The Bridge shelter survives its own fiscal cliff

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Lana Schwellenbach of Dolores, a volunteer with the Bridge Emergency Shelter, serves up soup for one of the guests in January. There are about 70 people on the volunteer list, according to shelter manager Donna Boyd. Photo by Gail Binkly

Lana Schwellenbach of Dolores, a volunteer with the Bridge Emergency Shelter, serves up soup for one of the guests in January. There are about 70 people on the volunteer list, according to shelter manager Donna Boyd. Photo by Gail Binkly

Last fall, the board of directors of the Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez realized they were facing a financial crisis. A cashflow projection showed that, if trends continued, the homeless shelter would exhaust its financial resources in December, midway through its seventh season.

So the board’s executive committee invited key stakeholders – including representatives of Montezuma County, the city of Cortez, Southwest Memorial Hospital, and more – to a meeting.

“Fifteen people came,” recalled M.B. McAfee, chair of the shelter board and one of the prime movers behind the Bridge’s creation. “Roy Lane [Cortez’s police chief] spoke eloquently about ‘what is a life worth.’ He said you can’t put a price on a life.

“Dennis Story [director of the Montezuma County Department of Social Services] talked about how important it was to have this place. To a one around the room, there was absolute support for the shelter. The outcome was unanimous that the shelter shouldn’t go away.”

A few leaders were able to pledge funds totaling $22,000 to help close the financial gap. With the additional money, and by doing without a paid executive director, the Bridge was able to continue providing overnight shelter and meals for people down on their luck.

It was one more crisis weathered for the organization, which – like the clients it serves – has had its share of ups and downs. Every evening at 6 from mid-October through mid-April, the shelter – which is housed in the aging Justice Building at the corner of Mildred Avenue and Empire Street – opens its doors to folks waiting outside in the snow and cold of Centennial Park.

One by one, they walk down a long hall and are checked in. Their backpacks and coats are taken, tagged, and put in a safe place. Anyone who appears intoxicated must blow into a breathalyzer – if the reading is at or above 0.08 (the legal DUI limit), he or she must go to a separate room with other intoxicated people. They will eat and sleep there, not being allowed to mingle with the majority, who head to a common area for hot soup, conversation, and some TV-viewing.

When the shelter began in January 2006 with a simple goal of preventing anyone from dying of exposure in Cortez, the intoxicated and the sober ate around the same tables. That policy was changed last year to cut down on drunken arguments and to provide a more pleasant experience for sober guests.

Around 9 or 10 p.m., the sober folks head to several large rooms to sleep on bunk beds or mattresses on the floor. At 7 a.m., after a small breakfast, they will leave; the facility is utilized during the day by the county court and probation offices.

The new policy about intoxicated clients is part of the shelter’s ongoing evolution. In its first couple of seasons, it relied almost exclusively on volunteers, who divided their time between evening shifts and grueling overnight shifts. Now, there are seven parttime paid staff members, including manager Donna Boyd and the director of a companion operation, the Cortez Day Labor Center. Volunteers still help in the early evenings by serving soup and interacting with guests.

This season the shelter has been energized by the addition of two AmeriCorps members, Kristen Tworek of Michigan and Christy Janiszewski of Pennsylvania. They will each serve one year with the shelter and, after it closes in April, the day-labor center. They serve full-time in return for a living allowance from AmeriCorps; the shelter pays their federal payroll tax and travel expenses.

Little touches

McAfee and Boyd said the AmeriCorps members have contributed to an upbeat feeling and good morale at the shelter this year. Tworek assists administratively, handling donations and food and organizing volunteers. “That’s taken such a load off me,” Boyd said.

Janiszewski helps with case management, connecting guests with resources in the community.

“She just jumped right in, going out and talking to people at Social Services to understand those programs,” McAfee said. “She has been to the VA, the Piñon Project, the Housing Authority and more. She helps the clients get their IDs so we can move them into stable housing and get them the other resources they might need.”

Both AmeriCorps members work one overnight shift and one intake shift every week. They have brightened the facility with little touches: They put up Christmas decorations, had a cookie-decorating session, and offered a pancake breakfast one morning. (Guests can stay a little longer than 7 a.m. on Sundays.)

“I think it went really well and they liked staying the extra couple hours,” Tworek said of the pancake breakfast. “Some of the people who had come in intoxicated the night before were able to stay and enjoy the breakfast as well.”

This is the first year that AmeriCorps members have served at the shelter. McAfee said their presence came about through the Colorado Rural Homeless Shelter Collaborative, which also includes shelters in Durango, Grand Junction and Alamosa. The Alamosa shelter suggested the collaborative seek a grant to pay for a set number of AmeriCorps members, then divide them among the different shelters. The Bridge asked for two.

Tworek, in her first year with AmeriCorps, said she has found the service rewarding. “I’ve learned a lot about people,” she said. “I was an accountant for five or six years. I have never worked with people as much as I have here.

“I’m just learning how different homeless people can be. A lot of people would group them in the same bucket, but everyone has a different story, although there are some common themes.”

Those themes, she said, include loss of a job, divorce or being in jail.

The most visible

A guest at the Bridge Emergency Shelter warms up with some coffee.

A guest at the Bridge Emergency Shelter
warms up with some coffee.

Contrary to many people’s perception, however, alcoholism is not a trait of most of the shelter’s clientele.

In 2011-12 season, the shelter housed 224 different guests, who stayed an average of 18 nights apiece. Only about 28 percent of them were intoxicated.

So far this year, the number is around 40 percent, but Boyd said that may be because it’s early in the season and there have been numerous holidays, “so our intoxicated clientele is up a bit.”

Truly hard-core alcoholics constitute only a tiny part of the Bridge’s clients. “The smallest percentage of my clientele is the most visible,” Boyd said. “That’s just 2 or 3 percent of my population that people see hanging out in the park.”

The fact that the shelter accepts the intoxicated makes it highly unusual. Aside from a very small shelter in Farmington, N.M., there isn’t another such facility within a 400- mile radius, McAfee said. “While that causes some bumps in seeking funds, it also causes us to be unique enough that we’re noticed in a good way, an honorable way,” she said. Giving the intoxicated a place to sleep has always been part of the shelter’s purpose. With no detox unit closer than Durango, there was previously no place to take drunks other than the county detention center. The Bridge keeps them warm and safe; it also eases the burden on city police and the jail.

Another misperception is that the shelter does nothing but “enable” slackers by giving them food and a bed. In fact, staff members work continually to help clients get the help they need to enter stable, manageable lives.

The shelter has an agreement with Axis Health System, which provides regional mental- health services, for a counselor to come in several hours on Tuesday evenings to speak with clients who need services and arrange for follow-up treatment.

“That service needs to be pushed more, and I’m not sure how to get the funds to do that,” Boyd said. “I can’t force anybody to stay here, or to come in out of the cold, or to go to Axis for care. So it’s a dilemma. However I do think we’re beginning to have some impact. I have four clients I know of going to counseling classes.”

Some of those staying at the shelter are fresh out of jail for a variety of offenses.

“They come out of there without any winter clothing, in jeans and a T-shirt,” Boyd said. “I don’t care what they did outside my door as long as they are behaving here.”

For such folks, job opportunities are few, especially in the winter, and for those convicted of felonies it’s even more difficult to find work.

“We have been developing a relationship with the Department of Corrections since last season,” Boyd said. “We have a contract with them. We will get a small amount of funds for a limited time to house re-entry clients.”

Life in a war zone

Boyd said a “pretty substantial number of individuals” at the shelter have mental-health issues. “It’s sort of circular, homelessness and mental health. They’re tied together. It makes it hard to break the cycle.”

She said she has been struck by the amount of tragedy and trauma the clients have experienced. “There is not a person here in my shelter who was not traumatized as a child to an extent that is incredible. Sure, we all have trauma, but this is to a much greater extent. Someone said to me, ‘If you lived your life in a war zone, war is normal for you.’ A lot of us don’t know what’s that like.”

The shelter’s goal is to provide a stable place where clients can organize their lives and obtain resources to improve them. Tworek said the Bridge helped one man who’d lost his job, split up with his wife, gone on a bender and ended up in jail. When released, he wound up at the shelter temporarily before he was able to get another job.

“If he didn’t have some place to stay that was safe and supportive, it’s hard to say what would have happened to him,” Tworek said. “He would have had to sleep outside. He wouldn’t have been able to look for jobs. If you have no place to go, you’re always in a crisis of ‘where will I sleep, what will I eat, where can I take a shower so I can go on an interview?’”

Staff members work to make sure the facility is safe. There must be at least two workers present, whether staff or volunteers, before even a single client can be accepted. No fighting is tolerated. Everyone is searched for weapons when entering.

“Even the really chronic alcoholics recognize this as a safe place,” Boyd said. “Even ‘frenemies’ will ask to be put into different rooms if they might fight otherwise.”

If anyone does become disruptive, she said, “I have no qualms about calling the police. The person will have the choice to settle down, or leave on their own, in which case I give them a blanket, or be taken by the police. We try to be as consistent and compassionate as possible across the board.”

But beyond ensuring safety, the staff works to make the atmosphere welcoming.

“We prefer the term ‘guests’ for the people who come here, because for some of them, this is the only place where they receive dignity,” McAfee said.

Boyd agreed. “We call this the house, and we say, ‘There is a wet side and a dry side.’ There is a lot of teasing and laughter. We were teasing one guy and I said, ‘This is how you know you’re part of a family.’ We were all laughing. I think for the first time he was beginning to understand that there are places you can turn to and be supported.”

As clients come to know each other, they develop camaraderie and a sense of responsibility for others. “If they see one of our intoxicated clients in the park at night, they always tell us,” Boyd said. “Lots of times they’ll help us bring them in so they don’t freeze. They kind of watch out for each other.”

Small steps

Getting the homeless into jobs and housing isn’t an easy task.

One of the biggest obstacles for many clients is that they have lost all their personal records.

“It’s hard to get a job when you don’t have an ID,” Boyd said. “Many of these folks don’t have a birth certificate, a Social Security card or an ID. They start from square one.”

Shelter personnel work to help clients replace the needed items, but it’s difficult. Even with a birth certificate and a Social Security card, they may be turned down for a photo ID at the driver’s license bureau.

Tworek agreed. “You need a utility bill to get an ID at the driver’s license bureau, but how will you have a utility bill when you’re homeless? You almost need a picture ID to get a picture ID.”

“Bridges Out of Poverty,” which is both a book and a training method to help communities reduce poverty, discusses such obstacles. “It explains how people at all the institutions speak in a middle-class way,” McAfee said. “They don’t repeat themselves, they just expect clients to understand. There is a disconnect.”

“For our clients, sometimes it’s hard to ask questions and to know what questions to ask [at various offices],” Tworek agreed. “They come back here and say, ‘This is what they told me.’”

Case-management assistance is critical for clients, Boyd said. “We need the hospital, the Piñon Project, HUD, Social Services, all of them on board for us to have a positive sustainable impact on somebody’s life.”

Despite the difficulties, the Bridge has had numerous success stories. One man who stayed at the shelter began working day labor, then was hired by one of the companies he worked for and now is being mentored so he can become a subcontractor.

Another man who came to the shelter from the Department of Corrections received help from the staff in registering for classes to obtain his commercial driver’s license. He studied at night while staying at the shelter, then worked at day labor during the days. Now he has his license and a steady job driving a truck, and has moved out.

Over the years, other clients, even some who had been on the streets for years, have been able to move into apartments, obtain jobs, or get treatment for addiction.

“Success is measured by small steps, which is not always easy for the general public to see,” McAfee said.

“It doesn’t happen in a month,” Boyd said. “If it takes you two years to get here, it’s going to take six months to get out of here. But we have had some great success stories and I think we will by end of this season too.

“We are definitely more than a bed and a meal. We do a lot of mentoring. It’s what a lot of people need. If everybody in the community would mentor and help people, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t need a shelter.”

‘Grateful beyond words’

The long-term future of the Bridge is unclear. McAfee is serving as interim executive director, but she said she cannot do so beyond this season.

A year-end appeal for donations has been very successful. “We’ll exceed our expectations, and we’re grateful beyond words to generous community members,” she said. In February, the shelter will have its annual Soups of the World fundraiser, an event that has always been popular.

In November, the Bridge was approved as an enterprise-zone project by the state. This means anyone donating $200 or more is eligible for a 25 percent state tax credit. Those providing in-kind donations such as supplies can receive a 12.5 percent state tax credit.

The Ute Mountain Utes and the Navajo Nation have given funds in the past, and McAfee is hopeful that either or both of them will do so again if they are able. But the shelter and day labor center have a combined budget of $200,000 annually, and that can be difficult to raise.

“Local individual and business donations are up from past years, but at the same time there are cut-backs in foundation and government grants and the continual uncertainty of tribal contributions,” McAfee said. “Maintaining and operating the shelter presents serious financial challenges.” However, she said community leaders have shown a willingness to look at innovative solutions to assure that the shelter is open in the future.

McAfee and Boyd would like to be able to accept families some day. At present the Bridge does not, because of the many rules and liability concerns surrounding children. However, McAfee said her service on the board of the Montelores Emergency Assistance Coalition has shown her the need.

“There are families in this community that don’t really have places to live. They stay in motels, spending all their savings, or they couch-surf, or they stay in cars.”

There is also a great need for a detox unit, Boyd said.

“There are people who just need to be removed off the streets, to go through a detox and a rehab,” Boyd said. “I have several who ask about treatment and want to do it, but there is no place for them to go and they have no willpower to say no when somebody offers a bottle to them. I have an individual – he’s young – who looks to me like he’s trying to commit suicide by alcohol. He can’t have his other health needs addressed until he’s sober. It’s so frustrating.”

Another project on their wish list is building a kitchen in the shelter space. The Bridge now has a five-year MOU with the county for use of the entire space that was the old jail in the Justice Building, and a donor has pledged $15,000 toward converting some of that to a kitchen. However, more money is needed to complete the job, and the board has put the project on hold until the shelter’s future can be assured.

Meanwhile, community support remains strong. Hope’s Kitchen, with the First United Methodist Church of Cortez, and Grace’s Kitchen of the St. Barnabas Episcopal Church supply meals on weekdays, and volunteers prepare them on weekends. Restaurants and markets also donate items.

The shelter has had consistent support from the Cortez police; Chief Lane has been a board member since the beginning, McAfee said, and the police department has supplied training for staff on personal protection and safety.

“The officers who bring people here have been respectful and compassionate under difficult circumstances,” she said.

Tworek added, “When we call dispatch to say someone is in the park they’re very quick to respond. It’s definitely a priority of theirs.”

The sheriff ’s office has also been supportive; Sheriff Dennis Spruell has served on the board. Newly elected County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla has auctioneered the fundraiser for several years.

Despite uncertainties about the future, McAfee is proud of how the shelter has advanced. She praised the work of previous managers and directors, including Jackie Barker, John Van Cleve, Sara Wakefield and Laney Gibbes.

“We’ve grown a lot in a pretty short time,” she said. “We need a visionary executive director to take us forward. There are some huge things that could happen. We’re on the diving board and we have to take some steps, and eventually we’ll make the leap.”


WHAT THEY NEED

A large commercial washer and dryer
13-gallon trash bags
Coffee, both regular and decaf
Bleach
Sugar
Kool-Aid or Gatorade powdered mix

No clothing or shoes are needed, thanks to a clothing drive by the Cortez Middle School and some hugely helpful donations from Manna Soup Kitchen in Durango. The only exceptions are large-sized sweatshirts and sweatpants, which are needed for sleepwear, and gloves and wool hats. If you can donate items, call 970-565-9808.

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