“Running a shelter serving people experiencing homelessness is a challenging endeavor in the best of times but in this last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, we found ourselves having to respond in multiple ways in order to meet the needs of those who knocked at our door,” Catholic Charities Larimer County Regional Director Joe Domko said.

Joe and his team didn’t get discouraged or overwhelmed. Instead, they powered together and accomplished more than they ever imagined they could and helped people more than they ever thought possible.

“The question that we’ve continuously asked ourselves is… ‘is this missionary aligned,'” Catholic Charities Larimer County Director of Operations Joe Sarr said.  “Is this aligned with why we’re here? Is this extending God’s healing ministry? Is this a need that we feel as an organization we can lean into? In each case this year, the answer has been, in spite of the things we didn’t have answers for…. yes!”

Within 24 hours of realizing COVID was a real threat in March of 2020 and that it would shatter the typical model of a shelter where as many people as possible are welcomed, Catholic Charities Larimer County worked with the City of Fort Collins and community partners to convert the Aztlan Community Center. into a socially-distanced shelter with room for 100 men a night. During the day, food and drinks were provided as well as hygiene stations, health checks and access to local agencies that could further support the men.

Within a few months, Catholic Charities Larimer County recognized it needed to do more to help the women experiencing homelessness. It launched the community’s first ever shelter in a local hotel. Women had their own space, day and night, as well as food and support services.

As Fall arrived and the weather started to turn cold, Catholic Charities focused on Samaritan House Fort Collins, formerly named The Mission. The shelter erected a 2,000 square foot structure in it’s parking. This structure isn’t a place for people to sleep. Rather, it’s a place for people to escape the elements, put their bags down and wait for the overnight shelter to open. Inside the shelter, a former gathering space was turned into a bunk room for an additional 24 women a night. The kitchen got busier, providing 3 meal a day. The laundry room was in overdrive. For this new shelter space space for women and also at the temporary men’s shelter at the community center, the Catholic Charities Larimer County team made sure there were fresh sheets every night.

Families experiencing homeless also came to Samaritan House Fort Collins and they would immediately move into the extended stay program which is solely focused on helping people transition out of homelessness and into income and housing.

One woman named Angie, fleeing a violent relationship, arrived at Samaritan House Fort Collins in November 2020 with her four children. They had no where to go and was Angie was six months pregnant.

“I was like, ‘I have to leave the situation,'” Angie said. “I started calling shelters, I never thought I would experience homelessness. It was scary. We really only had two suitcases for all of us. I was relieved that to find the shelter so calm and the staff so caring and motivating.”

Within two weeks, case workers started working with Angie to help her find a job, daycare, a car and ultimately a home. By the end of three months, Angie and her children moved into a 3-bedroom unit furnished with donations. The day after they moved in, Angie delivered a baby boy.

“It’s an amazing feeling to know that you’ve been there and helped people in one of the hardest times of their life to be able to step up and actually find some comfort and leave here with things in place,” Catholic Charities Larimer County Director of Programs Kendra Bornhoft said. “They have something to call their own and something that they can be proud of.”

“The reality is there’s very few people that have the privilege to do what we do every day,” Joe Sarr said. “The only way we have the opportunity to do what we do is because of all the people that support us.”

This short version of the longer story was used to promote Meal With A Mission, Catholic Charities Larimer County fundraiser. Not only was the event held to raise necessary funds to meet the needs of those who are homeless, the event was also a night to recognize the accomplishments of the last year and all the staff and volunteers who made every day & every night safe for hundreds of people.

There is work yet to do.

“We are respectfully apprehensive and acknowledging the fact that there’s going to be a lifting of the moratorium on evictions,” Joe Domko said. “We know that a lot of these federal subsidies are going to dry up. It’s an unfortunate thing but we are planning for it. We might see an influx of women and families experiencing homelessness, a wave of homelessness that we haven’t seen before.”

Because of the exceptional work done during the COVID-19 pandemic, Catholic Charities Larimer County and Samaritan House Fort Collins are ready. While the team at Catholic Charities Larimer County is preparing for the future, it also remains ever so present, listening to participants, asking what they need, talking with community partners, discovering new partnerships.

This is a ministry of presence!

“At the end of the day, all we can do is walk with one another and give each other our time and attention, a compassionate ear, a helpful conversation,” Joe Domko said. “I think that’s how you get through a global pandemic.”