One Night at a Time

It is disturbingly early on a frigid Monday morning in November—2:13 a.m. to be exact. Two overnight volunteers sit in the sanctuary at Open Door Fellowship and listen to the sounds of 20 women sleeping throughout this heavily used room on Marion Street in downtown Denver. There’s coughing, snoring and an occasional burst of cackles from Maria (well known for laughing in her sleep). Every once in awhile someone will get up to use the restroom, but generally, all 20 women will sleep soundly until the lights are turned on at 6 a.m.

Most nights, the Open Door Fellowship sanctuary is not filled with people at 2 in the morning. But Sunday nights look a little different these days. Beginning on November 4, Open Door became the resting place for up to 20 homeless women every Sunday night.

Open Door and six other churches in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver serve as part of a consortium (formed in late 2011) called the Women’s Homeless Initiative. Each church takes one night a week and opens its doors to women who might have nowhere else to stay.

A recent count in Denver County found that women comprise 35 percent of the homeless population1. For those 1,792 women, only 275 shelter beds are available. This is what spurned the WHI.

The churches and other organizations that make up the WHI also gather for monthly meetings to plan ahead and discuss how we might improve our services.

What we provide is simple: a warm dinner at night and a breakfast bag in the morning, to take with them; a few friendly, caring faces; and a true sanctuary, where a restful night’s sleep is possible.

“I feel at home here. I feel safe,” one of our guests told us.

Diana Flahive, WHI coordinator, says the Church is called to be present. “That means showing up for people who have nothing or very little.”

As the coffee maker begins to percolate, women emerge from their bundles of blankets and greet each other. Annie* offers to vacuum, while Rosa helps a volunteer separate blankets, sheets and pillows. The ladies eagerly open their breakfast bags, which contain an orange, yogurt and a granola bar, assembled by a partner church. The van that will take them to a daytime drop-in center will arrive at 7 a.m. Once everything is cleaned up, the women gather at the benches outside the church to get in one last cigarette and a bit of conversation.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this endeavor has been seeing the members of Open Door Fellowship give of themselves to make it a reality. We mentioned the need for 20 sets of bedding, and within a couple of weeks, we had more than enough, despite our own church members having little in the way of physical resources and funds.

Every Sunday, between our evening worship service and our community meal, 10-20 people stay upstairs to help us clear the sanctuary of chairs and musical instruments, and set up 20 cots and the accompanying bedding. It is truly a community effort.

Many of the women who live across the street in Open Door’s transitional housing have also stepped up as volunteers. “That used to be me,” one of those residents told me. “One year ago I was sleeping out on the 16th Street Mall. I want to help in any way I can. No one deserves to sleep on the streets.”

We’re still relatively new in this ministry, but already we are earning women’s trust. Some want to know more about Open Door’s housing opportunities. Others are asking about the church itself, even attending Sunday services.

We don’t know everything that this will lead to, but we do know that it matters to look upon the overlooked and to make a difference in the lives of 20 women, one night at a time.

*Guest names have been changed.

1 The Denver Post, Nov. 25, 2012, “Capitol Hill churches partner to shelter Denver homeless women,” by Electa Draper.

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