Catholic Charities opens Denver’s largest women’s homeless shelter

New shelter to provide services for up to 150 single females a night

Roxanne King

On Aug. 24, Catholic Charities opened the largest women’s-only homeless shelter in Denver.

Samaritan House Women’s Shelter in northeast Denver will offer emergency overnight shelter for up to 100 single women and will accommodate another 50 women with a 29-day non-medical detox program designed to help them transition from homelessness.

Set to begin taking residents Sept. 15, the new site will enable Charities to shelter up to 250 single women a night when combined with the women’s quarters at Samaritan House downtown. More than 500 women will receive services annually through the 29-day program.

“Today, we’re here to celebrate a new era in offering services to homeless women in Denver,” Larry Smith, president and CEO of Charities in the Denver Archdiocese, told those gathered at the grand opening, which included Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, and invited guests.

From left, Catholic Charities President and CEO Larry Smith, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, and Denver City Councilman Christopher Herndon pose for a photograph during the grand opening of the Samaritan House Women’s Shelter on August 24, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo provided by The Catholic Alliance)

The shelter’s emergency service will provide women with hot meals at Samaritan House on Lawrence Street downtown before and after transporting them to the new northeast site for the night. The shelter’s transitional program will offer women onsite meals and shelter, recovery and counseling resources, and help finding employment.

“It will allow them to collect themselves and realize that they have dignity—dignity in the eyes of God and dignity in the eyes of other human beings, which is oftentimes lost by the homeless,” Smith said. “Our goal is to have these women gain stability—stable income, stable housing—and at the end, and most importantly… self-reliance and self respect.”

The $5.1 million, 32,000-square-foot renovated facility was realized in partnership with the city of Denver, which provided a $1 million grant.

“On any given night, 150 souls can be here in this facility…150 souls can receive a tailored response to their needs,” Mayor Hancock told the crowd. Noting that he had just come from the opening of the Sanderson Apartments in southwest Denver, a city project that will serve the chronically homeless, he added, “This is a big day in the life of our city.”

Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila celebrates Mass in the Samaritan House Women’s Shelter chapel during the grand opening event on August 24, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo provided by The Catholic Alliance)

The 2017 point-in-time survey by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative shows that a third of the homeless population on a given night in January were women (1,722). Single women are among the fastest growing segments of homelessness in the nation and have a higher failure rate leaving homelessness than men because they experience greater trauma, the archbishop and Smith said.

“Here they know that they’re safe and get shelter from the storm of homelessness,” Smith told the Denver Catholic, adding that once they’re stable they can enter a more aggressive four-month program at the downtown Samaritan House that aims to further equip them to live independently.

In addition to the sleeping quarters, the new shelter includes a chapel, a prayer garden, a patio for smokers, private showers, a computer lab, a dining area and a commercial kitchen. The upper floor will house the majority of Charities’ administrative offices, which are moving from their current site in northwest Denver to keep workers “on the front lines” with the people they serve. Officials said the sale of the old administrative facility will help pay for the new shelter.

Catholic Charities President and CEO Larry Smith (R) gives Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock (C) and Denver City Councilman Christopher Herndon (L) a tour during the grand opening event of the Samaritan House Women’s Shelter on August 24, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo provided by The Catholic Alliance)

“[This] is a great joint effort by the city and the Church to reach out and help the most vulnerable,” Archbishop Aquila told the gathering. “It is a reminder to every person that no one is a ‘throwaway’ as Pope Francis has so often told us.”

The archbishop added his gratitude to that of Smith and Hancock to thank all who collaborated and donated to bring the facility to completion.

“God has never meant for anyone to be homeless,” he said. “He permits it, but it is us who have to be the ones who welcome the homeless and let them know their dignity.

“I know the Lord will bless you,” he added, “for he will never be outdone in generosity.”

COMING UP: The waiting game: Mile high rents send desperate residents to Samaritan House

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Jessica Gillard comforted her six-week-old son Cassius, not in the comfortable confines of her own home, but in a common area at the Samaritan House homeless shelter.

Gillard is one of many who are forced to live at shelters such as Samaritan House for a temporary period of time due to skyrocketing rental prices within Denver and the surrounding cities.

“It’s extremely hard to find apartments in Denver,” Gillard said. “I was considering transferring out of Denver County to a different county to see if the housing is any better there, but it’s an epidemic everywhere. It’s hard.”

Gillard moved to Denver from Florida in 2013. She lived with her dad for several years before moving out to live on her own in 2015. Rent prices were so high that she had to apply for a Section 8 voucher to help offset the cost of rent. She ended up in an apartment on Stout Street.

Four months into living in her apartment, Gillard lost her job at the Protein Bar. She reported her loss of income to Section 8, but there was never any follow-through on their part. She was evicted from her apartment, which brought her to Samaritan House at the end of November. She was eight months pregnant with her son. Two weeks passed, and Cassius was born on Dec. 16.

Samaritan House requires all of their residents adhere to a 120-day case management program while staying there. This includes attending classes related to employment and money management, regularly submitting “job search” and “housing search” logs, and saving 85% of their income.

Jessica Gillard turned to Samaritan House when she lost her job and was evicted from her apartment while eight months pregnant with her son, Cassius. Samaritan House has seen an influx of people who have become less as a result of getting priced out of the rental market. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

Gillard is just now getting back into the job market after having her baby. She’s been searching for housing per Samaritan House’s requirements, but what she’s found hasn’t been very promising.

She said she has an entire folder full of apartments she’s looked at, and almost all of them have no openings for two to five years. The ones that do have vacant units are out of her voucher range, so she’s stuck waiting.

“Am I supposed to be in transitional housing for two to five years before an apartment opens up?” Gillard asked. “It’s nice that they offer these vouchers, but once you have your voucher, the apartments that accept it have no openings for years to come. It’s a bit frustrating.”

Shawn Lovejoy, another Samaritan House resident forced to live there due to the unaffordability of Denver housing, agreed with Gillard. Lovejoy has been struggling to pay for housing in Denver and the surrounding area for the past 10 years. His wife went on permanent disability after their son was born in 2006, and their income dropped by half.

They lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Aurora, for which they paid $1500 per month. However, Lovejoy said that once water, utilities and similar expenses are factored in, it becomes closer to $2000 a month, which they couldn’t afford. They applied for government assistance, but didn’t qualify because they made too much money.

Shawn lost his job, which forced him to dip into their savings in order to live. They lived in a hotel for a while, but that was too expensive as well.

“It got to the point where we had no choice, so we came to [Samaritan House],” Lovejoy said.

Lovejoy and his family have been at Samaritan House since Jan. 3. Samaritan House helped him become employed again in Aurora. He recently started working again and is doing everything in his power to support his family and put his income into savings, but the search for an affordable place to live continues.

Jonathan Ghaly, a Denver real estate agent, attributes the rising housing prices to supply and demand. He said Denver is one of the rare cities in the U.S. that is both desirable and affordable; it’s not as expensive to live in Denver as it is in cities such as San Francisco and New York, and it has a strong and inviting job market, not to mention over 300 days of sunlight per year.

“These factors are leading to lower vacancy rates and high rents,” Ghaly said. “In 2000, rents in Denver averaged $762 a month. Today, they are averaging $1,300 a month. That is a huge increase, but is more evidence for the demand in Denver.”

Geoff Bennett, Vice President of Shelter and Community Outreach Services for Catholic Charities, sees firsthand the devastating effects of rapidly rising rents on people such as Gillard and Lovejoy.

“What we’ve seen lately is a large increase of people getting kicked out of their apartments because of rents being raised, sometimes doubling,” Bennett said. “They weren’t homeless, but they are now. We’re seeing a lot of new homeless who are getting priced out of the housing market.”

Samaritan House used to get only 15 to 20 families looking for a room to stay in when one became open, but Bennett said now they’re getting around 50 families on a consistent basis for every vacancy.

“It’s a significant issue that’s affecting a lot of families,” he said.

Samaritan House is the largest shelter under the Catholic Charities name, but they have several other shelters, including the Father Ed Judy House for women and children and shelters in Greeley and Fort Collins.

The employment center at Samaritan House finds jobs for 50 people per month, Bennett said. They also make sure that any school-aged children are enrolled in school within three days of staying there, and they help find child care if it’s needed.

Bennett said there are plans to break ground in March on their property in Greeley to build 48 new Section 8 units.

“The need is immediate, so it’s definitely something that’s high on our priority list,” he said.

In spite of their circumstances, Gillard and Lovejoy are grateful to be staying at Samaritan House. Samaritan House helped with Gillard’s postpartum care after giving birth, and Lovejoy said it’s great to have a place to stay and live in, as opposed to a walk-in overnight shelter.

They both said the 120-day program is helpful while staying there, but they’re still waiting for answers as to where they’re going to go after their time at Samaritan House comes to an end.

“Samaritan House does offer the program here, but once time runs out and we’re still in the midst of waiting, what is there to do?” Gillard said. “It would be nice to know where we’re going to go.”

“The give us classes and every tool you need to get back out there, but it’s hard, even with all that,” Lovejoy said.