The hotels and motels along West Colfax Avenue have never been just a place to stop during the night for travelers. They also — for years — have served as temporary roofs for homeless people who can afford staying a night or two.
Wheat Ridge resident Lindsay Bledsoe, 29, knows this firsthand, from her own experiences growing up. And it was at one of these hotels that she first came into contact with Mean Street Ministry.
“I was a teenager at the time, staying in one these hotels, and Mean Street volunteers came by our door with food and offering to pray with us,” she remembered. “We gladly accepted, and even had a Christmas dinner with them.”
Years later, with a family of her own, Bledsoe decided it was time to teach her children the value of appreciating what they have. So she got back in touch with the organization — this time to volunteer.
“Seeing this humbled everyone, and I think I needed it as much as my kids did,” she said. “Now that I volunteer with the ministry, there are times when I open the door on a situation very similar to what mine was.”
Bledsoe is one of hundreds of people who have had their lives changed by the work of Mean Street, founded by the Rev. James Fry and headquartered in Lakewood. The Christian nonprofit works to help homeless families, particularly in the west Jefferson County area, leave the streets for a stable place to live and reliable employment.
“I was volunteering at area food banks and saw people who were just so broken,” Fry explained. “I started buying food in bulk and going to local motels where homeless families were staying, and that was 15 years ago.”
In the years since its creation, Mean Street has grown to include providing resource guides to families in need, and a cafe, food bank and cold weather shelter, all at 1380 Ammons St. in a building it shares with the Denver Street School, which serves at-risk youth by giving them a second chance to earn their high school diploma.Mean Street also has key working relationships with the county and has formed partnerships with area cities and police departments.
“Our paths intersect with them and the work they do from time to time,” said Randy McNitt, a sergeant with the Lakewood Police Department. “One of the biggest ways we interact with them is as a cold weather shelter they host during bad weather.”
The school is the county’s designated cold weather shelter for families, and area police know to use Mean Street as a resource for those in need from October to April. The shelter is open to families when it becomes dangerous for people to spend the night outside — usually when it is about 32 degrees with precipitation or 20 degrees or colder and dry.
“We work with Jeffco on the shelter, and we are often bursting at the seams,” Fry said. “Denver is becoming too dangerous for a lot of families, so we’re seeing more of these families being pushed out into the suburbs area.”
Young families are the fastest-growing segment of homeless in the metro area, Fry said, with the high prices of living in Denver and the lack of affordable housing options in Jeffco being some of the top reasons.
In March, Mean Street tried a pilot program, where the overnight shelter in the gym was open every evening, regardless of weather, to about 10 families a night. The number of families who attend every night varies, but what stays the same is the routine — families arrive and set up their tents, eat and go to bed.
“It can cost someone between $75 to $100 a night for one of those motels on Colfax,” said Suzanne Wilson, a volunteer and president of Mean Street’s board. “Not having to worry about where their kids are going to be resting their heads helps.”
The program’s goal is to save up money for more permanent housing. Added benefits include having a safe place to shower and sleep. Families arrive between 6 and 7 p.m., are given dinner and a shower, and sent up tents in the gym. There is breakfast early in the morning — they have to be out by 7 a.m.
“Everybody has a chore to help run the shelter,” Wilson said. “The kids really like it — they’re camping inside. Most kids beg to camp inside.”
There is a friendly atmosphere as everyone prepares for the evening, with people talking about their days and visiting with the volunteers.
Jefferson County has always been a place where homeless people stay for a while, according to Fry, but “single homeless” know how to stay off the radar and go unnoticed. For families with children and a job, this is not so easy.
“Shelters are packed with people who have jobs, but the cost of living is just so high,” he said. “Homeless families tend to be more transient, and it’s so difficult right now to find apartments they can afford.”
Wilson said two of the families the ministry works with have found permanent housing in recent weeks, bringing the total to seven families that she knows have gotten out of homelessness this winter.
“People need to be aware this is a problem happening right in their backyards,” said Pattie Stermole, director of Mean Street’s food bank. “The main thing we do here is expanding as much as we can to help the working poor.”
Mental illness and addictions continue to be key causes in homelessness, and so Mean Street also offers prayers and counseling. But one group can only do so much, and there is always a desperate need for volunteers and donations.
“We publish a new resource guide every year that has the latest resources for people in need, and that alone is a big cost for us,” Fry said. “We also need overnight and evening hosts for our shelter, and we always need funds to help buy clothes and food.”
Volunteers such as Bledsoe, with her own experience with homelessness, can make all the difference for a family.
“I don’t think most people see the homeless situation the way we do — that these are good people,” she said. “For me, working with these people has really changed my perspective, and reminded me that the homeless person you see on the street is a person just like you.”