By J. Patrick O’Leary
More than 50 people will freeze to death on Denver metro area streets this coming winter due to simple lack of shelter.
How hard could it be to provide that life-saving shelter? Not very. But getting those people to the right place at the right time, without disrupting the community, is a challenge.
Although there are emergency shelters for families with children in the suburban communities surrounding Denver, there are none for individuals.
Severe Weather Shelter Network provides emergency shelter on life-threatening winter nights for single men, single women, and couples without children living on the streets of suburban communities, including Wheat Ridge and the West Colfax corridor. Its shelter season runs from Oct. 1 through April 30 each year.
Participating “host churches” open when overnight temperatures are going to be 32 degrees or colder and wet, or 20 degrees or colder and dry. The guests are transported to and from the churches from multiple pick-up and drop-off locations. A hot, home cooked meal and bedding is provided upon arrival at the church. Men sleep in one large room and women sleep in another.
The network claims in five years its 600 volunteers and 22 partner churches have helped 500 homeless – including placing 16 in permanent housing. But that took more than simply opening up houses of worship every time the temperature drops.
Prior to being offered shelter, individuals must register and be screened for the season at a registration site, in person – no online or phone registration is allowed. The process takes about 20 minutes. Volunteers at the sites also connect the homeless with resources to assist in them in moving toward a more safe and stable lifestyle. Once registered, they can show up at a “warming site” during severe weather for a ride to shelter.
“Last year the City of Lakewood allowed us to partner with them to use the Whitlock Center as a warming site, a very important part of the sheltering experience,” said Severe Weather Shelter Network’s Executive Director, Lynn Ann Huizingh. A warming site is where the homeless are confirmed as registered, checked for intoxicants, and then wait for transportation shelter.
“If they’re not in a good state, it’s not good to send them to a church. So volunteers at the warming site will call Lakewood police, who will come and take them and find them other shelter.”
“In past years our guys were gathering at the Action Center (8755 W. 14th Ave., Lakewood), waiting for one, one-and-a-half hours in the cold, continuing to drink, which elevates their anxiety,” Huizingh said. When the volunteer driver showed up, and had to assess their condition before allowing them aboard the warm vehicle, patience wore thin.
Having Whitlock as a warming site helped the network and its guests, but not the center’s staff.
“They did not feel it was good for them to continue this year, because our guests would show up early in the day, then hang out in the lobby,” said Huizingh. “They said, ‘We appreciate what you are doing, but we’re not a day site.’ Lakewood doesn’t have a day site. Now we don’t have a warming site, either.”
Although many churches along Colfax could provide that space, most have children’s programming afternoons, and the overlap of programs “isn’t a very good scenario” Huizingh explained. The network has the volunteers and coffee pots, but needs space, electricity and bathrooms from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on blustery evenings.
The network’s first night of shelter was Monday, Oct. 9, serving a total of 40 individuals.
“We are celebrating that we hit on all cylinders,” she said. “It is always a bit nerve-wracking the first night or two as we work the kinks out to begin the season well.”
As the Neighborhood Gazette went to press, Huizingh was still seeking a warming site along Colfax, although her volunteers would process guests on the street, if necessary.
“It has to be within walking distance of where majority of our guys are camping… it would not make sense to use Arvada’s warming site for guys in Lakewood. That’s why we’re looking between Carr and Pierce along Colfax, a block or two either side… Even Sloans Lake and Edgewater folks can get there fairly easily.”
“In Arvada, the city has provided a building that can be used for warming site – Olde Town, City Hall-ish – close enough to camping areas, easy to get to.”
However, the Arvada warming site and its churches will not begin sheltering until Dec. 1.
“It’s going to be a short season,” said Huizingh, who credits city staff for “taking the reins” this summer. “There’s a desire for sheltering there, but it took three years for the parts and pieces to come together.”
Volunteers are always needed.
“We continue to be in need of overnight hosts at both Applewood Community Church and Sloan’s Lake Community Church. We need drivers, especially in the Lakewood area, both evening and morning drivers. We need warming site volunteers in the Lakewood area to help us at the current pick up site and will transition into the warming site once we lock one down.”
The network’s next volunteer training session will be Saturday, Nov. 18, at Arvada Covenant Church, 5555 Ward Road in Arvada, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The network’s nearest registration sites are: The Action Center, 8755 W. 14th Ave., Lakewood; Family Tree, 3805 W. Marshall St., Wheat Ridge; and Mean Street Ministry, 1380 Ammons St.
For more information, visit www.swshelternetwork.com, or call 720-515-9313.