Littleton Independent – By Jessica Gibbs

Church network will house women and children during cold months

For Nicole Bell, 32, a kitchen table has real significance.

The homeless mother of five has been living in a Lone Tree hotel for more than two years. For the sake of space and efficient parenting, her two oldest children live with their father in Castle Rock.

Today, Bell struggles to remember the last time she could sit her children down at their own kitchen table for dinner.

“I’ve been homeless and poor for so long …,” she said. “I hate it and I’m trying so hard to get out of that.”

A new hope

This winter, Bell and families like hers will have a new safety net.

As part of the inaugural Winter Weather Shelter program, eight Douglas County churches have committed to act as shelters for Douglas County’s homeless women and children, opening their doors each night of the week from Nov. 1 through March 31.

Men will be provided assistance such as hotel vouchers, but churches are unable to house men, women and children together for purposes of safety and privacy, program officials said.

Nicole DeVries, an outreach director with Southeast Christian Church in Parker, said program organizers identified single women and their children as some of the greatest in need, based on the percentage they make up of Douglas County’s homeless population.

County officials first started talking to area churches two years ago about the need for a shelter.

Rand Clark, a community of care navigator with the Douglas County Department of Community Development who helped coordinate the network, said it was a big ask of the faith community.

But, he said, it rose to the occasion.

The network started with four churches, including Southeast Christian, that met every four to six weeks. Now, eight churches have committed to be shelters with others promising volunteers and assistance.

“It has been amazing to see the churches in Douglas County work together,” DeVries said. “It’s so good to know that we have a solution — or at least an option.”

The need exists

Douglas County has the fourth highest median household income of all counties in the U.S. with a population of at least 65,000, according to the 2015 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates. It also has the lowest poverty rate for all U.S. counties of the same parameters.

But the glossy statistics hide a homeless population that isn’t visible in ways people generally expect, Clark said.

For example, he said, the county’s homeless are frequently couch surfing, living in their cars or being temporarily housed with hotel vouchers from various agencies. They also might include the hundreds of Douglas County students classified as homeless. In the 2014-15 school year, 637 students were reported as homeless, according to school district numbers.

“Here, it’s in many ways, hidden poverty,” said Rochelle Blaschke Schlortt, chief communications officer with Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, one of the agencies that will refer people to the shelter network. “It’s not zero.”

Clark said the county hopes the program also will provide newer and better data about the county’s homeless population.

The church network can accommodate about 40 people a night. They can stay for up to 31 days. For some, that’s enough time to earn some life-changing savings, Clark said. For others, it means 31 days they don’t spend sleeping in their car.

Food and other services will be funded in part by the churches, but are largely reliant on donated supplies and volunteer time.

The churches are excited to take on the challenge.

Mike Polhemus, executive pastor with The Rock in Castle Rock, said its congregation was thrilled by the announcement of The Rock’s participation in the program.

“The reaction was ecstatic,” he said. In just the first weekend of recruitment, 35 volunteers signed up to work the shelter nights.

DeVries at Southeast Christian described what a typical shelter night might look like:

Volunteers will greet those who come at the door. They’ll be served a family-style meal and provided with activities such as games or a movie night. All churches have ordered cots, so each person will have his or her own to sleep on. Before lights out, everyone will pack a lunch for the next day. A wakeup call comes at 6 a.m., everyone eats breakfast and checks out by 7 a.m.

Churches coming together to serve and love the community is what they are called to do, Polhemus said. And he believes future partnerships will follow.

“I just believe this is really the start,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot more come out of this as we begin to operate in this mode.”

Time and tribulation

For Bell, the shelter network means that, if all else fails, she’ll have somewhere to take her children in the coldest months of the year.

A restaurant server and now divorced from her children’s father, she understands how rapidly life circumstances can change.

She and her family once owned a bakery in California, Bell said. They made good money and rented a nice house.

Then they lost the business, and with it, their good credit.

Life has since been a cycle of finding jobs and then losing them, often due to difficulty of finding reliable childcare, she said. Her oldest child is 12, but her youngest just 5 years old.

Housing eventually became unattainable on the family’s restricted income.

Renting a home is too expensive, Bell said, let alone owning one. And finding an affordable apartment large enough for five children has been difficult. The bad credit makes it all worse, she said.

So, for now, hotels, she said, are the only option. She pays for the room with her restaurant earnings and with some help from family. Churches have also helped her on occasion, she said.

The rough patches can take their toll. “I spend several days just feeling like my entire life is falling apart,” Bell said.

But she holds onto the hope that, one day, she can pay her final hotel bill and close that door for good.



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