Two years ago, Linda West was working the checkout at the Methodist Thrift Store when a homeless man came in, asking where he could find some gloves and socks. He showed her his hands, and she was shocked to see the frostbite from frozen November nights.
The experience stuck with West and spurred her to action. On Jan. 15, she and local service providers will open a new winter shelter called Winter Haven to serve Durango’s homeless families.
Winter Haven does not have a permanent home. Instead, the volunteer-based program will circulate between First United Methodist Church and Unitarian Universalist Fellowship every two weeks, based on a similar initiative in Grand Junction that circulates among 10 churches.
Though the shelter will provide another option for homeless families, Winter Haven initiators and service providers say significant strides are needed in data collection and provisions for Durango’s homeless population, which they say has begun to rise in recent years.
“Right now, human-service agencies are saying to me that they have quite a few families who spend nights in their car in the Walmart parking lot or other places,” West said. “That’s how it came to be said that we need a place for them in Durango so that they can be warm and safe.”
Sarada Leavenworth, director of the Volunteers of America-run Community Shelter, said the help would be appreciated. In a given year, Leavenworth said, the Community Shelter serves 500 to 550 people. It offers four family rooms.
“From time to time, our family rooms will all be full,” Leavenworth said. “That has not happened yet this year, but that does happen occasionally, and when it does, it would be very beneficial to have another resource in the community for families who are homeless.”
The Winter Haven shelter will open at 7 p.m. most evenings, and volunteers will assist with cooking dinner for guests, supervision and providing tutoring to children. Winter Haven can accommodate up to 20 people each night.
West has put the last two years into assembling the Winter Haven shelter, including visiting Southwest Colorado shelters and meeting with human-service providers to establish the most effective ways the shelter could service Durango’s homeless. To run the program from January to April, West will have to raise $20,000; she says she is on her way to achieving that with donations from local residents and several businesses.
Those involved with the project say it is not their hope for a long-term solution.
“We want to do this, and we will do it for a few years, but the end goal is permanent housing for these families, and the only way we get permanent housing is if we get more resources,” said Jennifer Lopez, who has worked closely with West on the project. Lopez has worked extensively in housing programs, and currently works with the Colorado Housing Finance Authority and has volunteered with the Colorado housing campaign 100,000 Homes.
The hope is that the Winter Haven project also can be used as a method for data collection on homelessness and housing vulnerability in Durango and Southwest Colorado. Currently, there is no single entity tracking long-term numbers in the region.
“We’re in a world today where if you can’t show data and need, you can’t get resources, and working at the state level, it’s just critical to be able to show the need. So I think a lot of things will come out of this little three-month pilot,” Lopez said.
There are a few numbers available – brief glimpses of the larger picture. In the 2012 Vulnerability Index, an initiative of 100,000 homes that assesses the degree of need, 27 families were found in La Plata County, including 58 children and 43 adults, who reported their residence as being hotels, doubled-up living with friends and family, in a shelter or camping.
“From my perspective, a large catalyst to those conversations is going to be the ability to demonstrate need, and we may not be there yet,” said Tony Casale, who is working with West and Lopez on the project. Casale has worked in numerous housing and homeless initiatives and currently is contracted through the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments as a regional housing coordinator.
Winter Haven will accept guests based on a referral program in collaboration with numerous service providers who are working with the homeless or those without secure housing, including Mercy Housing Colorado, San Juan Basin Health Department, United Way Housing and the Volunteers of America Shelter. Through the referral process, service providers also will keep track of the number of people and families seeking services.
There also remains a need for more services for single individuals. In the five Southwest Colorado counties, Durango and Cortez offer shelters for single men and women. Other counties offer domestic-abuse shelters.
But West hopes through focusing on families, they will be able to reach one of the most vulnerable populations.
“This is one of the hugest concerns I have about kids sleeping in their cars, is they don’t have a good place to do their homework, they don’t have a good place to regroup,” she said. “That’s what I really want to provide them, is a place to have good nutrition and a good experience, help with their homework and return them to school in the morning ready to learn.”
Sarah Ford is a junior majoring in journalism at the University of Denver. email@example.com