On wintry nights, the homeless men and women in central Jefferson County can find shelter with a network of churches that open their doors — but those living in Arvadaare often left out in the cold.
The Severe Weather Shelter Network is a Christian nonprofit working to make sure Jefferson County’s homeless are kept warm on freezing nights, through a program in which local churches provide host sites for homeless community members to spend the night, enjoy a hot, homemade meal and some warm conversation. The networks include four host churches, which are on a one-week-a-month rotation. Each network also has a warming site, whichserves as a central pick-up location for shelter guests where they can — as the name implies — stay warm as they wait.
The network launched its central program with churches in Lakewood, Golden and Denver four years ago and another network in south Jeffco and Littleton a year later. It is in the process of trying to create one in the Arvada area as well.
“What we have realized is that emergency shelter, and shelter in general, is located in Denver proper,” said Lynn Ann Huizing, head of Severe Weather Shelter Network. “In the suburban communities where homelessness is a reality, there is very little long-term shelter if any, and there is not cold weather at all.”
Volunteers passionate about cause
For Bobby Strong, 53, who has been homeless for the past 15 years, the volunteers at Sloan’s Lake Community Church in Denver — one of the four churches in the central rotation — are like family.
“The important thing to know is how hard it is to have someone live outside,” Strong said, while sitting in the hallway of the church on a wet, cold night in late March. “I’m just a human, just like you.”
Strong has been seeking shelter with the network since it was created in 2013He spends his days at the local library or on the street corner with his sign.
“I want the community to know that if you’re homeless, don’t be scared,” Strong said. “Because we all need help. I don’t care if I stand on the street corner and hold a piece of cardboard to get a bite to eat.”
For volunteer Tracy Thayer, who coordinates the shelter at Applewood Community Churchin Golden, it’s people like Strong that keep her in the ministry.
“It’s such a relational ministry — you sit, talk and get to know folks,” she said while driving the van to pick up shelter guests from the warming site at Charles Witlock Recreational Center in Lakewood.
Golden resident Rick Foster, a coordinator for the Sloan’s Lake Community Church shelter, said the need behind the severe weather shelter is pretty simple.
“People shouldn’t have to freeze to death,” he said.
Foster didn’t always want to work closely with the homeless population.
“I spent 33 years working downtown and didn’t really have a heart for the homeless,” Foster said. “I spent most of my time avoiding being panhandled. But it’s interesting how God gradually gave me a heart for the homeless.”
Progress in Arvada slow
The visibility of the homeless population in Jefferson County is growing.
Last year’s Point in Time Survey by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, which gives a partial snapshot of what one night on the streets in the metro area looks like, found 439 homeless people on Jeffco’s streets. Among them were 50 individuals who had been homeless for many years, but also 74 families with children. The majority of them had been homeless for less than a year.
Arvada Police Chief Don Wick describes the homeless population in three types: individuals, often men suffering from substance or mental health issues; people who became homeless because of life circumstances such as losing a job, divorce or a hardship that has forced them out of housing; and families who don’t want anyone to know they are homeless and are often living in cars. In many cases, he said, the parents are employed but don’t make enough money to support the family.
“We have seen a significant growth in the homeless population in Arvada over the last two years,” Wick said.
That means that creating a severe weather shelter in the Arvada area is essential, he said.
“On the really cold days or the blizzards, our homeless folks are simply trying to find any location where they can get out of the severe weather,” Wick said. “The last thing we want to see is a fellow human being dying on the street when they were exposed to severe weather and we could have had a shelter to protect them.”
But creating the network in Arvada is taking longer than planned. It’s been a three-year process and Huizing, who is leading the conversation, said it doesn’t look like the system will be in place by next winter as previously hoped, because there are not enough churches willing to host and many in Arvada don’t see homelessness as a problem.
“We just have to begin to educate the people of Arvada what the reality of homelessness is in their own city,” Huizing said. “The visibility of homelessness in suburban communities is not as extensive, so they don’t recognize that there are homeless populations in their community. They don’t understand the prevalence of it.”
Churches’ role is key
Huizing believes churches have the responsibility to step into the role of serving the homeless.
“While different churches may be called to serve in different ways, there are those churches that are turning a blind eye,” Huizing said. “When we work at it together, then we can make a difference. But if we continue to say the government will handle it, then nothing gets done and people are dying on the streets.”
One Arvada church that has opened its doors is The Rising Church in Olde Town.
“The Rising Church stands in the gap trying to take care of these folks when it gets really bad,” church pastor Steve Byers said.
The church, at 7500 W. 57th Ave.allows homless in the Olde Town area to sleep on its property throughout the year and opens its doors to them on cold nights. It has championed for creating a larger network in the city.
“Steve Byers does a very important work in Olde Town,” Huizing said. “He has made his church available to partner with us for the network. But because they are centrally located in the camping zone we will partner with them as a warming center, but not to host overnight.”
Huizing describes the camping zone as the area where many homeless individuals camp.
“One of the requirements we have is our guests need to not be able to walk to the host site,” Huizing said, adding that The Rising Church is in close walking distance from where many homeless set up camp.
Olde Town Arvada business owners are already unhappy wth the number of people camping in that area, Huizing said. And creating a host site there may cause more people experiencing homelessness to hang around the area.
Logistics about where overnight hosts can be located is one reason for the delay in establishing a shelter network in Arvada.
Faith Bible Chapel has shown interest,Huizingsaid, but is unable to host overnight because a school is located on its campus.
“If there’s any crossover where students would still be on campus at the same time as those experiencing homlessness are coming for shelter, both the insurance and police feel it’s a liability and safety issue,” Huizing said.
However, the church and several others throughout Jeffco have supplied volunteers for the Lakewood-based shelters.
Marlene Littel, an Arvada resident, connected with the Severe Weather Shelter Network through Faith Bible.
“There are a lot of people on the streets that need a warm place to stay,” Littel said. “I have an empty nest now, so I’m really glad to give back to people who might not be so lucky to have a home and a warm meal.”
Littel is a first-year volunteer and hopes to transfer the skills she is learning to an Arvada-based network in the future.
“There’s a great need for it,” she said. “I think everyone should contribute and be part of the solution. It could be you or me next that needs help.”