Denver Post By  –

It’s a moving video. A Douglas County mother, identified as Nicole, and her three children gather around a small counter in a Lone Tree hotel room to eat dinner. The cluttered room has been the family home for two years after they abruptly lost their house, Nicole says.

“It’s really hard to live in that situation, especially when you have people depending on you; little people,” Nicole says. “You really just feel like you failed somewhere.”

The video is part of the launch of the Winter Shelter Network, a joint program by local nonprofit agencies, county government and nearly a dozen Douglas County churches to provide emergency overnight housing, meals and a supportive environment to homeless women and children. The program — which rotates seven nights a week between eight host churches — opened its doors for the first time Nov. 1, and will offer shelter to up to 40 guests every night through March 31, organizers say.

As for Nicole’s video, Pastor Jim Matthews said that when it was shown at The Rock church in Castle Rock — one of the host churches — the reaction was overwhelming. He estimated 140 people volunteered to help, the largest turnout he has seen for a single initiative.

“It resonated with people in our church,” Matthews said. “Some have come up and said, ‘I grew up just like that.’ ”

Government officials and leaders from some of the participating churches first began talking about how best to combat homelessness in the county two years ago. Rand Clark, Douglas County’s Community of Care navigator, said that before the Winter Shelter Network, the most common way local homeless families found shelter was staying with relatives or friends, sleeping in cars or through emergency hotel vouchers provided by nonprofit agencies like the Douglas/Elbert Task Force.

“Our goal is keeping families here, where they have jobs and keeping kids where they go to school and that’s a big part of what this program is all about,” Clark said.

The D/E Task Force, SECOR, Parker Task Force and Catholic Charities of Central Colorado are serving as intake partners for the network, Clark said, taking single women and single mothers with children  through an application process before they can be admitted for a night in the shelter.

Erin White is the Winter Shelter Network’s program administrator. The Cherry Hills Community Church member formerly managed a program geared toward helping people out of homelessness in Atlanta.

She explained there are rules in place to ensure the safety and privacy of guests and ensure the network is achieving its mission. Applicants must be Douglas County residents, pass a warrant check and cannot be in involved in an active domestic violence situation. Men are not being admitted because of the potential risks. The host church each evening will not being released in advance for the same reason.

Potential guests must fill out an application with a partner agency by 2 p.m. The shelter will open at 5 p.m. nightly and a family style meal will be served at 6:30 p.m. Guests will be provided a continental breakfast and invited to pack sack lunches before the shelter closes for the day at 7 a.m. There will be a 31-night cap on stays throughout the season, depending on space, White said. People who do not fit shelter criteria will be connected with other resources.

“I think the response has been tremendous,” White said last week of the buy-in from host churches and other faith communities contributing volunteers, food and financial support. “We’ll have trained 600 volunteers by the time we launch the network.”

Douglas County is an affluent place. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income as of 2014 was $102,626 and just 3.7 percent of residents live in poverty.

But people involved with the network point to other statistics that show how serious homelessness is in the county, even if it is less visible than in places like downtown Denver. The Douglas County School District reported 499 students who experienced homelessness at some point during the 2015-16 school year, Clark said. That’s less than 1 percent of the district’s 67,000 students, but the number is still sobering to many.

Dennis Gorton is the executive director of SECOR, one of the nonprofit social support agencies that will be helping with client intake. He said many SECOR clients spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on housing.

“We know that right now in this general area, there are 7,000 families or more who cannot afford housing,” he said. “We know that because we interview people like them every single day. Let’s find these people and help them.”

For more information visit wintershelternetwork.org, call 720-485-1008 or email Erin White at wintershelternetwork@gmail.com.

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