Shelter from the storm – a success story

Covered with drywall mud from a hard day of hanging sheetrock, Darrin Blue Eyes arrived at the Bridge Shelter and De-Tox Center in Cortez soon after it opened one chilly evening last month.

A Navajo man who jokingly confided, “My eyes are not blue,” the weary 27-year-old was ready for a shower, some clean clothes and dinner, then a good night’s sleep before he did it all over again the next day. Still, he engaged in some good-natured bantering with other guests while chowing down on some thick bean soup and biscuits, and then agreed to chat with the Free Press for a few moments before heading off to bed.

JACKIE BARKER IS DIRECTOR OF THE BRIDGE SHELTERHe was not homeless, nor was he intoxicated, Blue Eyes explained, but needed a temporary place to stay because he lives up north near Cahone and has had no transportation to work in Cortez since his vehicle broke down. He’d been struggling to get back on his feet after some personal problems, he added, and hoped to stay at the shelter until he saved up enough for a new ride.

“I feel very comfortable here,” he said, “and I like the way they treat the guests that get a little ornery.”

There certainly are the occasional incidents of “orneriness” to contend with, of course, mostly fueled by alcohol, but usually quickly resolved by the staff members’ considerable de-escalation skills. Only rarely do things become serious enough to involve law enforcement.

A convivial atmosphere fills the two general rooms. The Diné (Navajos) greet each other with friendly Ya’ ta heys; there are also hellos and remarks of “Where were you today?” as folks sit at the lunchroom-style tables for a hot supper or plop down in front of the small TV.

Many know each other, at least in passing. A few are quite intoxicated, some have had a drink or two, others are stone sober and eager to sleep before getting up for jobs the next day.

Regardless of the condition or situation of the residents, admittance to the shelter is a simple process involving little more than showing up at the door. Staff workers greet incoming guests, take their coats, pat them down to make sure they are not concealing alcohol or weapons, then offer them food. Those with particularly poor hygiene may be urged to bathe and have their clothes washed. Sweat suits are provided for pajamas for these guests, and laundry is done periodically throughout the evening.

Most of the clients are men, who are assigned to one of three rooms depending on their need for quiet, such as those with jobs. One room is designated for extremely intoxicated clients, on whom a closer eye is kept. (They are checked every quarter-hour.) One room is reserved for women.

Couples are accepted at the shelter, but must sleep seperately. No parents with children can be admitted for obvious reasons involving the kids’ welfare, but alternate arrangements such as motel rooms are provided for them.

Each morning the residents must vacate the premises by 7, but are required to perform chores — stripping their beds, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping and mopping the dorms — before they can leave. Depending on what food has been donated recently, a breakfast — coffee, hot chocolate, juice, pastries, cereal, sandwiches — is waiting in the dining room, as are their clothes, which have been washed, dried and folded during the night.

Usually there’s a lot of good-natured kidding among the guests as they prepare to face yet another day, and then they gradually drift away to pursue whatever immediate goals they may have in mind, whether a job that might offer them a chance to save money for a permanent home, or a wake-up jug of cheap booze.

‘Keep a person alive’

Blue Eyes, who gave permission to use his name for this story, said he was grateful for having a place to lay his head at night, and planned to stay at the shelter until “whatever comes first — I get a vehicle or the shelter closes.” (The shelter did, in fact, close at the end of April after staying open nearly a month longer than originally planned because of an extended cold snap.)

He is one of nearly 200 individuals who availed themselves this past winter of the shelter’s services, which have been provided through a remarkable grassroots effort by religious leaders and other concerned citizens who want people down on their luck to have a safe, warm place to stay in the winter.

The shelter is housed in the old Justice Building at the northeast corner of Mildred Avenue and Empire Street in Cortez.

Guests range from hard-working folks simply down on their luck to an occasional person just released from jail to a core of street alcoholics, who make up a sizeable portion of the regular residents throughout the cold months. And they are certainly most at risk from the dangers the shelter is intended to ameliorate.

Having the shelter available for these folks in particular can lighten the burden of patrol officers in looking after their welfare, said Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane, especially during inclement weather.

“[The shelter] has a pretty big impact on us,” Lane said. “It allows us to have some place for those folks to go. We don’t have to worry about them freeezing, or being out on the street at night where they’re vulnerable to attack, so it’s been good for us.”

One welcome benefit is that dropping an intoxicated person off at the shelter takes far less time and paper work for an officer than would all the steps, often including medical clearance at the hospital, of taking a drunken pedestrian into custody.

“It eliminates almost all of that,” Lane said. “It doesn’t generate a report for us to put them in there, so that time is freed up” for other duties.

Lane dismissed the criticisms of those who see the shelter as enabling many of the clients’ alcoholism.

“I guess what I’d say to them is that sometimes it’s more important to keep a person alive than it is to worry about whether you’re ‘enabling’ them.

“I just think in a life-and-death situation, it’s a lot better to have [the shelter] than not have it — and I don’t know that you are enabling them. There’s a difference between what it is and just a flop house, so I think it’s very valuable for us to have it.”

Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace underlined the grim reality of what has happened all too regularly in the past.

“We always have a few people every year that die because of exposure to the cold at night,” he said. “Summertime is not such a big deal, but when it’s 20 degrees or even below zero, it’s pretty tough.

“The shelter gives us another option to give someone a place if they have nowhere else to go and they’re harmless, or they’re just down on their luck,” he said. “If that wasn’t the case, I’m not sure exactly where we would take them.”

Jackie Barker, director of the shelter, also emphatically disagreed with the sometimes-heard criticism about the shelter “encouraging” alcoholics, pointing out that the problem existed long before the shelter did.

“Regardless of whether or not the shelter was open, they were here,” she said, “so I still don’t think it’s enabling them. I asked several of the clients one night — we were sitting around talking and most of them were sober — what kept them here in the winter time, if it was the shelter being here . . . and if the shelter was closed where would you go?

“Most of them said they would probably be sleeping out in the sagebrush area still, and that it’s not the shelter that keeps them here — it’s the alcohol.” A portion of the shelter residents with severe alcohol problems are Native Americans from the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute reservations, where alcohol is banned.

Barker said negative reactions to the shelter have been rare.

“The most negative comment I’ve had was that one gentleman said it brought in people from out of town to the shelter,” she said, “but I haven’t seen a lot of that,” other than last fall when a few people were winding up summer jobs in the area.

“People do stay here from out of town, and I know for a fact that people stay here who have homes, but a lot of it is that they’re here working.” In fact, she said, the word “homeless” had been eliminated from the name of the shelter to reflect more accurately the clientele.

“I think it made people fell better about coming here — the ones who didn’t drink and had places to stay, like one gentleman who had stayed here until he could get his roof fixed” after it collapsed from a snow storm.

“Had it been called a homeless shelter, I think it would have been harder for him to come.”

Beyond that, “[The shelter] is good in that it’s saving lives — we get people off the streets,” Barker added, “but I do believe we need a detox more than anything.”

Currently little can be done at the shelter to deter the inevitable physical and psychological downspiral stemming from alcohol addiction.

“As it is now, there’s nothing we can do to help them stay sober,” she said. “We’re just giving them a place to sober up and then they just go right back out and drink the next day.”

But with an actual detox unit, she explained, “we would have more resources to help the clients — it would be a place to change their lives.”

Steps in that direction — building a permanent seasonal shelter and yearround detox — have been taken. County Administrator Ashton Harrison said the Montezuma County commissioners have offered land along Park Street north of Empire between the Justice Building and the new jail as a site for a new Bridge facility.

Additionally, various grant applications have and are being submitted for construction and operational funds that possibly could use the value of a longterm lease with the county as an inkind contribution, or matching funds, for grants that require one.

“I think it’s still up in the air whether to lease it [the land] or make it an outright donation,” Harrison said. “For some grant applications they consider leases as in-kind in lieu of cash, so if we leased it for $1 a year and its fair market value was $1,000 per month, then they would be able to write that as an in-kind.

“That’d be for them (the Bridge board of directors) to figure out what would work best,” he said, “but the commissioners did agree” in February to providing the land if the Bridge can work out the funding for construction and operation.

But even if fund-raising is successful, the actual construction of a permanent home won’t happen this year, and there is some question about whether the current space can be used again this fall.

In some ways the former jail is an ideal home for the shelter — the steel bunks in the bedrooms are virtually indestructible and the “cellblocks” are designed to be easily cleaned. One disadvantage is that no one can stay at the shelter during the day because its dining area is used as a holding room for prisoners waiting to go into Montezuma County Court, which is located in the building.

But even such limited use of this space might no longer be available if the county needs it for other purposes, possibly for a new courtroom should the state approve the addition of another district judge in the 22nd Judicial District, a measure currently before the legislature in Denver. Even if passed, however, such a measure could well take another year or two to actually fund and implement.

Harrison said whether the shelter can remain at its present quarters would be determined later this summer when shelter representatives will formally request its use at a commission meeting, but that a “facility-needs assessment” was going to be conducted to determine how efficiently all the county facilities are being used, and that there had been only very preliminary discussions about possibly remodeling the shelter space for a new courtroom.

Wallace said he would be amenable to the shelter remaining in the Justice Building another year unless the space is required otherwise.

“That’s a decision for the commissioners,” he said, “but I support — if the building is not used for anything else — at least allowing it for another year, because I don’t think they can get their other building up and running in the meantime.”

He said the original concerns of other users of the building — county court and probation — have largely been addressed

“They’re pretty receptive of it now because it does provide such a good service for the community.”

And reaction from the community has been “overwhelmingly positive — all I’ve heard is positive comments — especially about the people who volunteer their time there,” Wallace said.

“This is really a community effort,” said Barker, noting that the shelter gets support from the local business community and churches as well as close to 100 volunteers who contributed more than 3,000 hours to make the shelter tick this season. Each evening the shelter requires two shifts of two to three people.

City Market donated a large amount of dented cans and other superficially damaged groceries, Barker recounted, and both Grace and Hope kitchens as well as Once Upon A Sandwich have supplied left-over prepared food. Wal- Mart has donated opened packages of underwear and other apparel.

The shelter also received a $2,500 grant from the El Pomar Youth in Community Service program, which encourages young people to get involved in philanthropic efforts by matching the money they raise to contribute to worthy local causes.

Lauren Bradford, a Southwest Open School senior who is a member of the EPYCS group there, said the shelter scored among the highest when the club evaluated various local service organizations.

“We scaled them on their mission statement . . . impact, sustainability and leadership,” Bradford said, “and [the shelter] scored really high on everything — their mission statement went perfectly with ours.”

Students from SWOS as well as Dolores High School have also volunteered to clean the shelter on Sundays before it opened for the week in addition to the daily cleainings done by the guests.

Dignity and self-sufficiency

M.B. McAfee, chair of the Bridge board of directors, said she wasn’t aware of any other community shelters that so heavily depended on volunteers, and believed their sustained support made a very positive statement about the area.

“There may have been shelters that had such a huge reliance on volunteers in other communities, but we didn’t even look for models,” said McAfee, who did regular turns herself at the shelter. “We just tried to do what needed to be done with the resources we had — what needed to be done was to keep people from freezing, and the resources we had were volunteers.

“And until we are able to grow our organization with money from grants and so forth, we’ll have to continue to rely on volunteers.

“The volunteer aspect is truly something the community is to be commended for, because it is definitely altruistic — we collectively rose to a need.” Personally, McAfee said, she feels well-rewarded.

“As a retired social worker and somebody who likes direct service, for me it’s rewarding because you help someone immediately. I find that inspirational — I guess that’s what gives me energy to stick with the program.”

She said a long-term goal is to be able to rely more on paid staff and lessen the demands on the volunteers’ time, although they would still be an integral part of the effort, perhaps being asked to work once or twice a month rather than doing weekly shifts.

“We will still have to rely on volunteers,” she said, “but my hope is we won’t have to use them as much as we have been, because my fear is the volunteers will not want to do it any more, even though they get a break in the summertime.

“It’s going to be a gradual moving away from volunteers, but I believe there will always be a place [for them] at the Bridge shelter and whatever it morphs into in the future.”

The Bridge shelter was preceded by a facility of similar intent — the Christian Emergency Shelter — that operated for several years south of Cortez. That was the creation of the late Fred Thomas and his wife, Nancy, who is president of Christian Ministries and serves on the current shelter’s board.

“We believe that all people deserve the basic necessities of life,” declares the Bridge vision statement. “We envision a community whose people can access emergency shelter in a manner that supports their dignity and encourages self-sufficiency.”

For the past two years, that vision has been 20-20.

From -May 2007.