Colorado church becomes a haven for the homeless

Feb 9, 2016 by and

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship’s sanctuary is just that for the community’s homeless.

The city has 150,000 people yet only two homeless shelters. Its homeless population is twice as great as the number of shelter beds. Sixty percent of the homeless are families.

Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship attenders construct a laundry room in the church.

Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship attenders construct a laundry room in the church. — Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship

From the windows of Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship, the homeless are easily visible — resting on the library lawn across the street, walking or biking with all their possessions in tow, knocking on the back door of the church for food, stopping by to chat with the pastor, sometimes sleeping in the bushes.

In 2012, the congregation’s 50 or so regular attenders strengthened their commitment to serve “the least of these.” They were among the first eight area churches to join Faith Family Hospitality. FFH is a consortium of churches and synagogues that take turns providing homeless families with food, lodging and fellowship for a week at a time, four to five times a year.

“We took to heart the words and actions of Jesus,” Pastor Steve Ramer said. “He ministered to people who needed him, where they needed him, whenever they needed him, and not just one day a week.”

Place of hospitality

Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship grew concerned after its third round of hosting families in late 2012. There was snow on the ground. When the parents and their children left the church each morning, many simply rode a heated city bus until they could drop their children off at school. How would the families cope during Christmas break?

Ramer said the church decided to offer its sanctuary as a place of hospitality during winter break.

“Families in the FFH program could come and spend time each day in our sanctuary to get warm, rest up and relax,” he said. “We staffed the center with our own volunteers.”

The sanctuary became a place where parents could rest and their children could play during the day. Parents could take their children to the library to read, and the church was willing to provide a home address so people could check out books and videos.

When Easter approached, the congregation opened its sanctuary again as a place of hospitality for FFH families whose kids would be out of school.

“We liked seeing our church sanctuary used by the families over the holidays,” Ramer said. “We liked feeling that people were benefiting from our building, which normally stood unused during the week. So when FFH approached our church to become a permanent day center, it seemed like a no-brainer.”

FFH agreed to pay monthly rent as well as pay for supplies.

In 2013, the day center opened, and FFH provided a quarter-time social worker and an AmeriCorps volunteer, along with volunteers from other churches. In 2014 the day center began operating year-round, four days a week. But more was needed.

Showers and laundry

The congregation got to know FFH families and learned about their daily hardships. Not all hosting churches had shower facilities, and families had to visit a nearby church or recreation center to clean up. Washing clothes was an even bigger ordeal. Families hauled dirty clothes in plastic bags or hampers by bus to one of the few laundromats.

To alleviate this stress, FFH raised funds to remodel the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship’s bathrooms to include showers and a laundry room.

One church member was a longtime Habitat for Humanity construction foreman, and there were plenty of volunteers available. The work was finished by the end of 2014.

Over the past three years, the churches involved in FFH have hosted 70 families, consisting of 100 adults and 144 children. FFH has helped half of these families to move into permanent housing.

The day center is now open at Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship six days a week, with a full-time social worker.

The church continues expanding its outreach by providing a haven for the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition. Every Friday evening, people without shelter come to eat a warm meal, experience fellowship and take showers while waiting for the shelters to open.

Additionally, the coalition meets to plan and advocate for more humane treatment of those experiencing homelessness.

Most church buildings in North America are woefully underused. Members at Fort Col­lins Mennonite Fellowship wonder: If every church did what they did, might we end homelessness?

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