The Kyle Dyer Storytelling team is profoundly grateful to have been given access to the Denver Coliseum during the COVID-19 pandemic to witness and share the stories of homeless women who had a safe and secure place to stay at a very uncertain time.
Women like Mesa who is in her sixties, living with a brain tumor. She told me very matter of factly… “If it weren’t for Catholic Charities, I would be living on the street probably underneath an overpass bridge or worse.”
The numbers of those experiencing homelessness in Denver was on the rise before COVID-19 hit in early 2020. As the pandemic lingered for months, the need became greater. And, it became clear that the response to helping the homeless had to be different than its been in the past. Catholic Charities of Denver stepped up as a leader in a community-wide effort to provide shelter and services for women. Women are extremely vulnerable to violence and assault when they spend the night on the streets.
“When we first came together back in March with the other service providers and the City of Denver, we just started talking about what can we do to prepare,” Catholic Charities’ Vice President of Shelter Services Mike Sinnett said. “The old shelter environment didn’t provide for social distancing. That was our number one priority… how do we create an environment of social distancing to protect these women? So that’s when we came up with the idea of having a very large congregate care shelter.”
Within several weeks, the Denver Coliseum was turned into a large emergency shelter for women. From the end of April through early August, the sports arena was a temporary home for up to 300 women each night. Cots were lined up on the Coliseum floor. Each woman had 60 square feet of space from the neighboring cot which met the social distancing requirements set forth by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Catholic Charities was in charge during the evening and overnight hours. Delores Project and The Gathering Place provided staff and volunteers during the day.
Unlike the old shelter model, the women were able to stay at the Coliseum 24/7. Overnight shelters usually have their residents leave during the day and come back at night. The women at the Coliseum were also provided 3 meals a day and had access to showers and laundry machines. Medical professionals and mental health care counselors volunteered their time to help and support the women.
“The people who have worked with us are kind and very compassionate,” Mesa said. “I don’t feel like they brush over us disabled folks. If anything, they pay a lot of attention to us.”
“Catholic Charities has been quite a lifesaver for so many women, including myself,” Debra told me. “I am not sleeping outside right now. I have gained at least 15 pounds, which is a good thing. I have clothes. I have been given the opportunity to have fellowship with my ‘sisters’ who would not be well if it wasn’t for Catholic Charities. They really wouldn’t. They’d be incarcerated. They would be driven into the sex trafficking industry. They would be starving on the corner or honestly, they’d be deceased by now.”
With that reality and the need only rising, Catholic Charities has created a new model for it’s shelters, especially those designated for women.
Catholic Charities’ Smith Road Women’s shelter is now a 24/7 home for 70 women (pre-pandemic, it would house 180 women). The Smith Road shelter also has the space to safely bring in a dozen women for emergency overnight stay. In mid-October, the newly renovated Holy Rosary Women’s Shelter within Samaritan House will open up. In addition, Catholic Charities provides overnight shelter to women in two motels in Denver and Fort Collins. With the need not expected to go away anytime soon, Catholic Charities is working with the City of Denver on opening another shelter just for women.
With the care, attention and love extended to them during this exceptionally trying time in their lives, many of these women have a renewed purpose, promise and hope going forward.
“It’s gotten better than when I started out,” Angela said. “I’m pleased for myself as far as the housing, the resources Catholic Charities has, health-wise and for my disability. They can advance things for me to get out of this type of situation and get my own residence.”
“It’s not just the safety of knowing that we’re being fed or that we’ve got a roof over our head, Catholic Charities provides us with safety,” Debra said. “Catholic Charities is here to help us and bring us in from the cold. I think that’s what God wants all of us do .. to address those who don’t know Him and bring us closer to Him.”
Our video story premiered at Catholic Charities’ annual Sam’s Supper, a fundraiser that raised more than $530,000. “Samaritan House and our other shelter services needed that boost badly,” Catholic Charities Director of Events Shelly Seaman said, anticipating a rough winter ahead.
“I just pray that we find a vaccine and I pray that we continue to be diligent in our efforts,” Mike Sinnett said. “I pray for the safety of our team, the safety of our residents. I pray that we continue to serve the best way we can, that we are presented with options on how we continue to care in the coming months, especially with the anticipated surge that we might see this fall. I pray that the funding doesn’t run out for us, that we can continue to do what we have to do to the best of our ability. And I pray that we just have the steadfastness to continue on.”
Here is a short story we produced for social media platforms to promote the exceptional work of Catholic Charities in playing a leading role with the Denver Coliseum shelter.
I get choked up because I feel like we’re making a difference and you just know that we’re doing God’s work. – Mike Sinnett, Vice President of Shelter Services