayed in the U.S., earned his college degree and eventually became a citizen. In 1991, he bought his first McDonald’s franchise and now owns eight of them.
Senior citizens take part in Asfaw’s Thanksgiving dinner.

Last week, Geta told the Denver Post, “We’ve always felt that as local businessmen we should give back to the community — not just take the money. That’s what we said at the start. If we’re going to (be here), we’re going to do that. Even when we didn’t have much, we always felt it was our responsibility.”
So if you ever find yourself in Denver with a hankering for French fries, we can’t think of nicer people to get your craving satisfied by.
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