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At Denver shelter, homeless people ‘go first class’


The same dry, cold conditions that make for exceptional Colorado skiing are a recipe for misery among Denver’s homeless population. A few hours can bring a 40-degree temperature drop that turns the city from sunny to frigid.

On one of those bitterly cold nights in the winter of 1981, Msgr. C.B. “Father Woody” Woodrich opened Denver’s Holy Ghost Church to let the homeless sleep in the pews. He’d expected about a dozen people. Two hundred showed up.

Recognizing a severe problem, Woodrich and Msgr. James Rasby searched for a permanent solution. They convinced Archbishop James Casey to give them a vacant downtown Catholic high school and $50,000 to start a homeless shelter. The former school opened in fall 1982 as the Samaritan Shelter.

Both Rasby and Woodrich, who died in 1991, were pastors of large Denver parishes, and they soon realized that running a homeless shelter required full-time attention. The Capuchin Franciscans, whose provincial office had just moved to the Denver area, agreed to help. Capuchin Fr. Bill Kraus, became the first director.

Rasby and Woodrich used their newfound “spare” time to work on convincing the Denver archdiocese to build a place specifically for the homeless. In November 1986, the newly constructed Samaritan House was opened in downtown Denver at 2301 Lawrence St.

“We understand that this was the first time a building was built just to house the homeless,” said Capuchin Fr. John Lager, present director of Samaritan house.

The value of such a building is immediately obvious. The facility is bright, clean and orderly. There are 21 rooms for families, and separate dormitories for 125 male and 75 female guests. Lager said, “It’s a very unique shelter because we have all the populations that are homeless -- single men, single women and families.” Offering 250 beds, the place is always at capacity.

“On the family floor there can be anywhere from 50 to 75 kids a night,” said Lager.

There is also a large street-level “overflow” room where men can come off the streets, check their weapons with the staff and grab some bedding. It’s a one-night housing fix, but at least they can “stay inside where it’s warm and safe and they have access to a bathroom,” said Lager.

Experience of human dignity

In a quote now famous among the staff, visiting Fr. Ben Colucci described the shelter as “a place where the homeless can go first class.” Although many services are offered, the initial impression at Samaritan House is a feeling of unconditional acceptance and hospitality -- the main gift of the home is the experience of human dignity.

Dignity is hard-won for those who have experienced the street. Much of this population is composed of veterans who have dropped out because of post-traumatic stress syndrome or substance abuse problems. Roughly 30 percent of the homeless in Denver are veterans, and Samaritan House offers them respect and help. “If they’re vets, we have a veterans program and a couple of workers who concentrate on helping them get connected with their help -- benefits, retirement, medical care,” said Lager. The shelter also holds an annual Veterans Day celebration where those who have served in the military are offered thanks and a festive meal.

As in any city, mental illness is an underlying reason for many individuals’ homelessness. Case managers at Samaritan house work hard to deal with the needs of those sufferers. Lager noted also that the demographic mix of the homeless has changed in the last few years, and Samaritan now sees an increasing population of homeless elderly. “There have been a number of people who have been literally dropped off at our door,” he said.

The Samaritan House staff is also taxed by the arrival of more people who are discharged from hospitals without follow-up care. Lager explained, “We find them on our doorstep in wheelchairs. We recognize that there is more and more of a population that needs nursing care and there isn’t a place to go.” He said they do their best to care for those who can take care of their own basic needs, but that the house is always filled to capacity and the staff is unable to provide nursing care. Staff members make every effort to find help for these individuals.

Samaritan house is a full-service shelter that aims to offer “not a hand out but a hand up.”

Under the direction of Kraus, the shelter expanded its services to include case management, medical and employment assistance. In 1990, Capuchin Fr. Ed Judy replaced Kraus. During Judy’s 11-year service to this community, Samaritan House added drug and alcohol counseling and expanded many services, including programs for the homeless children housed there.

A three-story addition

Under Judy’s direction Samaritan House became part of Catholic Charities in 1992, and grew in 1999 with a three-story addition to provide more space. Judy also raised the shelter’s social profile in the Denver community. He was president of the Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative, and raised awareness about homeless issues to the Colorado State legislature. When a cancer diagnosis caused Judy to leave Samaritan House in 2001, he left an institution that was well known and respected in the community. Judy was recently honored with Denver’s Regis Jesuit University’s highest honor, the Civis Princeps award for recognition of “leadership in service of others.”

The shelter takes care of the basics first. Open beds are filled by lottery, and hotel vouchers are usually available to provide temporary shelter when Samaritan House is completely full. The Volunteers of America have recently refurbished a motel down the street that accepts these vouchers.

More than 700 individual meals are served daily at the shelter, and donations from the community ensure that clothing is available. Toiletries, showers, laundry facilities, bus tokens and sack lunches for those with jobs are provided.

Upon arrival everyone gets a basic health check and a TB test.

Samaritan House has a walk-in clinic staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses. They’ve recently added pediatric and dental services. Lager noted, “Dental care is one of the things that goes first once you lose your residence.”

A long-term stay at Samaritan house requires that the resident demonstrate responsibility. An initial orientation establishes the goals and rules of the house.

Lager describes the program’s approach as “tough love.” There is zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol, and those unable to follow certain rules must leave, “no questions asked,” said Lager. “It’s really a matter of safety, for the staff and for the women and children who reside here.” The rules are also necessary for recovery, said Lager, “Our approach is always respectful, compassionate, and sometimes tough -- it helps them understand the boundaries we all need to have.”

Residents see a case aide for general assessment. Those with certain criminal histories, such as arsonists, those who are homicidal, or previously imprisoned for violence or sex offenses are asked to leave. These people are directed to other homeless missions that are better equipped to handle possible problems.

Chores in first three days

For the first three days there are assigned chores, and residents are charged with helping in the laundry room, cleaning common areas or working in the kitchen and dining room. After the chores are successfully completed, a resident can stay eight more days. During this period, they are encouraged to satisfy medical needs and check the in-house job service center for help with job skills and resumés.

There is a full-time housing coordinator who checks all permanent housing possibilities. Also, the Denver archdiocese owns a 32-unit apartment complex called Courtyard Commons that holds about 17 units for those in transition from Samaritan House.

“Affordable housing is at a premium,” said Lager. He noted that rising residential prices present two challenges: It’s hard to find housing for homeless; and he said, “We’re dealing with the challenges of the gentrifying of the neighborhood” around Samaritan House. Nearby properties are being transformed into yuppie lofts and high-end apartments.

Lager worries that the new neighbors might begin to resent the local homeless shelters; community relations and education are an important part of his mission. The shelter sponsors neighborhood clean-up days periodically where residents and volunteers pick up trash in a wide swath around the shelter. Ironically, when Samaritan House was built in 1986, it was the first new building in years in its neighborhood.

Residents are encouraged to take care of anger management or addiction problems. A certified counselor is available to provide case management and guidance for substance abuse recovery. Various vocational and educational programs also exist, including opportunities to obtain a general equivalency high school diploma. Capuchin Fr. Michael Suchnicki attends to the spiritual needs of the residents.

30-day stay is average

Residents who comply with house requirements can stay up to 30 days. They’re encouraged to find jobs, and those who do can deposit their paychecks in a secure “bank” at the shelter. This helps them accumulate a deposit on a permanent residence. There are also some additional housing funds to help people get into an apartment, Lager noted. “People who have lost homes often have bad credit,” so individuals are helped to define credit liabilities and establish a clean credit history.

The average stay at Samaritan House is 30 days, but those making progress can stay up to 90 days. “Our hope is to get them moved out and into a stable environment of their own,” Lager said. Even after permanent housing is found, staff members continue to track individuals, help them manage budgets, make sure they take care of rental property, watch medical care and make sure children are provided for. Sadly, the stress of poverty sometimes leads to child abuse, and the staff will call child protective services if necessary.

All residents must move on after 90 days. Lager said, “Our hope is that after those 90 days, we’ve given them the connections that they need to really get back on track and become contributing members of society.” A 90-day resident can’t return for one full year, although the staff will attempt to find other resources for them.

As the largest agency serving the homeless in Denver, Samaritan House has a high profile and good community assistance. Lager said he is “grateful for the community and their support.” Although the city itself is stressed by its efforts to serve those in need, Lager said the department of human services has been “tremendously supportive.” He said, “Denver is making a valiant effort to respond to the needs of the homeless.”

The annual budget for Samaritan House is about $2.5 million with 64 percent of that coming from individual donations. The shelter usually operates with 40 full-time staff members and 10 part-time staff. Challenges created after Sept. 11, and the resulting impact on the economy, reduced gifts so the shelter was forced to decrease its staff by four. “We’ve cut the staff and we’ve done our best to operate on a shoestring budget,” said Lager. The staff members keep the home open “24/7,” he said. There are about 250 volunteers, and the numbers are growing. Lager said he is grateful to always have more volunteers than the shelter can effectively use.

Funding is not the only asset required to keep Samaritan House going. Lager said, “Whatever we do here must be done with great charity.” The philosophy of the shelter is based in the actions of the biblical Good Samaritan. Programs attempt to maintain the individual’s right to self-determination, and to recognize that most homeless persons have suffered serious wounds to their self-image, self-motivation and personal dignity. The program’s structure requires residents to perform to the best of their abilities, and a balance is sought between compassion and discipline.

The staff is trained to be compassionate and calm. Service to the homeless is stressful, because people often come off the streets upset, frustrated and angry. A staff member who feels short-tempered in any situation is encouraged to “step aside and let somebody else be there with you or for you.”

Lager says this helps the staff support each other and also “makes sure that we don’t ‘lose our cool’ in our service to the homeless. It’s a daily challenge for all of us, but we do our best to be like the Good Samaritan.”

Melissa Jones is a free-lance writer living in Littleton, Colo.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003