by Cecilia LaFrance
“The world does not need another food bank.” The proclamation from Mean Street Ministries Director James Fry may sound self-critical. Outside his office, as he speaks, visitors load bags with free food and supplies. Four days a week, people in need or without a home show up at the charity and leave with what they can reasonably carry, an expense that would otherwise compete with rent money or couldn’t be afforded at all. The food distribution, however, is one of Mean Street’s invitations for a more impactful relationship. “If you want out of this, we know how to get you out,” Fry says, both as a welcome and a challenge to anyone experiencing homelessness.
More Than A Food Bank
Mean Street Ministries, originally conceived as a food bank twenty years ago, evolved to be a more comprehensive service to fully combat the homelessness problem. Food and supplies are a start. The doors at Mean Street’s Lakewood location stay busy due to referrals from other agencies and by word of mouth. But, Mean Street also deploys a fleet of outreach vehicles staffed by Fry’s “adrenaline junkie” volunteer friends, who hit the streets two nights a week to deliver toiletries, diapers, toys, clothing, and high demand items to depressed apartments, hotels, and trailer parks. Fry and his crews know the hangouts, the railway belts, the dark places under bridges where the underprivileged seek shelter. Building a relationship, being willing to give help where people need it, leads to trust. In return, the likelihood of people utilizing Mean Street’s counseling and resource navigation components increases.
Counseling is fundamental in the steps out of homelessness, Fry says. “You can’t fix any of this stuff until you get eyeball to eyeball.” The gravity of Fry’s words pair with the intensity in his eyes. “Until you have a relationship, you’re trying to help, but nothing gets fixed.” If what’s wrong isn’t uncovered, a situation is likely to be repeated, he says.
For the families who turn to Mean Street’s winter shelter, Fry provides “a safe place to unpack this.” Couples therapy is delivered in what he calls “the guise of life skills classes,” like budgeting and discipline. The financial stress of homelessness fractures families, Fry says. For a couple trying to save for an apartment and down payment while living in a car, every expense comes with scrutiny. “It eats away at the reasons they love each other,” Fry says. The classes are a stealthy way to get to the heart of problems. “It’s beautiful what happens.” Fry’s dark gray eyebrows raise as he elaborates on how couples share and listen to each other, how other families respond with support. “I’ve never seen anything work stronger than this.” Fry says he’s seen 100% of the families at Mean Street get off the streets.
In the Name
Mean Street’s name holds implications, he explains. A mean is a mathematical term for the middle. Of course, Fry notes,“mean” also denotes humble origins, anger, broken, and sickly, often defining the population welcome through Mean Street’s doors. “I also believe it’s the middle of God’s heart.” The “T” in the “Street” lettering of the ministry’s logo is represented with a cross. “We’ve been accused of force feeding religion, but that’s not what we do.” All are welcome to use Mean Street’s services, he clarifies.
“In my opinion, there’s a brokenness between man and God. That understanding helps us get out of our trials.” Fry, seated in a deep leather lounger, one ankle resting on the knee of his other leg, runs a knuckle down his beard. “It’s just a theory,” he says, but one he stands behind, one possibly built from firsthand experience.
A Texas-sized leather belt and rancher memorabilia decorating Fry’s lamp-lit office hint at his early years as a cowboy from the Red River area of Oklahoma and Texas. After college, Fry left the lands of legends like General Custer and Wild Bill Hickok. “What’s a cowboy going to do with a science degree?” Likely, a similar question repelled him from his faith. How can a scientist believe in God? “Life crap,” he says, including a dying father and a lack of compassion for the world, brought Fry back to church eventually, but not necessarily to faith. “I kept finding myself arguing with a God I denied existed.”
“One day, I asked about this Grace thing, an unmerited gift.” It didn’t make sense, Fry says. He experienced an answer that left him awash with an abundance of love for his fellow man and the world. But, a scientist wants proof. “God didn’t just show up; He’s been here.” So, Fry studied Greek, Hebrew, and ancient civilizations. “I kept feeling like He was pointing me toward Colfax.”
Fry references an earlier experience volunteering at a Denver food bank while fulfilling a community service component for a social justice class. Witnessing“sick and broken people” coming in, Fry’s prosperous view of America was shaken. “Where are they coming from?” Curious, he followed people, and found the dejected hotels along Colfax Avenue were roofs of last resorts, rather than lodgings of choice.
His food bank started with a deal on a box of day-old 7-Eleven sandwiches, which he took directly to the Colfax destinations he previously saw food bank users return. With funds intended for his retirement from a career in the neon and technical glass profession, he bought a box truck and passenger van to deliver a growing stock of food and supplies he kept under the stairs of his house. Twenty years later, his crew continues to hit the streets two nights a week.
“All of this was set up because it was my own walk.” Fry says he didn’t realize people were suffering and his immediate response was to fix things. “It didn’t happen that way.” He admits he acted with an anticipated image of who he would meet each night. His view transitioned, though, so that he can look people in the eye and see human beings. Feeding the hungry was just a ripple in the pond, one with potential for greater impact. Going to the people on the streets or in temporary hotels, Fry and his crew see the conditions — the too-full diapers of toddlers, the black eye on someone’s sweetheart, the empty beer case in the trash—that need solving. “If you have relationships, lives change.”
“We’re on the cutting edge of the homeless issue,” Fry says. But, more resources for mental health and a more responsive shelter system are needed. Mental illness, whether the result or cause of drug addiction, makes up a large part of the problem, Fry says. “This is a brokenness. This is the best they’re ever going to do.” Yet, people with mental illness don’t qualify for help under the social health system unless they are a harm to themselves or to others. Fry rubs his temple and the tenor of his voice perks the ears of Zeke, his long-haired German Sheppard spread out on the floor. “We should not be doing this to our sick people.”
As for shelters, Fry speaks carefully about enforcement of the district’s fire code that effectively shut down Mean Street’s family winter shelter in 2018, a decision that left Jefferson County without a single shelter other than in times of emergency winter conditions. “We exist by the good graces of our politicians and the established bureaucrats, and many of them don’t think churches should be involved in this.” Technically, he explains, Mean Street is not a church but rents space in one.
“Politics are involved in everything now,” he says. “All I care about is the soul standing in front of me.” Fry has lined up a new shelter location, obtained the correct permits, and plans to open doors to families again in 2019 if he secures financing. Outfits like Mean Street play a vital role, Fry says, in picking up the pieces of things that come down the pipe. “This is the real trench warfare here,” he says, unlike the numbers which sociologists behind desks base policy. “We’re independent thinkers,” compared to government entities, Fry says, and take “walking through the darkness” seriously. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years.” Fry’s fingers rest against his temple. “I don’t see anyone shouldering me out of it.”