The Denver VOICE Turns 20: Reflection on the Past Two Decades

In November 1996 a group made up primarily of people experiencing homelessness published the first issue of the Denver VOICE. During the past two decades, many different people have contributed to the VOICE. The paper has reinvented itself several times over the past 20 years, always adapting to the changing landscape of Denver.

By Sarah Harvey, editor

Book Williams, Jr.

In the beginning, there was Shirley Whiteside, Jo-Jo DeHerrera, and Floyd “Tumbleweed” Hamilton. The trio connected through the Denver Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen (where Shirley worked) and St. Francis Center (where Jo-Jo and Floyd were regulars). Inspired by Seattle street paper Real Change and frustrated with the absence of a homeless voice in public discourse, the group founded the Denver VOICE in 1996.

The original paper was very much by and for the homeless. The publication introduced itself in that very first issue as a way for homeless people to communicate with each other, to share resources, to write about how they had been treated—good and bad—and to share any additional information that could benefit others on the streets. Along with the poetry and public forum, the earliest version of the VOICE also published the city’s first resource list for people experiencing homelessness. The paper was distributed throughout Denver for free.

In 2001 the VOICE had enough money donated to hire its first employee, Kali Lynn, as office coordinator and editor. Throughout the early 2000s, the Denver VOICE became increasingly activistic, organizing protests and events like a sleep-in at the City and County building.

It was during this same period that Bruce Wright, VOICE vendor number one, began selling the paper. Initially, Bruce’s vending was met with disapproval from other homeless people, but soon several folks began selling the VOICE (including Jerry Rosen, who is profiled on page 3 of this issue).

By this point, Denver Urban Ministries (now Denver Urban Matters) had donated a small office space to the VOICE. Bruce, Jerry, and anyone else who wanted to sell the paper went to the DenUm office to pick up copies for free. The paper was still distributed for free at day centers and cafes throughout Denver too.

Kali remained the driving force behind the paper until she had to leave for medical reasons in 2006. In addition to the loss of Kali, the VOICE also lost its main source of funding. By 2006, the VOICE had ceased publication.

Kali made one last effort to ensure the paper would survive beyond her tenure. In December 2006, she called Rick Barnes, a Denver businessman who used to buy the paper from Bruce Wright and who had donated to the VOICE in the past. She had heard through Bruce that Rick was interested in reviving the paper.

Rick picked up the mantle, and resurrected the Denver VOICE in 2007. He hired a team of journalists to run the new publication, but the biggest departure from earlier versions of the VOICE was the creation of the official vendor program. Rick looked to the International Network of Street Papers as an example, and created a vendor program that provides training and support to the individuals selling the VOICE. Bruce Wright, the VOICE’s original vendor, became a vendor for the revived paper, and was issued badge #0001.

The paper you are reading today still operates on the same basic model Rick set up in 2007. The paper is still managed by journalists who do original reporting and who also work with vendors to help them tell their stories. Today, about 20-25 percent of our content comes from people experiencing homelessness. To date, the Denver VOICE’s vendor program has employed more than 4,000 people experiencing homelessness and poverty.

In an interview for the first issue of the revived VOICE, Kali Lynn had the following to say: “The truth is that each incarnation of the VOICE has been fueled by the energy, charisma, personality, and excitement that a handful of people brought to the paper.” That was true of the paper’s first decade, and it has certainly been true of the paper’s second decade. As we enter our third decade, the VOICE will continue to adapt to meet the needs of the people we serve. ■