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Nonprofit hires people who live on the streets to help restore Civic Center

After an encampment was cleared by the City of Denver last year, a nonprofit has helped to restore the park, and they're hiring people who live on the streets.

DENVER — Some barriers are easier to see than others.

There's the fencing outside Civic Center to keep the unhoused from camping as the city restores the grass. Then there are the barriers that Brandon Watson faces as a 49-year-old man who hasn't had a home in decades.

"I don't have nowhere to go," he said. "A lot of times I sleep with one eye open. It's rough out here."

Last year, the city cleared out people who created an encampment in Civic Center, citing drug use and violence. Watson said he avoided the encampment but feels grateful to be back in the park now thanks to a program that started in April.

RELATED: Emails describe build-up of safety concerns, illegal activity before Civic Center Park closure

"What we know is Civic Center has been historically underutilized," said Eric Lazzari, executive director of the nonprofit Civic Center Conservancy.

The Conservancy works to keep the park thriving for everyone, and Lazzari said the nonprofit often works as a "matchmaker" – like it did with its latest program, Civic Center Works.

The program offers jobs in the park to unhoused people and is funded through grants that the Conservancy received through the VF Corporation and Bank of America.

The Conservancy partners with Bayaud Enterprises, which already runs a similar program called Denver Day Works.

Through Bayaud, workers receive wraparound services like housing navigators, transportation and employment specialists. Already, Civic Center Works has transitioned four workers to permanent employment.

"We know if a park is dirty or looks not taken care of and things like that, that is a barrier to use," Lazzari said. "People perceive it as unsafe or unwelcome."

Through this program, Watson does weeding and gardening in that help take down that barrier of use in Civic Center, and the job helps Watson break through his own barrier.

"What it's did for me, yeah it's saving my life," he said. "All I needed was a chance, that's it."

Watson works four days a week and gets $100 cash per day. 

While the nature of the job is seasonal, Watson said he hopes it leads him to a permanent job with Denver's Parks and Recreation Department and eventually beyond the barrier of homelessness.

"Basically, I found a place where I belong," he said. "That's what it is." 

Denver Parks and Recreation has yet to hire anyone from the Civic Center Works program, but over the years, it has hired about a dozen people from the Denver Day Works program.

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