Though Douglas County has ranked sixth for the highest median household income in the U.S., not everyone is living with the luxury of eating a regular meal and having a warm bed to sleep in at night. With the common goal to address this problem, several area churches have joined forces to form the Winter Shelter Network(WSN); a faith-based initiative that is helping homeless women and children attain those necessities during the winter months.
“It actually started with us working with the county, specifically Rand Clark, Community of Care Navigator of Douglas County,” said Mike Polhemus, Executive Pastor at The Rock Church. Not only did Clark get him more in touch with the habits and lifestyle of homeless population, he helped Polhemus begin to formulate ideas to start organizing a community shelter in Douglas County together.
As his network grew, another key person fell into his path. “Jake Meuli–who’s father happens to be the CEO of Denver Rescue Mission–got me involved in what he was currently doing with the homeless,” he continued. “Not only was he already connected with the homeless community in Colorado, but he has also done a lot of work with youth and has experience in bringing people together to do these type of things.” By sharing his experience, Meuli aided Polhemus in letting the program move forward and begin to take shape.
And he knew that if he wanted to meet his goal of providing a shelter each day of the week, he needed to ask more churches in Douglas County to take a leap of faith. “Though it took a little bit longer to get the project going than we expected, we slowly started to get other churches on board with the idea,” he said.
The Rock Church, Cherry Hills Community Church, Southeast Christian Church and Crossroads Community Church became initial strong proponents of the winter shelter. After partnering together with Douglas County, they began to make significant headway.
The new connection with Cherry Hills Community Church would put him in contact with just the right individual to allow the program to really take off. “The person that finally pushed this thing forward was someone who attends Cherry Hills Community Church,” he added. “Her name is Erin White.”
As he got to know her, she shared her previous experience working as the Executive Director of Family Promise of New Rock, executing a similar program in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia.
After coming on full-time as the program’s administrator, she quickly convinced Castle Oaks Covenant Church, Parker United Methodist Church, Joy Lutheran Church, and Grace Chapel to also open their doors to the homeless.
With the goal of serving “the homeless of Douglas County by providing a temporary, safe shelter to receive rest, meals, and connection during the winter months,” the group of churches began looking deeper into the issue. They also tapped into the resources of local agencies.
And just like the response from churches and organizations within the county, the response for assistance from the larger community has been equally positive.
“Over 160 people have been through our volunteer training (at The Rock Church) and several businesses are making donations,” said Jim Matthews, Pastor at The Rock Church and WSN Council Member. “We’ve really seen a lot of the community come together, rallying around this cause.”
So from now until to March 31, an available church is now equipped to provide three meals and a safe overnight stay, while also connecting them with the resources to get them back on track.
“Right now, we can only accept women and women with children at the shelters,” said Matthews. “Once they submit and application through wintershelternetwork.org–or through one of the organizations like Douglas County Human Services, Douglas/Elbert County Task Force or Catholic Charities–they are referred to stay at one of the shelters,” Matthews noted.
Chad Jewett, Outreach Pastor at Castle Oaks Covenant Church, is leading the effort at his church. They have committed to welcome qualified individuals for overnight stays, one night of the weekend. “We trade off taking people in on Saturday nights with The Rock,” he said.
Though it’s been slow, they are preparing for larger numbers now that the temperature has dropped. “Right now, it’s not too busy, and we have some smaller rooms to give people with small kids a little more privacy,” Jewett said. “Eventually, we hope to have 40 people here packed in our sanctuary.”
Even with a slow start, he has already witnessed the program at work. “A previous Saturday, we had a homeless woman and her five children stay here,” Jewett smiled. Giving her a break from worrying about where they would sleep for a night, staying at the shelter allowed her to focus on getting a job. “Through a connection at the church, she had two interviews that week and found a job to start the following Monday.”
His hope is that when other local churches hear stories like this, they will see the benefits to our community and open their doors the following year. “I’ve been talking with people at Canyons Community, Faith Lutheran, and Plum Creek Churches about possibly hosting next time,” Jewett said.
Jewett understands the importance of addressing this problem now in order to get a better handle on things as the population of Douglas County continues to grow. “Though we are working with organizations to give them assistance once they are here, we’re finding out that being homeless here (in Douglas County) is a lot bigger deal than people think,” he said.
Because having more churches involved, just in the Castle Rock area, would mean less travel time for a mother and her kids. “For other churches who are thinking about joining, but are afraid to take the risk, I’d like to invite them to come and volunteer here one night to see firsthand that it’s really not difficult to do,” Jewett said.
For now, they will continue to expand their network, to not only give homeless individuals a break from the cold at night but also give them tools for a better future. “The shelter gives those moms and their families a sense of relief so that they can count on meals and place to stay while they try to find a job and more permanent housing,” Matthews added. “The ultimate goal for the shelter is to really get people sustainable again.”
**The Winter Shelter Network runs from November 1 through March 31, 2016. For more information on VOLUNTEERING, DONATING or STAYING at the Winter Shelter Network, contact:
Winter Shelter Network
Erin White, Administrator