Times-Call – By Pam Mellskog
Sometimes the petite woman hid herself on a lofty perch at the McDonald’s PlayPlace in Longmont, sometimes for six hours.
But this fall, “Lily” — a native Longmont resident homeless for six months and fearful of being recognized by an abusive man — found Safe Haven, a ranch-style house at 10656 Park Ridge Ave. that recently debuted a family-style pilot program to replace its traditional shelter.
In years past, 40-plus people crowded into the converted single-family brick structure overnight as an emergency crash pad during cold snaps.
“Then, it was just about keeping people alive, and not conducive to forming relationships or practicing life skills,” said Ron Bolton, a board member with Safe Haven’s umbrella organization, the nonprofit Agape Family Services supported by a dozen local churches.
By contrast, six women and 16 men live there now and call it home because Safe Haven guarantees each resident their own bed every night between mid-November and mid-March, regardless of the weather. When temperatures fall below 25 degrees Fahrenheit or when the forecast calls for an inch or more of snow, the home remains open all day.
Agape’s six-member board earlier this year accepted 70 applications for the new program — one with a $100,000 annual budget in 2017 covered by private donations and some public funding — $25,000 from Longmont and $10,000 from Boulder County, Bolton said.
Staff and board members then cherry picked the residents most likely to get back on the grid with the support of a stable, homey place free of drugs and alcohol, cursing and the chaos associated with shelters.
For some, just getting approved to live in the home bolstered their self-confidence, board member and volunteer coordinator Michele McCracken said.
“It was like getting a giant ‘A’ on a test that says ‘You passed!'” she said.
Resident and part-time staffer Charlie Kutscher, 35, somehow survived homelessness for years — often under the numbing influence of alcohol and the life-threatening risks of passing out when temperatures drop, he said.
Once, he woke up with 8 inches of snow covering him. Another time, he woke up outdoors to find his pack and sleeping bag stolen along with the shoes off his feet.
“Everybody looks down on you when you’re homeless, and it gets to the point where you are willing to do anything to not think about it,” he said. “… I never thought I deserved a second chance, but I got that here.”
Safe Haven resident Edward Henson, 56, echoed that.
“Most people with houses don’t understand. They can’t. But when you’ve been stomped on so long by everybody, there’s this need to forget,” he said. “Here, we are remembering things like Christmas. It’s not the same as being with my family, and I come from a big family. But we are taking care of each other like family would.”
Behind Safe Haven’s front door
So many things speak to how this house already has converted into a home.
For instance, staff member Erin Lincoln recently fashioned a Charlie Brown-style wreath from juniper branches trimmed back in the lawn. She festooned it with baubles and latched it to the front door to welcome residents when they begin arriving at 6:30 p.m.
“We say this is God’s house, no matter what religion they are. And I think they feel the love of God here,” she said while decorating the Christmas tree in a corner of the living room with other residents. “… With that, we try to appreciate their difficulties and their differences, and we hope to get along like a family.”
To help residents re-habituate into conventional living with all of its routines of eating, sleeping, bathing and the like, volunteers and local restaurants bring dinner and breakfast every day. The house maintains a shower schedule that mandates a minimum of one shower every three days. Meanwhile, staff launders clothes overnight between lights out at 10 p.m. and the 6 a.m. wakeup call an hour before residents head out the door at 7 a.m.
Staff also stocks several closets with toiletries, socks and underwear along with donated clothing and shoes for both men and women to use on job interviews. Each one has an assigned cubby by the door to stash personal items.
A white board in the dining room lists current job openings around town, and nine residents have picked up some work since settling into the home, Gary Miller, Safe Haven’s site manager, said.
Rows of beds made up neatly in the morning line the men’s sleeping quarters in the basement. The women sleep in a smaller adjoining room with a door.
Upstairs, residents hold hands in a circle around a dining room table decorated with a poinsettia to say grace — if they so choose. Then, each resident picks a ceramic plate and metal silverware from the buffet before sitting down together for dinner.
“Even those plates make this feel more like a home than a shelter,” Miller, 39, said. “Paper plates say, ‘Hurry up!’ or ‘Take it with you.’ That’s not the message here.”
One resident and part-time staff member, Nesti Castillo, 38, said the living room with its wraparound couch means the most to her.
“That really makes if feel like home to me, and all of this is preparing us to have our own place,” she said. “… I’m not as afraid to be around somebody who is housed now because I am getting a shower regularly. I don’t have to ask, ‘Is my hygiene up to par?’ I have that confidence. You have that feeling that you can do it on the outside. Now, can you do it on the inside?”
Like some of the other residents, Jayson Seuferer, 36, remembers running away from an abusive home as a child and living on the beach in southern California.
His family presumed him dead until he turned up at his maternal grandmother’s home and lived there in her custody from 1990 to 1998.
“At shelters, you get a blanket. Here, they give you a bed. This is supposed to be a house. This is to be a family. And it’s beautiful and peaceful,” Seuferer said. “It reminds me of being home with my grandma. When I rang on her door for the first time, she looked at me crazy and did a double take like I was a cartoon before she grabbed me and pulled me close.”
The grand plan
Safe Haven’s bold new family-style model grew out of humble beginnings in 2006. That year, the Rev. Gary Jefferson in collaboration with Bolton and the Rev. Richard Honey began inspiring the faith-based community to do more on behalf of Longmont’s neediest residents.
Jefferson remembers inviting homeless people that winter to sleep on the pews at Front Range Christian Fellowship, the church he leads across Park Ridge Avenue from Safe Haven.
“I once had so much John Wayne in me that I wouldn’t cry if you chopped my arm off,” Jefferson said. “But I prayed that God would give me a heart big enough for everyone. And I am not ashamed at how much God has softened my heart. If a tear comes, a tear comes.”
He said that he wants Safe Haven to help Longmont churches send a message of worth to men and women on the streets.
“If they know we care, they’re going to care more about themselves and each other. But if they’re caught up in just a dog-eat-dog world, then everybody loses. Nobody wins in a dog-eat-dog world. We want them to care about each other like we’re all family,” Jefferson said.
The message gets preached at pulpits around town, it just needs more feet, board member McCracken said.
She heard a homily in 2002 at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Longmont that inspired her to serve the homeless community then with a passion.
“The priest related a story about a man who visited Mother Teresa and asked if he could return to help her in Calcutta. But she basically said to him that she had it under control there, and that he should go serve his own Calcutta. I have found Calcutta here in Longmont, Colorado,” McCracken explained.
Staff member Steve Wallace, 63, said that Safe Haven accomplishes an outreach beyond food, clothing, and shelter by encouraging friendship amongst residents, staff, and volunteers.
“One of the worst things about being homeless is feeling invisible,” he said. “Here, we know everyone by name. Together, we watch the Broncos play. And the volunteers and those of us on staff genuinely care. It is a blessing to all of us to be in this type of family atmosphere.”
To further that interaction, Bolton added that Agape’s board scheduled the residents to stay one night a week at both Faith Community Lutheran and New Creation churches in Longmont.
“Otherwise, people in the faith community sometimes are just writing checks. This allows them to answer the call on their heart in person, and it also allows homeless people of faith a way to comfortably walk through church doors again,” he said.
Whether Safe Haven’s supportive atmosphere will be enough after just four months to help residents get off the street and on their feet is a question mark, Bolton continued.
“We might not see the results of this grand plan. But we need to do our part … and love and compassion are never wasted,” he said.