An interview with Ray Lyall
Ray Lyall answers the phone and does almost anything else at Denver Homeless Out Loud, a nonprofit organization that works for and with people who are homeless. He spoke by phone with Western Friend on October 12, 2017. The following text contains edited excerpts from a transcript of that interview. To read the full transcript, see: westernfriend.org/media/denver-homless-out-loud-unabridged. To learn more about Denver Homeless Out Loud, see: denverhomelessoutloud.org.
Western Friend: Would you start by telling me about Denver Homeless Out Loud, its history and what it does?
Ray Lyall: Five years ago, March 2012, the city decided to pass what they call the “urban camping ban.” We call it the “urban survival ban,” because they’re not just banning camping, which is fun, right? They’re banning survival. A lot people decided they wanted to fight against it, but that didn’t work out so well. The city is not going to eliminate the law, but we are trying to rewrite it in a fairer way.
So now we’re an advocacy group, trying to stop the harassment of homeless folks. We have our own newspaper, Get Loud, that’s written for, by, and about homeless folks. And the newest thing we are doing – we are buying lockers from Craigslist, and we’re putting them around the city. We’re finding businesses that will say, “Yeah, you can do this.” That makes them on private property, and the city can’t say anything about it.
WF: That’s brilliant. Which businesses are supporting that?
RL: Sexy Pizza was the first one. The guy’s name is Kayvan Khalatbari. He’s got businesses all over town. He has actually come out on the street with me and slept on the ground. He decided that lockers were a cool idea, and now a bunch of other businesses are jumping on board.
Something else we are working on is a “Right to Rest” bill. We have been doing that in conjunction with the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
WF: And what about that ordinance, the survival ban?
RL: What the survival ban says is nobody can sleep outside with anything under them or over them. So it’s perfectly legal to sleep outside in a t-shirt and shorts when it’s 16 degrees below. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
WF: It would let people who have great big houses sleep on their porches.
RL: Yeah, and they say this isn’t about homelessness. They say it’s about everybody. Well guess what? Everybody doesn’t decide to sleep under a tree when it’s 16 degrees below zero.
Most people don’t want to use the shelters, either. The shelters are terrible. I’ve seen some in other parts of the country that are beautiful. But here, they are more like kennels. You have to sleep on top of one another on a floor with a little mat – and I mean a little mat that is one inch thick. And if there was a fire in the building, people would die trying to get out. And there are bed bugs. And colds. These are infected kennels. In the shelters, we have alcoholics; we have drug addicts; we have mental issues. The way I try to explain it is like this: There is a mom who is taking her Percocet and insulting her child, and the dad is sitting there drinking his whiskey and is tired of listening to all this crap, so he gets up and beats his kid.
WF: And this happens in this room that’s crammed with dozens of people.
RL: Hundreds of people! Not dozens of people, hundreds of people.
WF: And is there enough capacity for the people who want this?
RL: They say there is, but there isn’t. We have almost four thousand people homeless, and the shelters say they can house a thousand.
WF: How do people living outside stay warm enough?
RL: Well, we go around collecting tents and sleeping bags and jackets and stuff like that, and we just pass them out. So Homeless Out Loud is not the greatest friend of the city. We’ve had anywhere from three to forty-five tents set up in some places when the snow is four feet deep. We’ve had cops come up and tell us, “You have to tear your tents down.” We just go, “No, we’re not going to,” and most of the time, somebody gets arrested; they take our tents; they take our sleeping bags; they take our blankets.
WF: So you must have a lot of people who die of exposure every winter?
RL: One-hundred-eighty-eight last year. Maybe five people less than the year before. I can’t stand it, this thing about, “Well, if this person was in a shelter, he wouldn’t have died.” That’s crap, that’s a lie. People are going to die; that one person might not have died, but another one would have.
WF: So how did you get involved with Denver Homeless Out Loud yourself?
RL: When I became homeless, it was from a really bad business deal. Somebody kind of burned me, and I ended up losing everything that I had. . . I turned to doing everything that made me a typical homeless guy. I went to drugs and alcohol; I was doing the whole nine yards. Then I found a copy of Get Loud, and I read it. On the back, it said, “Hey, you could be a writer, come down and tell us your story.” So I did that, and then I figured out that I was not a very good writer. So I got involved with everything else they did.
I would go to their meetings and I would be drunk. I would have bottles in my pocket. I would be shooting up heroin and going to the meeting. I would smoke meth and go into the meeting. Nobody ever went, “You’re a real wreck. You can’t be here.” They just went, “What are your ideas?” And I went, “Oh. Somebody actually cares about what I think.” And I thought maybe I should stop drinking when I go to the meetings. Or maybe I won’t smoke as much crack. And that’s what happened. I saw people who actually gave a shit about people. And this is what I have been trying to do forever. I mean, I’ve been trying to care about people forever. And I got sober. And that’s what I do now.
WF: They saved your life, really.
RL: That’s how I usually put it, yes. And I’m a loudmouth, so they kind of liked that, because I’m the guy that yells at city council.
WF: (Laughs.) So, Judy Danielson is the person who put me in touch with you. Do you know her?
RL: No, she just called me out of the blue. She may have been in one of our meetings. We have thirty or forty people sometimes. I don’t get to meet everybody.
WF: Right. So I know Judy because she’s part of the Quaker meeting in Denver. Have you had any contact with them?
RL: That subject for me . . . The Mennonites have helped us most.
WF: The Quakers not so much.
RL: I think . . . You all are lacking. Sorry, I just . . .
WF: That’s OK. I think a lot of us would agree.
RL: We go to do presentations in the churches, and we ask for help. We’re not asking them for money; we’re asking them for help. I think that if I were Jesus, I would be kicking over tables. I’m a Jesus fan, but I’m not a religion fan. “Religious” people are lacking in a big way. They talk a lot of great stuff, but do very little.
But here’s the thing: There are over four hundred churches in this city. If each one of them put four tiny homes on their property – they all own property; it’s legal for them to do that – we could solve the homeless issue in this city. But they don’t want to do that. “Oh, well, there’s a stigma . . . The homeless are all drunks, all drug addicts, all crazy.”
WF: Well, speaking for myself, I want to change things, but I am a coward. I am not a brave person.
RL: Well, so am I. I am a coward, too. But, if we are together in the same room, we can change shit. Two cowards make one brave person. That’s math.
WF: (Laughs) That’s good.
RL: I understand that people don’t want to cause upset. But at some point, you are going to have to start upsetting people. The whole civil rights movement didn’t happen because, “Oh well, we are just going to make everybody happy.” No. They upset people. People died because of it. People were beaten because of it. And I don’t see Jesus going, “You know, you guys are great; here’s some more money.” He beat people. He said, “You know this isn’t right.” And that’s what we have to do. We have to stand up and say, “This is wrong. What you are doing today is wrong. These are people.”
WF: So why do you think things are like this? How can we have a country or a city that lets so many people just be thrown aside or excluded or ostracized?
RL: Because we have lost touch with reality. Capitalism has turned everybody into, “Oh, it’s all about me.” We are not taking care of other people.
There’s a South African philosophy called Ubantu, and it means human kindness, which touches base with what this is all about. If you were to meet these people with Denver Homeless Out Loud, you would be like, “Oh, my god, these people are so kind. They do everything for anybody they can. And they are all homeless.”
Not a lot of people get it. . . Matter of fact, when I meet religious people, and they go, “I love you,” I say, “You have to.” But people who say, “I love you,” and there’s nothing more than that, I know they don’t get it.
WF: So if I really got it, I would be doing something?
RL: You can’t defy love. When you look at a homeless person – or anyone in poverty – and you say to them, “I love you,” and then you don’t feed them or do something else for them . . . You really don’t get it. . . I know people who don’t have a penny, but they go out of their way to do stuff for other people all the time.
WF: Like you. What makes you that way?
RL: I just . . . I’d rather care. That’s all I can say. I’d rather care. I’d rather give a shit. I’d rather care about somebody than hate them for something they’re not or some stupid idea I have. If you are a drug addict, it does not mean I have to hate you. You are still a human being. ~~~