"A lot of people just felt that what they were doing was part of their church mission to reach out to people in need, rather than just saying, 'We're open on Sundays to people who can give,'" says Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center and an early partner in WHI along with Rebecca Crummey of St. John's Episcopal Cathedral. "It was faith in action: Let's live out what we say we believe."

The group launched an eight-week pilot project in March with six churches on board, providing twenty beds a night — except on Saturdays, when they could only accommodate twelve, and Sunday, when there were no spots at all. The Red Cross provided beds, which the WHI moved around in a complicated rotation. After the pilot project ended, both the volunteers and the churches committed to continuing through at least August. By May, Flahive had collected enough donations to purchase 154 cots so that each church could have fold-up beds to roll out on its nights. In August, knowing that the need would be greater when the cold weather hit, the group made a second commitment to extend, this time through March 2013.

Aside from a very small grant from the Denver Foundation, the effort is sustained entirely by volunteers, an impressive army of church affiliates and supporters who donate time and space to shelter women. According to Flahive's records, over 36 weeks, a total of 257 volunteers have helped operate the shelters, covering a total of 2,540 shifts. Last month, the WHI was finally able to open up a church on Sunday night, too.

"Our job is offering women sanctuary," Flahive says. But she notes that from the start, the group felt obligated to do more. The churches decided that if they were going to have women staying with them, they should provide food — so now they offer dinner and breakfast at each site. Early on, transportation was an important component; Denver's Road Home, the city agency that oversees homeless issues, gave some funding to the St. Francis Center so that it could run vans to and from the churches every morning and night. That allowed the woman to gather at a single location for the lottery that would let them know where they would be sleeping, and it also helped mitigate neighborhood concerns about homeless people hanging around the churches.

Service providers quickly recognized that the WHI was filling an important niche — helping women who might not have been a good match for the few programs and shelters that do exist for women, or simply couldn't find a spot. "This is where these community efforts can really give a gift to the rest of the community and the women that they're serving," says Terrell Curtis, executive director of the Delores Project, a nonprofit that provides shelter and services exclusively for women. "That is, to get in their bully pulpit and to get on top of their steeples and scream and yell, and Diana's good at that. She is poking everybody she can to say, 'Hey, something's wrong here. Something's really, really wrong.'"

Flahive's records show that the need is great. Over a roughly fifty-day period between August and October, a total of 174 different women signed up for WHI beds in the lotteries run out of the St. Francis Center. On average, seven women landed on a waiting list each day. The WHI has attracted a core group of regulars, but even they know they'll often wind up on a wait list. One woman who has slept at WHI churches nineteen times was also turned away seven times.

Gerlinda Andrews, 61, has been sleeping at WHI churches for about four months; when she doesn't get a bed, she camps near a library. She's on a list to get permanent housing soon, she says. "It's not cool sleeping outside, especially at my age," she explains. "But you have no choice, unless I find a friend to put me up. I can make calls, but usually I don't. I don't want to intrude."

Before Krystal Wright, 33, knew about WHI, she couldn't find a place to stay indoors and instead wandered the 16th Street Mall or rode buses or light rail. She's from Wyoming and is trying to figure out how to get home, but in the meantime, she's stuck in Denver. And it's frustrating, she says, to watch women being turned away from churches for lack of space. "It really hurts to see the ones who don't get in. We do the best that we can and we try to keep each other safe," she says. "Without this, we'd have nothing."

********

On any given night, across the wide array of homeless programs in this city — programs that offer shelter beds, emergency mats, motel vouchers, overflow rooms, etc. — there are a total of 1,359 spots for the homeless, Road Home estimates. Of those, 932 go to single men. Only 252, including the WHI slots in local churches, are allotted to single women. (Those counts don't include motel vouchers and shelter spaces for families.)

According to the 2012 Point-in-Time Study, an annual count of the homeless population coordinated by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, there were 12,605 homeless men, women and children in the Denver metropolitan area last January, with close to 1,000 actually on the street. Within Denver city limits, the survey determined, 34 percent of the homeless — 1,009 individuals — were women. Even so, less than a fifth of the beds available in this city are reserved for single women.

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3 comments
jwc4christ
jwc4christ

I am a homeless man. I have had to sleep outside before. When there are empty beds, mats, or, cots in a shelter it is because there are still people camping, not because we have solved the problem of homelessness.

Renaldo
Renaldo

Six days and no comments on the front page story? Is it a sign of how relevant and important the story is, or how irrelevant Westword has become? Both? I mean, it seems any semi-sentient being who simply reads the headline would immediately ask, "Is it really worse for homeless women than men, or is Westword once again fabricating an issue (sexual bias) where there is none?"

So you might think that somewhere in the first paragraph, or at least the first dozen paragraphs, there would be an explanation of the problem this article supposedly addresses, you know, the bias against homeless women. And, when you get to the very end of the introductory section, somewhere around paragraph 12, you will read "But homeless women say that the city hasn't done enough. Even with the lotteries, they charge, the odds are stacked against them. While beds assigned to men occasionally go empty, homeless women say that sometimes, sleeping on the streets seems like the only realistic option."

So "homeless women say" the odds are stacked against them, huh? Guess that's enough evidence to write a huge multi-page cover story, 'cause some unidentified homeless women said so...I tried to read the rest of the article, and while the author alluded to numbers here and there, it would appear the article and its title are intentionally misleading. Because, when you finally get to page 4, you can read how "While men's shelters have had vacancies — in the past, sometimes as many as fifty beds or mats went unused on a given night — women's shelters are almost always packed. In fact, since the camping ban went into effect, shelters for both men and women usually reach capacity." 

So let's get this straight; the men's and women's shelters have been full since "the camping ban" went into effect...last April? In other words, from the start of this winter both the men's and woman's shelters have been full to capacity, despite the story starting off with the claim that bed's in men's shelters go unused? OK, well there's still a problem with women being underrepresented, right? Which is why on page 5 you can read "In the 2007 survey, there were 787 homeless women counted in Denver — which accounted for just 28.7 percent of the homeless population. The latest count determined that more than 1,000 women were homeless in Denver."

I'm guessing that the number of men who are homeless has also increased significantly since the bottom fell out of the economy and that's why the author doesn't want to mention whether, as a percentage of the total homeless population, the number of women actually went up or down (yeah, who wants to mess with actual facts and present the full story when you're fabricating an issue). Nonetheless, if (unlike the author) you are capable of adding two and two you will see that for every homeless woman in Denver there are roughly two homeless men. And, as quoted in the paragraph above, both the men's and woman's shelters are full to capacity. So the article basically argues that, never mind there are two men on the street for every woman, homeless women are being discriminated against...or something like, well, there are these things at the convention center and there are so many homeless people and so many services and it's all so confusing, and women are coming here from out of state, and women have special issues vs. men...and if we throw all these half-truths and misinformation and "stuff" (including some partial numbers) together it's a cover story, right?

But I guess that's just what happens when you don't want to rock that stinky Denver boat, lest someone lose their invite to Hick's xmas parties - you make up stuff about discrimination against homeless women that really doesn't exist, as opposed to writing about our hypocritical self-serving politicians, slimy "business leaders", the criminal cops, the failing schools, the amazingly dysfunctional University, the increasing street crime, etc., etc. Yep, please write some more unintelligible articles about the demise of RockBar, now THAT'S important....

Merry Christmas, and thanks again for doing such a great job...

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

@Renaldo thanks for the message -- and yes, it's the first one posted after this story. Our news stories often do not get comments -- unlike anything on pit bulls or pot -- so we appreciate this. In fact, we'd like to publish it in our print edition, ideally with your full name. Please contact me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com.

 
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