The intense May hailstorm that hit Lakewood focused a lot of attention on damage to homes, vehicles and commercial businesses. But for many of Lakewood’s homeless families and individuals, it created a scary and dangerous afternoon as they struggled to find safety.
Homeless individuals had to take drastic measures such as jumping into ditches, hiding under outdoor tables or even beneath a discarded couch, while others remained trapped in their vehicles, leading to many getting injured during the storm, says James Fry, the executive director of Mean Street Ministry based in Lakewood that serves homeless people.
“There were families in their cars, out at Mills and Walmart, who all came filing in afterwards not knowing what to do that night (as their) car windows got bashed in,” Fry explains, referring to the organization’s facility near West Colfax.
Mean Street views the storm as another important reason for combating homelessness. A nonprofit Christian organization serving the homeless and working poor along West and East Colfax Avenue, Mean Street is also part of the Lakewood Faith Coalition. The coalition is a collaboration of more than 75 Lakewood faith-based organizations and their members that started in 2014 to build partnerships with neighborhoods, businesses, schools and nonprofits to strengthen and build community. The coalition has helped build awareness of homelessness in Lakewood, Fry says.
Mean Street offers a slew of services for the homeless ranging from a cold-weather shelter to a food bank to a legal clinic to haircuts. This past winter, the shelter served over 250 people from 71 families during more than 70 cold weather days. Mean Street started 17 years ago by focusing on getting families out of motels along Colfax, but in the last seven years Fry says the homeless situation in the western suburbs has gotten worse and worse.
Fry encourages Lakewood residents to better understand homeless people who are “like a whole underground society. I call them the shadow people. Homelessness is not monolithic – mental health and addiction drives a lot of it – but these are normal people” who truly are a part of our community, he says. “Families have jobs, kids in school. They’re embarrassed (about their situation), and they don’t want to be homeless.” When you run across a homeless family, he adds, “you’re not going to know.”
Fry’s years of experience working with the homeless population have taught him that Jefferson County provides crucial elements for bringing stability to the lives of homeless residents – good schools and proximity to jobs, with Lakewood particularly having ample entry-level jobs.
But the stark economics remain. “If you spend more than one-third of your income on housing, you won’t make it,” he says. For many families, this can be a tough threshold to stay beneath, indicating to Fry that the current housing situation is driving a lot of the homelessness in Jefferson County. Yet Fry is clear that homelessness, when approached as a community, is a solvable problem.
“I’m excited about what’s happening. I’ve never seen a mayor, council and county so willing to embrace what we’re doing,” he says of Lakewood and Jefferson County. Fry is heartened by the increasingly collaborative approach to the homeless situation because it “is too big for one church, one denomination” or one organization to solve. He cites a long list of involved community partners, including the Action Center, Denver Rescue, Family Tree, the Heading Home subcommittee of the Jefferson County Child and Youth Leadership Commission, the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, numerous local churches and the Samaritan House, plus food donors like King Soopers, Safeway, Walmart and the Food Bank of the Rockies that are working to address the needs of the homeless in the city and the county. He says local libraries are also an important resource, providing access to computers and books for adults and programs for children during the day.
Another crucial service that Mean Street provides is an in-depth resource guide designed to give homeless people the kind of information a social worker would have. To expand the effectiveness of this resource, the organization is working on a simplified electronic version for the police and other first responders to access.
Mean Street plans to open its shelter nightly from December through March this upcoming winter. Fry has hopes of building a larger year-round shelter, particularly given that occupancy during the cold months is currently more than 95 percent.