Thanksgiving served with a side of grace at the Denver Rescue Mission

Claire Cleveland/CPR News
Hundreds of people experiencing homelessness gathered at the Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter for its annual Great Thanksgiving Banquet on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021.

For the first time, Dwayne Washington didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving with his family or friends. Instead, he did so at the Denver Rescue Mission.

“Never thought I'd find myself in this situation,” Washington said. “But it's good that people treat you with respect -- and they love on you here. So yeah, I'm pretty happy.”

Washington is among many who are experiencing homelessness for the first time -- a number that's doubled in Denver after the pandemic began, according to one study.

The nonprofit served hundreds of plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and rolls at its Lawrence Street location downtown on Wednesday. The Mission’s chef, Kevin Baker, said it’s important to go all out and serve a meal that’s delicious and reminds people they’re loved even if they're experiencing hardship.

“I want to serve people hope. I want to serve them with dignity. I want to serve them grace,” Baker said. “I want to make sure that our guests feel special.”

Washington said he felt that hope and care during the meal. 

“I had two plates,” he said. “I'm full of Turkey and stuffing. It was great.” 

He’s from Louisiana and came to Colorado for a seasonal job. When the season was up and plans for another job fell through, he found himself without a place to live. 

“I'm pretty grateful,” Washington said. “And looking to get back on my feet, but while I'm in transition Denver Rescue Mission has been like the best.”

Some people, like Darren Kiehne, are looking forward to joining recovery programs. 

“There's good days. There's bad days. There's times when you're crying so hard and you're praying to God so hard and you feel like there's no hope, and then it could change that afternoon. And somebody might even just give you a high five or a hug, and something as simple as that can turn your whole mentality around,” he said. “So like right now I feel pretty hopeful.” 

His favorite part of the meal was the carrot cake served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. 

Claire Cleveland/CPR News
Patricia Darrington enjoys a traditional Thanksgiving meal at the Denver Rescue Mission's Lawrence Street Shelter on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. She lost housing about a year ago but hopes to have a place to live by Christmas.

Others are hopeful their housing insecurity will soon end. Patricia Darrington said she lost her housing during the pandemic. But she has since worked to arrange housing she hopes will come through by Christmas. She’s already planning for a tree.

“I've never experienced homelessness before, ever,” she said. “It's really scary. At first. Now I'm strong. I was strong before, but now I'm even stronger.”

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock also stopped by to serve food, pie and hot chocolate. Hickenlooper has volunteered at the event since 2005, only missing it a few times. 

“I like, actually love, when you put the plate of food in front of someone who's clearly hungry and has been waiting for a warm hot meal,” Hickenlooper said. “Especially on a day like today, when it’s dark and cold outside.” 

Last weekend, a staff member at the Mission’s 48th Street location was stabbed to death by a man who Denver Police has since arrested. The death was shocking and painful for staff and leadership at the Mission, said Nicole Tschetter, public relations manager. 

“Today at the Great Thanksgiving Banquet, it's a beautiful reminder of why we do what we do,” she said, “and that's to meet people who are experiencing homelessness at their points of need.” 

As for Washington, he has an interview for a new job on Monday. He’s optimistic about what’s to come. 

“This is a place you can come and get treated with decency and get back on your feet,” he said. “As long as you're willing… make that push and get yourself out of the situation, they're here for you. Colorado is the freaking best.”