Another season of cold weather is fast approaching and local advocates for homeless people are preparing to help as many as they can have a warm bed at night.
“People who are homeless are very much part of this community,” said Cheryl Oeltjenbruns of The Abraham Connection in Delta. “They deserve a warm place to sleep and a hot meal, just like anyone else who lives in the community.”
Abraham Connection is set to open for the season Nov. 1 - April 30, as is the Montrose Lighthouse.
With capacity of 32 and 30 respectively, the area charities cannot meet all needs, but are working to keep people out of the cold, which has in the past proved fatal.
Last year, a Montrose man died in La Raza Park where he had apparently fallen asleep during a temperature dip to 17 degrees. Shane Brown had declined a deputy’s offer for help the evening before his body was found on a park bench; police at the time said the tragedy underscored the importance of overnight, emergency shelters like Lighthouse and Abraham Connection provide during winter months.
Lighthouse is opening again at the former Brown Center, for the second year of a three-year lease with the City of Montrose.
The ministry subleases from an association of sweet corn growers, which use the North Townsend Avenue building for farmworker housing during the growing season.
“We’ll have this winter season and then one more,” board member Garey Martinez said. “At that point, we will have to discuss with the city whatever options may be available to us. It depends on what kind of facility we may or may not be able to find between now and the end of the lease.”
Last season, the ministry provided about 3,000 bed nights to people, including families with children. Abraham Connection provided a similar number of bed nights, at 2,800.
“The need Montrose is experiencing will be the same as last year; if anything, it will be increased a little bit. At the very least, our need here in Montrose will be the same as it was last year, and will probably increase,” Martinez said.
Martinez is measuring the needs in part by the number of meals he and volunteers have been serving at lunchtime, at the United Methodist Church. (Martinez will continue the lunches through the winter, separate of Lighthouse’s services.)
Martinez, who also operates the charity Shepherd’s Hand, began offering the lunches five days a week after a similar charity, Christ’s Kitchen, was priced out of its leased space on South Townsend Avenue in August and had to suspend its hot lunches.
The new lunch service has been bringing an average of 100 people a day, and as many as 140. Martinez said he expects the numbers to rise by between 25 to 40.
“We’re filling two big shoes, Shepherd’s Hand and Christ’s Kitchen. We’re getting folks from both of these areas coming to us now,” he said.
Shepherd’s Hand formerly provided hot meals, as well as other services for those struggling, but moved out of its previous facility and then, with Lighthouse, failed to obtain the necessary zoning permissions to open a hoped-for comprehensive service center on North Park Avenue.
Even though Lighthouse’s seasonal opening is a few weeks away, Martinez has already provided a few motel nights to families who would otherwise sleep in the cold, he said. And, just this past week, a woman showed up at the Methodist Church, wearing only a thin jacket. She needed a winter coat.
“It opened our eyes up,” he said.
“ … We are putting together a clothing closet. We want to make sure they have the clothing they need for inclement weather. Churches are already contacting us about making donations in those areas. We’re also going to be providing clothing at the Methodist Church.”
Lighthouse is busily preparing for its next round of guests. It will be installing laundry equipment, as well restocking its kitchen equipment in anticipation of the daily breakfast and dinner Martinez will serve there to overnight guests.
The operation plan is the same as last season: People who need a bed will be collected from the library’s parking lot at 5 p.m. and taken to Lighthouse, where they will have a hot supper and can avail themselves of laundry and shower facilities. In the morning, they will be fed breakfast and taken back into town.
This year, organizers are working to fold in more targeted counseling services.
“We’re going to try more of a coordinated effort. We did (counseling) last year and helped a number of individuals and we want to do it more intentionally,” Martinez said.
Lighthouse needs money, clothing and volunteers, as does Abraham Connection.
“We’re still primarily volunteer-driven,” said Oeltjenbruns. Abraham Connection needs volunteers for meal prep, case management days (on Mondays, including during months when the shelter is not open), and night volunteers at the shelter.
The Delta shelter has received some additional state funding allowing for more bedding in the facility, as well as a commercial freezer.
As Martinez has with his meal service, Oeltjenbruns is able to see the need by the numbers of those turning out for weekly case-management.
“I’ve had an uptick of people coming in,” she said. “I believe we are going to be busy.”
Last season, it cost about $45,000 to operate Lighthouse, Martinez said. This coming season’s costs are estimated at $50,000, fellow board member Chris Hauck said.
The charity is applying for grant funding, but, said Hauck, competition is stiff. Lighthouse enjoys significant contributions from about three “anchor” donors and through the Goodman Foundation of Grand Junction; the rest comes from individuals and churches.
“We’re going beyond local individuals, businesses and churches, asking for support. We still need local support,” Martinez said, in discussing grant opportunities.
Even people who can just come in and have fellowship with the Lighthouse guests provide a welcome volunteer service, he also said.
“There is something everyone can do, even if they don’t have a lot of financial or physical stamina,” said Martinez.
“We’re very heartened to have public support,” Hauck said.
The board remains disappointed with the zoning issue denial earlier this summer, which came after Montrose City Council heard opposition from neighbors of the intended location for Lighthouse’s permanent facility. Many of the neighbors said they supported the mission, but did not think the neighborhood was the best location.
Oeltjenbruns remembers the days before Montrose had a winter shelter — homeless people from here made their way to Delta, stretching Abraham Connection’s ability to provide services.
“We were getting overrun before Lighthouse was available. We couldn’t handle their numbers and ours both. I don’t have the space,” she said.
If Lighthouse can’t find other accommodations when its lease is up, both communities could be affected.
“I don’t have enough space. I don’t have enough volunteers. I don’t know what would happen. Mesa County doesn’t have space, either. They’re (Lighthouse) a much-needed service in Montrose County.”
There is no single answer as to why people become or remain homeless, Oeltjenbruns said. Mental health issues and addiction are among the factors — but not everyone who is homeless suffers from those things.
“The price of rentals, if you can get one in Delta County, is outrageous. There’s a definite need in Delta County for affordable housing,” Oeltjenbruns said, sharing a lament that is becoming more and more common on the Western Slope, where rental inventory is low and rent amounts often above what average-wage workers can afford.
Lighthouse continues seeking a long-term location and drumming up support.
“We’re confident the Lord will continue to provide and we’ll be instruments of His will,” Hauck said.
• 3325 N. Townsend Ave., Montrose
• 970-252-0161 or Garey Martinez, 970-433-3690
• Open for overnight shelter Nov. 1 - April 30
• Donations by mail to fiscal sponsor Montrose Jail Ministries, P.O. Box 964, Montrose CO 81402
• 480 Silver St., Delta
Open for overnight shelter Nov. 1 - April 30
• Upcoming: Volunteer training days Oct. 22, Nov. 2, Nov. 7, Dec. 12. Contact the shelter for more information.
• Shepherd’s Hand and Montrose Lighthouse, with the United Methodist Church, serve hot lunches Monday - Friday at the church, 19 S. Park Ave., from noon- 1 p.m. The church also serves a supper each Sunday at 5 p.m.
• Food donations may be made at Cedar Creek Church, 222 S. Townsend, Monday - Thursday, from 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. Please do not take them to the Methodist Church, as no one will be available to receive them.