Janet Matzen wakes up early on Saturdays to cook enough food for as many as 150 people living on the streets of downtown Denver.
“You know what they say?” Matzen asks. “It’s the best food in Denver.” The smells rising from her trays of casserole, potatoes, and curry leave little room for doubt.
On Sunday mornings, Matzen drives her home-cooked trays of food, folding tables, and assortment of crock pots from her apartment in Lakewood, 15 minutes away.
After eight years hosting this community meal, Matzen and her crew of helpers — whoever shows up that morning — move like an army of ants, quickly popping up a buffet line along the 16th Street Mall between two bus lanes, a brewery, and a Federal Reserve building.
While the food is an offering of support for homeless residents, it is also a form of activism, says Brian Loma, who’s been helping Janet since the early days.
“The food is also a way to build visibility and make tourists uncomfortable and say, ‘Wow, this beautiful city of Denver has a problem. Why aren’t they doing more?’” Loma says. “The engagement we do on the mall is intended to make people think about how they’re allowing their government to use their voice and their money.”
On the mall this Sunday morning in August, Loma runs the hand-washing station at the front of the serving line, where nearly 70 people wait to fill their plates.
“They never get hot food,” Matzen says, “so they really love this.”
Today, the gathering runs smoothly, but activists say they’ve been harassed by police in the past for setting up tables. In part, their presence on the mall is meant to show the importance of free assembly and the right to gather in public spaces.
Before the pandemic, the group also staged boycotts and protests outside downtown businesses to bring attention to the city’s urban camping ban, an ordinance passed by Denver City Council in 2012.
The ban prohibits people from setting up temporary shelter on public or private property, except with permission. The definition of “shelter” even includes blankets, or anything other than clothing, though temperatures in Denver can drop well below zero in the winter months.
In December of last year, Denver County Court Judge Johnny Barajas ruled the city’s camping ban unconstitutional, saying it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The city has since appealed the ruling.
Matzen fought the ban before it passed, and she’s been a proud agitator since 2011, when she joined the Occupy Denver protests calling for economic justice after the 2008 economic crash. This is where Matzen began to connect food activism with the issue of homelessness.
“When Occupy Denver happened, the homeless people came into our encampment, and that’s how I got to know homeless people and their issues. Like, to not be able to get a cup of coffee?” Matzen says, referring to downtown shops turning unhoused people away to preserve business. “I just couldn’t believe people could tell the difference between me and them and decide who gets the coffee and who doesn’t.”
Janet Matzen stood at the end of the serving line handing out greetings and homemade buttons that she and her friend made. “Buttons are by donation,” she shouts down the line. “Unless you don’t have a job!” She breaks into a soaring laugh, one that peppers every conversation. [Photo by Kelly West]
Cole Morris eats a plate of food served by Janet Matzen and her crew along the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver. It was Morris' first time eating Matzen's food, and he was impressed. "It's amazing," he said between bites. [Photo by Kelly West]
Janet Matzen cooked trays of fish curry, potatoes, and sausage casserole that she and other volunteers served to about 70 people in downtown Denver on Sunday afternoon. [Photo by Kelly West]
Matzen also brings clothing, sleeping bags, and whatever she can gather to help people survive outdoors. She stands at the end of the line, live-streaming the scene on her YouTube channel and pointing to the political buttons on the table in front of her.
“Buttons are by donation,” she shouts down the line. “Unless you don’t have a job!” She breaks into a soaring laugh, one that peppers every conversation. While the issues she’s fighting are serious, her presence is warm, jovial, and generous.
Friends estimate Matzen has served more than 50,000 meals from her small kitchen since she first began this effort eight years ago. She’s also welcomed dozens of people into her home to help them transition to employment and housing.
“I like for them to come in and get up on their feet,” Matzen says, though she’s careful about who she chooses, and she doesn’t tolerate alcohol use.
Matzen pays for the meals herself, but receives donations from food banks, grocers, and people who want to help. One supporter recently gave her a second refrigerator. “Someone came all the way from California to give me this Instant Pot,” she says.
It costs about $120 to put together each feast, Matzen estimates, and donations this Sunday totalled $45. But Matzen carries on regardless of what she gets.
The meals from Matzen’s kitchen have sustained more than the people living on the streets nearby — they have become a ritual of community and a place for learning and shifting perspectives.
Loma, who comes out every Sunday, calls this his church. “There are people who call her Saint Janet,” he says. “She has transformed people’s beliefs in the process and the system and humanity. People will take off their shoes and socks and give them to homeless members of our community because they’re motivated by Janet. People are doing this in their neighborhoods in other parts of the country after seeing what we do here.”