A group of South American migrants lived near I-70 in Denver this winter. Some were sent unannounced by Texas Gov. Abbott, with nothing, no preparation for cold. People who live near that encampment, like Chelsey Baker-Hauck, formed a group. They brought tents and sleeping bags, heaters and propane, fresh water, hot meals, winter clothes. Most families with children were moved into temporary hotel rooms or shelters by the city before the arctic front arrived, but a few tents remained, people who didn’t want to lose their belongings—you can’t take anything with you to the shelter, where you sleep in a line of mats on the floor of a gym.
Around 38,000 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, have come through Denver in the last year. About half have moved on to other cities. Some have found work and housing. One is a Chinese chef. Another a radiologist. Another a nurse. We have a shortage, but don’t recognize her credentials. Some do construction. All are waiting to get work permits.
You have to be here legally, have the I.D. number Immigration gave you, for months before you can apply for a work permit. You must have the fees to pay for it. All the migrants interviewed say the same; we just want to work, to pay for our own housing, to feed our children.
Volunteers help to navigate the paperwork, drive them to Immigration appointments, help them find the under-the-table cash work which is all they can do right now. Eventually, everyone’s moved from the I-70 camp. Except for Hugo, the lone man left. He had found construction work, walking distance from his tent, didn’t want to lose it.
Local moms have started migrant help groups in several Denver neighborhoods. Chelsey Baker-Hauck’s group is one of them. That group was laser-focused on the I-70 camp, has 1200 members and counting. They have found apartments and adopted families, taken people into their homes. Now that camp is empty, except for Hugo.
“We need someone to bring Hugo a hot meal for dinner tonight after he gets home from work,” Chelsey posted on a migrant support Facebook page. “He may also need drinking water and some additional propane for tonight. He has a thermos you can also fill with hot water so he can make coffee/cocoa.”
City services, church-based groups, non-profit organizations that specialize in refugee/migrant work are overwhelmed. There is no more funding, no more room at the inn. Informal neighborhood groups have stepped up, started by mothers who drove past the camps in their neighborhoods and could not bear it.
Minutes after Baker-Hauck’s post, a member of the “mutual aid” network responded that he would bring Hugo dinner and fresh water as soon as he finished work.
Lisa Wimberger is in my Denver neighborhood. “I drove through a camp one day by accident and saw all of these children on the street—babies,” she said. “The mom in me couldn’t sleep that night.”
In December, she decided to act, returning to that camp under a bridge near I-25. “I kept going back and bringing things to the family and it went from there and took over,” she said. The aid groups post things like “clothes for a six-year-old girl, work boots size 9, medium woman’s winter coat.” And people respond within the hour: I’ve got the boots, bringing them to you.
Shelters, temporary hotel rooms are full, and since the arctic cold left, individuals are limited to 14-day stays, families to a little over a month. Lisa started a GoFundMe. In less than two months she raised $70,000 and placed 60 people in housing. On January 25, 2024, she posted:
“With another round of donations we have begun our next wave of placements. Denver shelters will need to release many families this week and we are grateful so many people are coming together to help. We got a great host family for Morel, his wife and their two sons. Morel is a vegan/vegetarian chef who will now get to use a kitchen again to cook food for his family.”
Lisa is equipped for this service: “I have an LLC. I have multiple businesses preexisting to this. I’m just going out, finding any number of configurations — private landlords, property management companies, Airbnb hosts — that have slow seasons that are willing to rent at cost to cover their mortgage. I’m signing leases for short-term under my LLC with full transparency to landlords.”
Mothers and neighbors have leapt into the breach, giving things and food and time, taking families into their homes, finding work for people. It amounts to a crusade. Such efforts can’t be sustained at this pace, I know. Denver is close to a breaking point. But for now, these grassroots groups restore my faith in humanity, in a time of so much cruelty and fear about those who come to our border.
There was a short video of one family Lisa got into a home. They wanted to share their first meal with her, prepared it while their two small children ran in and out of their new bedroom, showing Lisa toys they’d been given.
Chelsey Baker-Hauck finally persuaded Hugo to come home with her the night our temps were dropping well below zero, life-threatening cold. His first night in her home he took a hot shower, called his family in Ecuador and asked if she had any Colorado history books in Spanish, so he could learn about his new home. But he refused to let her drive him to work. From her house, it’s an hour walk. People need to work. And they need to do things on their own, preserve their dignity.
Much of the information in this post comes from: