PERRYBLOG: Preventing a Colorado minimum-wage hike funds Denver-metro shanty towns

If you think a hike in the minimum wage is just about a bunch of shiftless whiners who don’t deserve $12 an hour to clean toilets, feed old people in nursing homes or ring up your groceries, modern-day Hoovervilles is what that kind of thinking buys your fellow humans in and around Aurora

Nothing is more relaxing and therapeutic than a night spent sleeping under the Colorado stars — unless you’re camping among drug addicts and mentally ill vagrants along local creeks and rivers or under metro area bridges.

Every summer, I live to bike all over the metro area, always before sunrise and sometimes hours before then. Avoiding surprised skunks and plagues of mosquitoes, I haunt trails in the dark along the South Platte River, Clear Creek, Cherry Creek, Sand Creek and others.

For years, I’d meet a very few fellow dark-riders and runners, the occasional glassy-eyed reveler and a handful of restless vagrants.

It’s been a whole different world that past couple of years, and especially the past couple of months. I have never seen so many homeless campers on the Platte as I did last weekend. Dozens and dozens of them. Despite what you think, most of them are not the trembling alcoholics that hover around Jesus Saves.

Last Saturday it was an underground city of mostly couples and even families with kids. A story we did last year made it clear that the river-camp plight is a growing problem along the Platte, into Aurora and pretty much all over the metro area. Despite the clichéd beggars you have in mind, a lot of these river people are the real working poor with minimum wage and temp jobs.

So this is what minimum wage gets you in metro Denver as an adult.

If you think a hike in the minimum wage is just about a bunch of shiftless whiners who don’t deserve $12 an hour to clean toilets, feed old people in nursing homes or ring up your groceries, modern-day Hoovervilles is what that kind of thinking buys your fellow humans in and around Aurora.

The problem is so persistent that Denver has made special efforts to shoo away the river people, but it doesn’t work. Aurora regularly confiscates the worldly possessions left behind at camps under bridges and viaducts by people who stash their stuff  and go to school and work. Two years ago, a special Census revealed there were more than 12,000 homeless people in the metro area. Far more. More than a third had jobs. Two-thirds “live” with children.

What’s sadder than families trying to eke out a life on the river is the vehement push-back from opponents of raising the minimum wage to at least $10 or $12 and hour. It’ll bankrupt endless businesses, many say. It’s not needed because $8 an hour in Colorado is all the market can bear.

That’s all crap.

Sure, adding labor cost to any business has a net economic affect. But the myth from corporate America is that higher wages must all come from the pockets of consumers. The offset should come from profits and relative overpayment to top-level management. It’s not wrong or impossible. Wealthy, happy, successful economies like those in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands and many others have proven that you can have free-market economies, pay people a practical and realistic wage for their time worked and still make big profits for stockholders. If you haven’t noticed, Germany and Scandinavia rule the world right now. They don’t have problems with hard-working, poor people living under bridges. Smaller American companies should be able to offset higher labor costs through tax credits, which in turn are offset by employee taxes on higher earnings paid to workers.

It really works.  But to just shrug our shoulders and say, “Hey, don’t like it? Get a job somewhere else or start your own business,” is like telling an amputee to suck it up and grow legs. It’s unrealistic. More important, it creates a system that forces people into what is, at best, government-sanctioned indentured servitude, and at worst, modern slavery.

Another myth is that these are all illegal Latin American immigrants sleeping along the river. Sure, some are. But they’re also U.S. military vets. They’re elderly Americans who worked their whole lives and lost what little they had to greedy banks and mortgage companies. They’re young couples who have no money for college, and middle-aged Americans with families whose marginal-salary jobs were sent oversees to insufferable child and female labor camps in China, Malaysia and India. They’re our friends, neighbors, families. They’re people.

They’re Americans, and they live on the banks of the Platte River in Denver, walking miles each day to minimum-wage gigs that cap their hours to prevent having to pay overtime or offer insurance, forcing these people to work two or three minimum-wage jobs just to make enough to sleep in a tent among wandering drug addicts and mentally ill alcoholics.

No kidding, it looks like a Steinbeck novel just steps away from million-dollar condos and comfortable suburban homes. It’s grotesque. And it’s wrong. A business and its profit margins pegged on paying people a wage that results in suffering, brings on two things: unionization and, ultimately, revolt. “Can you hear the people sing…?” I can.