A Denver homeless man known as the keeper of East Colfax has nothing. But he still creates a Thanksgiving celebration to share. – The Colorado sun | CarTailz

Last Thanksgiving, Tony Jones scraped together more than $100 worth of meal tickets to buy three turkeys, mountains of mashed potatoes and gravy, and macaroni and cheese from King Soopers.

It was a fitting and somewhat lavish meal for a man living on the streets of downtown Denver — one he shared with about 80 other homeless residents.

“And they ate all the food, thank God,” said Jones, 63. “All they left me was the carcass. I didn’t even get my turkey leg.”

A year later, Jones still doesn’t have much. He often sleeps in his car, a brown Subaru with a starter that won’t tip over and the driver’s side window taped shut because someone smashed it with a rock.

And he’s dying. He’s supposed to be dead already.

But despite his battle with cancer, multiple heart attacks, and the little he owns, Jones plans yet another Thanksgiving edition for his community’s homeless population. This year there won’t be turkey or any of the traditional side dishes, but there will be chili – at least six pots of it – to feed dozens of his neighbors who also make it through the streets.

Tony Jones, 63, on the corner of Josephine and East Colfax, where he used to hold up a sign for hours. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Jones now assists Phone Repair and More employees with selling phones, cleaning jobs and helping others in the Colfax area who are struggling to find permanent housing. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Partnering with local businesses whose employees have become closer to him than many of his own family members, Jones will host Friday’s Thanksgiving gathering, which has become Chili Cookoff Avenue, in the parking lot of a row of shops and restaurants on the corner of East Colfax and Josephine Street. And he’s calling on the community to donate warm clothing, blankets and money so he can buy long underwear and thick socks and give away a few extra dollars to help them get through the upcoming winter months.

It is a gesture of thanks and giving from a man who has drawn on the same businesses in which he used to be a beggar. In exchange for their generosity, he helps them behind the scenes, tries to protect the surrounding neighborhood, and simply offers an ear to listen.

Jones, who has been homeless for four years, sat on this street corner for a year and a half holding a sign that read, “Homeless and hungry. Everything helps. Lost everything because of my cancer.”

Back then, he slept in Cheesman Park in a spot under a tree canopy just off an alley, where he threw off a layer of cardboard and a blanket or sheet, trying to nod off in the cold. He’s been chasing sleep in all sorts of places across Denver that he can easily rattle off, including a vacant house on Colfax Avenue and Race Street and a field along Akron Street and 14th Street.

“It’s tough,” said Jones, who estimates he’s lost 70 pounds and lost most of his teeth as a result of his illness. “Its hard. And I’ve learned a lot. It is not easy.”

Jones has been homeless for four years and often sleeps in his car when he’s not at the shop. Cheesman Park is a place where Jones used to sleep due to its remoteness and protection from trees. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

But Jones hasn’t always been on the verge of stability. He moved to Denver in 1980 and the next year opened a janitorial business, which he ran for nine years, followed by a tow truck business, which he ran for five years. He later opened two restaurants: one was Rockin’ Roosters Wings with an Attitude on the Denver-Aurora border, and then Wolf’s, which he opened with a business partner in Aurora. He closed both restaurants.

“And then it just went downhill from there,” Jones said.

He said he was first diagnosed with lung cancer four or five years ago. It has now spread all over his body – “from the tips of his toes to the top of his head”. The doctors told him three times that he should already be dead. He has since stopped listening to them, tired of the depression that follows their prognosis.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Jones said.

But he feels himself getting weaker and has trouble keeping his balance while walking; tingling in his legs, arms and hands; and pain that leaves him exhausted and unable to move. Sometimes his urine turns red with blood.

Cancer has also robbed him of the ability to work steadily. While seeking treatment, Jones often couldn’t make it to work and was fired from a job setting up for events. Other employers turned him down because they needed someone they could rely on full-time.

Finally he made a cardboard sign.

“All I can think of is hold a sign,” Jones said.

Jones helps sell phones, cleans chores, and helps others in the Colfax area who are struggling to find permanent housing. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Jones often helps sell refurbished and discounted phones, typically Apple iPhones, at Phone Repair and More.

“Even the homeless deserve love”

Not only traffic and passers-by saw him.

Jojo Martinez, owner and operator of Phone Repair and More Denver on East Colfax Avenue, was preparing to open his business about three years ago when Jones approached him about taking odd jobs while he hung around the corner trying to collect loose change .

Martinez was concerned at first but not for long as Jones was adamant and showed the business owner how reliable he was.

“It’s hard not to like him right away,” Martinez said, adding, “Little by little, we started to trust him more and more.”

He shoveled snow and tended the parking lot, trying to make the area safer by asking people who openly used drugs to leave the premises, a challenge in a neighborhood where drug abuse, gunshots and stabbings pose a risk to people represent businesses and a nearby high school. The job comes at a high cost: Jones’ own well-being. Two and a half months ago someone robbed him, stabbed him twice in the head, cut under his nose and broke his nose two blocks from the phone repair shop and sent him to the hospital for stitches.

Tony Jones and Bex Schimoler, managers of the Learned Lemur, admire a stuffed boa snake on a wall. Jones has found refuge and community with various business owners in East Colfax. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Nonetheless, Jones remains the sentinel of East Colfax Avenue, watching over storefronts and checking in with business owners like Bex Schimoler, gallery and events manager at curiosity shop The Learned Lemur, to see if they need help with anything. He helped Schimoler build a dressing room for a monthly show held at her store. And any help he gives often comes with a smile and a joke.

“It’s just great to have him around,” she said, “and he’s one of the faces of Colfax that we love to see.”

Jones has also become the right-hand security of Regina Gayton, a subway manager on East Colfax Avenue whom Jones met about two years ago.

Whenever someone in the restaurant is upset and doesn’t want to leave, she turns to Jones to intervene, banging on the wall the venue shares with the phone repair shop next door, where he spends most of his day.

He also steps in when she needs to squish a bug, when she needs food – bringing her Red Bull and jelly beans from a supermarket along the way, or cooking her burritos – and when her truck breaks down. Or when she breaks down in tears in her truck and needs someone to get her through a bad day.

“He takes care of everyone,” Gayton said. “Don’t get me wrong, he’ll check on someone if you need him, but he’s always there for you.”

She calls him the brother she never had.

To Martinez, Jones is more like an uncle — someone who is constantly there to support him, someone who pushes him to do better, and someone who he includes in family gatherings. The two consider themselves family, and Jones is someone Martinez relies on to help his business with its day-to-day weather challenges. He does maintenance and takes care of Martinez’s dogs Kratos and Dracula, sells appliances, checks in customers and is in the process of learning how to fix phones.

Jojo Martinez, owner and operator of Phone Repair and More, was preparing his business to open about three years ago when Jones approached him about taking odd jobs to try and raise loose change. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“Everyone deserves a chance,” Martinez said. “This is a very rough road and when you see someone who is going out of their way to help others, they definitely deserve another chance.”

It stands out among many of the other regulars who make their home along East Colfax Avenue, some of whom are struggling and others struggling with addiction, said Matt Kinslow, the phone repair shop’s owner and operations manager.

“You can tell he’s trying,” Kinslow said.

In exchange for Jones’ hours on the clock, Martinez and Kinslow pay him a commission on the devices he sells. They also open a back room in the store for Jones to sleep in, hoping to hire him full-time to help with marketing so he can one day afford an apartment of his own.

“He doesn’t ask for much, but I want him to do better,” Martinez said.

Jones knows the streets and knows how to talk to the people on them — whether he’s trying to spread the word about Martinez’s phone repair business or shoving drug users off the block.

“I think because he was in their shoes, they respect him a lot more,” Martinez said.

Jones wishes more people would try to live outside and understand the unrelenting obstacles that life on the streets poses. Many people assume that the homeless are dirty. Some people, he said, even spit on them.

“The homeless deserve love too,” he said. “They deserve someone to take care of them. A lot of them out here don’t have families. You have nowhere to go. I think let Tony be the family.”The chili cookoff will take place Friday noon in front of Phone Repair and More Denver, 2344 E. Colfax Ave. To donate clothing, blankets, or money, call the store at 720-809-9999.

Tony is “the brother I never had,” said Regina Gayton, a Subway executive who has known Jones for two years. Jones has found refuge and community with various business owners in East Colfax. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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