Ministry helps homeless get back on their feet | AspenTimes.com

Ministry helps homeless get back on their feet

Heidi RiceGarfield County correspondent

A frequent visitor to the Feed My Sheep community room dunks a home-baked Christmas cookie in his coffee Tuesday morning as fellow visitors watch TV. (Kelley Cox/Post Independent)

Aspen, CO ColoradoGLENWOOD SPRINGS The stereotype might suggest that they have a drinking problem or are unemployed.But the truth is, the majority of them hold down jobs and are contributing members to our community.There’s one main difference – for a variety of reasons, they’re homeless.But thanks to the Feed My Sheep Ministry for the Homeless, many now have a place to go to get out of the cold, get something to eat and just hang their hats and relax.And because of the program, many of them have made progress in their lives and are changing their situations.Four years ago, Karolyn Spencer of New Castle started Feed My Sheep out of a room at the Silver Spruce Motel in Glenwood Springs. The program has grown and now occupies the entire basement floor of what used to be St. Stephen’s Catholic Church at 10th and Grand Avenue.”We have three times as much space,” Spencer said proudly. “We moved in on June 1, 2006, and it’s beautiful. We’ve got laundry facilities, and there is computer service available, a phone and a bathroom with a shower.”The spacious area also includes two large conversation areas, each with couches, coffee tables and televisions. A large kitchen offers visitors coffee, milk, juice, cereal, soup and sandwiches. Cubicles line one wall where clients can store their belongings on a short- or long-term basis. A ping-pong table and a dart board provide entertainment outlets. The furniture and appliances have all been donated by local organizations and private individuals.It’s not fancy, but it’s a warm, safe place to go.

Janie’s storyJanie has been homeless for the past two years. An 18-year resident of the valley, she lost her home after breaking up with her husband. “I went into a downhill thing,” Janie explained while relaxing at the facility. “And these guys took me in. They make sure I eat and I have a place to stay. I work, but I can’t afford the rents here.”When she first started to visit the shelter, Janie did not have a job. But she now works part time at a local business and says she is doing much better. Nevertheless, she still lives in a tent outside in the mountains.”I come in [to the shelter] almost every day, because when you wake up and your tent is full of ice …” she said, her voice trailing off.Janie help cook and clean at the shelter and says the group functions as a unit of friends and family.”If it wasn’t for this place, a lot of us would have nothing,” she said with a matter-of-fact tone.Just then, she was interrupted by a man getting a cup of coffee.”But yet, we have it all,” he interjected.”We do, though,” Janie agreed. “When my ex and I broke up, these people took me in. Everyone knows each other, and this is our family. A lot of us wouldn’t eat if it wasn’t for here and the soup kitchen. We all get along and take care of each other. You take it day by day, but I’m back on my feet and I’m doing a lot better.”There are other success stories of people who have used the shelter and are no longer homeless.Robert, then 51, was interviewed last year and was a frequent visitor to the shelter.”He’s now found permanent housing and is working as a painter,” Spencer said. “But he’ll often drop by.”Even those who have found housing often come in to help stretch their budget, getting breakfast or lunch or to use the computer or phone.Others have moved out of state, but still keep in touch with Spencer, grateful for the opportunity she gave them.One man moved to Florida, reunited with his parents and works for a paragliding company. Another moved to Wyoming and is working as a cabinet maker and has his own house. Still another lives in Washington and has since married and has a job.”I know the next call I’ll get is that he’s going to be a dad,” Spencer said with a chuckle.And while some are still homeless, they have made strides in other ways.”I have eight recovering alcoholics,” Spencer said with pride in her voice. “Some of them have been in and out [of rehab] and jail, but they have brought their drinking under control and are working and maintaining themselves.”Spencer said one of the purposes of the ministry is to build a sense of relationship, respect and dignity.”When they come in, they’re at the bottom,” she said. “But Feed My Sheep and the soup kitchen act as an anchor. Then they’re able to go out and work and maintain themselves. It may start slowly over a period of time, but eventually they’re able to organize their lives.”And to Spencer, that’s a big accomplishment.”It doesn’t mean they don’t ever have a drink, but it no longer controls their lives,” she said. “And that’s an enormous change. It’s an inching up process – small changes – but you know it’s going to work out. It’s terrific to see them growing and changing.”

The Day ShelterFrom 8 a.m. to noon, the shelter is open during the week, but not just to anybody off the street. Those who use it must come referred to Spencer from a local agency, whether it’s the police department, social services, a church, a hospital or by word of mouth from a trusted source. Spencer interviews each person and has them sign a contract that prohibits the use of alcohol or drugs while at the shelter, as well as aggressive behavior.The shelter served 153 people in 2004, with 2,934 visits. In 2005, 241 people were served with 4,261 visits. By the end of this year, Spencer speculates she will have served 175 people with nearly 5,500 visits.”What’s happened is that there’s a few less transients, but the homeless population is pretty much the same,” she said.She estimates there are about 40 homeless people in the area and about 20 of them use the day shelter on a regular basis.The shelter also is open from 6-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday – an evening program that was started in the spring.”We started the evening program so we can serve the working homeless, which is about 80 percent of my guys,” Spencer said. “Many of them work in Aspen and get back too late to go to the soup kitchen.”On this particularly cold, December day, about 12 people are using the shelter. Some are watching TV, a couple of people are sleeping, others are getting a hot cup of coffee or a glass of juice and one person is doing his laundry.”The hotel was cool, but this place is something else,” Janie said. “Karolyn goes out of her way. She has faith in all of us.”Winter overnight programSpencer started the overnight program last year after a local homeless woman, Helena Jandura, 50, died Dec. 13, 2005, of hypothermia.Three rooms are rented at the Silver Spruce Motel in West Glenwood, which provide 14 sleeping spaces. One room is for women and the other two for men.”It’s only open in December, January and February – during the coldest months,” Spencer said. “And it’s open to the community for emergencies but only by referral.”The overnight program is open from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily and allows for 10 men and four women and children.Janie often takes advantage of the motel room when it gets really cold outside.”It’s not good when you wake up and your tent is full of icicles,” she said.The cost of the rooms is $1,500 per month, plus bedding and salaries of two supervisors who also spend the night in the motel. There are also costs for advertising and administrative fees as well as providing food in the evening. Spencer was seeking $30,000 to fund the program and so far has received $22,000 through donations made by churches and individuals.”Christ Episcopal Church in Aspen donated $7,145,” Spencer said. “But we’re still missing about $8,000.”Feed My Sheep Ministry also has applied to the Post Independent’s Holiday Fund for the modest sum of $1,000.”We’re optimistic,” she said. “We’re hoping to get within $5,000 [of our goal] so we can keep [the overnight program] open.”A vessel of GodWorship services are offered at the shelter in the mornings and Sunday evenings, and according to Janie, everyone participates.Spencer herself became a Christian about six years ago when she said God came to her while she was meditating by the river. She calls helping the homeless a gift that God has given to her.”It’s hasn’t been me, it’s God,” she said. “I give the credit to God, but it’s great being the pipeline.”But those whom she has helped give Spencer a lot of the credit.Several of them nominated her for a Garfield County Humanitarian Service Award, which is sponsored by the Garfield County Human Services Commission, the Post Independent and Garfield County. Spencer received one of the awards in February 2006 for “Woman With a Mission.””She brought three of us with her to the ceremony at the Hotel Colorado,” Janie said. “And when she won her award, she made us stand up and said she wouldn’t have gotten [the award] without us.”So far, 2006 has been a good year for Spencer and her programs. She says the two biggest accomplishments have been opening the new shelter in the church basement and having eight people make progress in recovering from their alcoholism and managing their lives.”I feel very settled,” Spencer said.