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Denver nears its breaking point as migrants and the cold pile in

This is what an overwhelmed city can look like: a preschooler sleeping under a bridge for a month; crowds lining up each night to get food and shelter; and the mayor calling out for help. And when that city is Denver in the winter, and the overnight temperatures sink below zero degrees Fahrenheit, the problems are life-threatening.

“Our city is really struggling,” Mayor Mike Johnston told CNN after he visited families in a makeshift encampment – a sign of the unfolding emergency triggered by the mass arrival of people from outside the city.

“This is both a humanitarian crisis for the individuals that are arriving, and it’s a fiscal crisis for the cities that are serving. Those two crises are coming to a head right now.”

Few, if any, of the thousands of people who have arrived in Denver planned for Colorado’s capital to be their destination after monthslong treks away from persecution or deprivation in search of safety and a chance at the American Dream.

But when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott decided to offer free bus rides to get asylum seekers out of his state, the options given were generally New York, Chicago or Denver, migrants said. Each of those three cities has a Democratic mayor and Abbott has targeted them as part of his stated aim for “the rest of America (to) understand what is going on.” Migrants told CNN they had heard New York was too full, believed Chicago would be too cold and thus picked Denver.

The mayors of New York, Chicago and Denver have issued joint calls for the arrivals of migrants to be treated as a national problem with a national solution. They have called for a coordinated entry system, but Abbott’s spokesperson told CNN in December the only fix was for President Joe Biden’s administration to “secure the border.”

Venezuelans set up this encampment north of Denver's downtown, between rail tracks and interstates. - Evelio Contreras/CNN
Venezuelans set up this encampment north of Denver's downtown, between rail tracks and interstates. - Evelio Contreras/CNN
A migrant extinguishes a fire as the group who had sheltered under the bridge gets ready to go to a makeshift shelter at a church. - Evelio Contreras/CNN
A migrant extinguishes a fire as the group who had sheltered under the bridge gets ready to go to a makeshift shelter at a church. - Evelio Contreras/CNN

Texas has sent 15,700 people to Denver since May. Initially, many were Venezuelans applying for asylum who had “Temporary Protected Status” under a federal program that allows people from some crisis-hit countries to live and work legally in the United States for a period of time. The city was able to help get the migrants on their feet and soon, they were self-sufficient members of the community, Johnston said.

The Biden administration expanded the TPS program in September after demands for action by New York City, but it still only applies to Venezuelans who arrived in the US before August 1, and most of the newer arrivals in Denver do not qualify. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has not signaled if he plans further expansions.

Adriana, who did not give her last name, said she fled Venezuela’s dire economic straits with her husband and young son. They took the land route through the treacherous Darién Gap, traveling thousands of miles through Central America and then Mexico to reach the US border, she said.

Once they were bussed up to Denver, they found themselves with fellow Venezuelans at an encampment under a bridge north of downtown, near where I-70 crosses I-25, in an area full of squat industrial buildings alongside the freight rail tracks.  The migrants cooked gifted food for each other in a makeshift kitchen, shared stories and became a small community.

A donated tent was the first American home for John David, Adriana’s 4-year-old son. The family stayed there for a month, but the weather soon made the preschooler ill.

“The cold weather has been tough,” Adriana told us earlier this month, on a day when a howling winter wind drowned out the noise from the interstates. “It’s horrible, my son suffers from asthma, and he’s been sick with a cough. I’ve been treating him with some medication that was given to me.”

John David, 4, spent a month sleeping in a tent in this encampment.  - Evelio Contreras/CNN
John David, 4, spent a month sleeping in a tent in this encampment. - Evelio Contreras/CNN

Some of those living in the tent village have no shoes, and they layer socks to give their feet a little protection from the cold and the crust of frozen snow that covers the stony dirt below. Inside the tents, sheets of polystyrene foam are used as insulation, and clothes are piled up on church-donated mattresses to give extra support and warmth.

As an Arctic blast began to hit the city, Mayor Johnston and his staff were out warning the migrants of the freezing temperatures to come and urging them to go to new shelters or warming centers. Hotels leased by the city just last month to house migrants are already full.

“We’re having the coldest days of the year and we want to move all the people inside. We have beds, it’s warmer,” he said in Spanish made fluent from his years as a school principal in northern Colorado, working with many Latino children and parents.

‘All I want is a job’

Checking in at the shelter later that day, Johnston was soon swarmed by people grateful for the help being offered, but full of questions: How long can the city help them, but most of all, when can they work?

He asked if they came from Venezuela, and then when they arrived in the US, having to explain if they came after July 31, 2023, there is no way for asylum-seekers to work legally unless the federal government extends TPS. And that is frustrating for both the mayor and migrants.

“You talk to people who say, ‘I walked 3,000 miles to get here, and all I want is a job. Can you help me find some place to work? I don’t need charity. I just want to be able to support myself. Can I work?’” Johnston said. “And at the same time, we got employers all over the city who call me every day and say, ‘Hey, I know you’ve got migrants who just arrived. I got open jobs. Can I please hire them?’”

But right now, the answer is no.

“The federal government could provide next to no support to cities if all these folks have work authorization, because they’d be supporting themselves,” Johnston said. But with some being told they may have to wait six years for their asylum claims to be heard, he said, much of the need to support them will fall on the cities where they are waiting.

Yorgelis Fabiola, who is from Venezuela, said she was pleased to see the mayor asking about their situation, but she still needed answers. “It really is worrying. I don’t have a job right now, I’m afraid that when my stay ends here, they’ll throw me out on the street with my son, because I have nowhere else to go.”

Yorgelis Fabiola, left, apologized to Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, right, for having to enter the US illegally.  - Evelio Contreras/CNN
Yorgelis Fabiola, left, apologized to Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, right, for having to enter the US illegally. - Evelio Contreras/CNN
Without the work authorization granted to earlier arrivals, some migrants from Venezuela are trying to get day jobs for cash.  - Evelio Contreras/CNN
Without the work authorization granted to earlier arrivals, some migrants from Venezuela are trying to get day jobs for cash. - Evelio Contreras/CNN

As she shared her concerns with Johnston, Fabiola began to cry. “I thank all of you and I apologize for having entered your country illegally.”

Denver has now updated its policies on housing migrant families, resuming requirements for families to leave city facilities, but raising initial stays for new arrivals to six weeks.

Johnston is looking at Denver having to foot an annual bill of $180 million for migrant services, which would lead to major cuts in other city budgets, he said. “We don’t want to take police officers off the street. We don’t want to take firefighters off the street. We don’t want to not do trash pickup or not have our parks and recreation centers open.” But hard decisions are coming, he said.

If migrants tell the city they have connections in other places, Johnston’s administration will try to help to get them there. Adriana and her son John David got bus vouchers to California, but Johnston said there was no attempt to move migrants on unless they asked.

Without work authorization, some migrants are trying to find off-the-books employment. Groups congregate outside the big hardware stores from 5:30 a.m., before sunrise, hoping to pick up day labor jobs for cash, in construction or shoveling snow or doing whatever needs to be done.

It’s hit or miss, with one man telling CNN he had found work for only 15 days in the last three months. And even working is no guarantee of being paid, with another man complaining to the mayor that he labored for 10 days with others to build a roof and was sent packing with no money.

‘We want you to survive’

Amid the desperation, kind Denverites have created pockets of warmth and kindness.

Yong Prince plans to retire and has a contract to sell her motel at the end of next month. But for now, she has opened it to hundreds of migrants needing shelter.

She said she was born in North Korea during the Korean War and still remembers how hard her own life was. “I was hungry as a kid,” she said, tears beginning to well in her eyes. “We didn’t have any meals for a long time … that’s why I feed them.”

She cooks breakfast before 5 a.m. for those going out on the day labor hunt, using food that’s been donated or that she’s bought herself.

Yong Prince opened up her motel to house migrants for free. - Evelio Contreras/CNN
Yong Prince opened up her motel to house migrants for free. - Evelio Contreras/CNN

A widow who also lost her adult son to cancer, Prince clucks around the migrants like a mother hen, and in return, they call her “Mama,” a word that crosses the language divide.

Pastor Keith Reeser opened his church too, for overnight stays, hot showers and warm meals, with the backing of his congregation, the city and donations. When he heard migrants were still sleeping rough under a bridge on one frigid night, his response was immediate.

“We grabbed a couple of my buddies and I said, ‘Let’s go get them and let’s get them out of this situation.’”

Reeser knows the problem is overwhelming at the moment, so he focuses on what he can do, with mattresses on the gymnasium floor and food when it’s available.

“If you can’t get this level of immediate civility, then how would you ever arrive at anything else in life? We want you to survive … we care for you as a human,” he said of the migrants.

Outside the Denver Rescue Mission, migrants mixed with the city’s resident unhoused population, all shuffling to try to keep warm as they waited to get a bed for the night.

It’s one of the current pain points of the migrant influx to Denver, as the needs of the new arrivals come up against those who’ve been here a while.

“This is the tightest that I’ve ever seen it, facility-wide, in a metropolitan way, due to the influx of migrants,” said Robert Thompson, a veteran who’s been dealing with homelessness for years.

Robert Thompson, a veteran who's been dealing with homelessness for years, said he had seen resources become strained with the influx of migrants. - Evelio Contreras/CNN
Robert Thompson, a veteran who's been dealing with homelessness for years, said he had seen resources become strained with the influx of migrants. - Evelio Contreras/CNN
A group of people camp out in one of the rooms at Yong Prince’s motel. Carlo, center, eating pizza, said Prince had been like a mother to the migrants, cooking them breakfast every day before they went to look for work. - Evelio Contreras/CNN
A group of people camp out in one of the rooms at Yong Prince’s motel. Carlo, center, eating pizza, said Prince had been like a mother to the migrants, cooking them breakfast every day before they went to look for work. - Evelio Contreras/CNN

Mayor Johnston believes Denver and other cities can spearhead a solution that links the stream of asylum seekers that will not stop with the needs of places that want workers.

“We need more work authorization from Congress. We need federal dollars, and we also need a coordinated entry system. It shouldn’t just be people randomly bouncing from Chicago to New York to Denver looking for options,” he said. “We ought to be able to distribute people in places where they have work authorization, they have federal support to cities that have capacity. And if we do those three things, this is actually a very solvable problem.”

Johnston said Texas Gov. Abbott had not returned his calls but if he could talk to him, he would empathize. “I understand they feel like they have this huge influx of people that they can’t handle in Texas alone. I agree with him that no one state or one city should need to solve this entire challenge. But I think there’s a way for us to work together to say, let’s create a coordinated plan where we send people to cities that have capacity, where they can be successful.”

Despite the difficult situation,  Johnston said he can stay positive. “It’s very hard to be angry at these folks when you come and talk to them,” he said.

“It’s hard for me to get three kids to the grocery store and back,” he said, marveling at how parents got their children safely through a perilous intercontinental journey, betting their entire lives that they would find something better. “That’s the heart of, the American spirit. And so, whether they’re Americans in citizenship or Americans in spirit, based on that willingness to fight for their families, we just want them to be successful.”

But today, the crisis continues.

“We’re not going to let women and kids sleep on the street in 5-degree weather in this city,” Johnston said. “We need to intervene.”

Two children play at Yong Prince’s motel, which is under contract to be sold. - Evelio Contreras/CNN
Two children play at Yong Prince’s motel, which is under contract to be sold. - Evelio Contreras/CNN

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