Feed My Sheep gives a hand up, not a handout | PostIndependent.com

Feed My Sheep gives a hand up, not a handout

Amy Hadden Marsh
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Kelley Cox Post Independent

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – The homeless shelter in Glenwood Springs is in the old Catholic church about a block south of the heart of town. A humble, unmarked doorway opens to stairs leading to the church’s basement.

The first thing a visitor notices about the space is how warm, cozy, and clean – almost homey – it is. A handful of men talk and laugh in the kitchen and dining area. Someone reads a book by lamplight in the living room and others are preparing to leave for the night.

In her office, shelter director Karen Peppers tells a story about how Feed My Sheep began. Founder Karolyn Spencer, in her 70s at the time, was called to this work in 2003.

“She’d turned her life over to Christ and was down at the riverbank one day,” Peppers recalled. “God just spoke to her, saying to read John (21:17) where Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.'” Spencer opened some rooms at the Silver Spruce motel in Glenwood Springs and worked with the homeless in the streets and local parks to gain their trust. “She was an awesome, spitfire woman,” Peppers said.

Feed My Sheep moved to its current location in 2005. Peppers volunteered for a few years before moving with her husband to Arkansas. Spencer died in 2006, and Peppers returned to Glenwood Springs to make sure the shelter carried on.

Is it a calling for her, too? “Yes,” she replied happily. “And, I listened.”

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless reports that more than 3 million people in the U.S. experience homelessness each year. About half are children. The U.S. also has the highest rate of homeless women among industrialized nations, the most on record since the Great Depression. But it’s difficult to pin down exact numbers, Peppers said, because some don’t want to be in the system, and this population, by nature, is always moving.

“They’re traveling across the country looking for work,” she explained. “Families have kicked them out. They’ve lost their jobs, their cars, their homes, and they’re just trying to find something in this country to work at.”

The shelter served more than 800 homeless from 2009 through 2011, and the numbers are rising. Ages range from 18 to 62.

In 2003, an average of 10 or 11 people used the facility during the day. By 2008, that number tripled. Now, the day program attracts up to 42 people every day, and, Peppers added, this is only a fraction of who’s out there.

Feed My Sheep’s year-round day program offers hot showers, a phone, laundry facilities, storage bins, hot lunches (made by volunteers and sometimes served by area students), job assistance, and a comfortable place to rest – all free of charge.

The shelter is funded solely by churches, foundations and the community.

The overnight program began in 2010 and is open from November through March. Glenwood’s Church of Christ provides the sleeping space. Women have their own room, as do families, and men are in the basement.

“It’s a good program,” said Peppers, “because it saves peoples’ lives.” This year, the program tallied more than 2,300 guest nights, with many people staying more than once.

Those in need are welcome to use the shelter as often as they like, but Feed My Sheep is not a flop house. There are rules.

Residents, or “members of the family,” as Peppers prefers, must sign in each day when they arrive, for example. Those who aren’t working clean up the place daily and volunteer in the community. No drinking or substance use is allowed on the premises. If Peppers catches anyone from the shelter panhandling with signs, they’re 86’d.

“We offer a hand up,” she said. “Not a handout.” And she walks her talk.

Peppers fondly remembered a man who lived at the shelter 18 months ago. He wanted to quit drinking, so she got him into long-term rehab at Stout Street in Denver and even helped him get over there.

“I’m not a counselor,” she said, “but I can tell when someone means it.” This man meant it: He graduates in six months and plans to return to his family.

In the past two years, Feed My Sheep has helped 15 people find permanent housing.

Peppers believes society mistakenly stereotypes homeless people as addicts, alcoholics or skid row bums. Even though the local homeless community has lost over a dozen people to alcoholism this year, only 1 in 10 of those at Feed My Sheep have substance abuse problems, and many more are in recovery.

It’s no easy thing to work with hundreds of individuals from different backgrounds with myriad problems. Peppers is on the job just about every day.

“It’s all a challenge,” she said. “But God put me here for a reason.”

Day program hours are 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, closed Saturday, and open 2-6 p.m. Sundays.

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