COLORADO: St. Francis Center provides refuge for up to 800 of Denver's homeless every day

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October 19, 2012

Today, the St. Francis Center in Denver is a long-established refuge for homeless men and women in Denver, providing a place where up to 800 individuals a day may come to shower, get a change of clothes, see a doctor, store their belongings, get their mail or simply find a place of warmth and safety during the daytime when they have nowhere else to go.

But in early 1983, such a place was still just a vision that the Rev. Bert Womack had. Womack, the now-retired Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Colorado, had founded the Pastoral Care Center, which served as an umbrella organization to several diocesan and community outreach agencies.

It was the Pastoral Care Center that was invited to become one of the first eight charter Jubilee Ministries in the Episcopal Church. Within in a year, the Pastoral Care Center had morphed into the St. Francis Center, a diocesan-sponsored day shelter for the homeless. Meanwhile, Central Denver Community Service, one of the agencies that shared space under the Pastoral Care Center roof, eventually became Metro CareRing, a large food bank and emergency services agency. Metro CareRing continues to be heavily supported by Episcopalians in Denver and it, too, became a Jubilee Ministry, one of 27 now operating in the diocese of Colorado.

The St. Francis Center grew out of the Colorado diocese’s desire to respond appropriately to the changing needs of Denver’s poor.

“As these programs developed, we began to start seeing a whole different population,” said Womack. “Our clients were no longer just the single mothers with two kids. We were seeing the chronically mentally ill, and they didn’t have anywhere to go. They were coming to us to see if they could get help.”

“Their needs weren’t the same as the single mothers,” he said. “This new population just wanted a place to be warm, to get a shower. We began to look at that, and in early 1982 we realized there was nothing in the metro area that would begin to address those needs.”

And that’s how the St. Francis Center was born. In June 1983 the diocese leased a building in a seedy part of town, rehabbed it minimally, put together a staff and opened the doors. “Initially, we were seeing 50 to 60 people a day,” recalled Womack, who served as the first executive director from 1983 to 1994. “By the end of the year, we’d outgrown the place.”

Womack remembered that first St. Francis Center facility none too fondly. “There were two showers, one of which might work,” he said. “There were two toilets, both of which rarely worked. We were constantly trying to just keep things going.”

“So much was just trial and error to determine what worked and what didn’t work,” he said. “The one thing we did, we had a minimum of rules. But we enforced the ones we had, and the population honored that.”

Parishes around the diocese embraced the St. Francis Center. Women’s groups held “potty parties” to collect toilet paper and other toiletry needs. Others hit the rummage sales to collect used blue jeans. “Places like Vail and Aspen would bring truckloads down to us,” Womack said.

An 18-month capital campaign raised a million dollars, which made it possible for the diocese to buy a new building, debt-free. That building, at 2323 Curtis Street in Denver’ once-seedy but now fashionable Curtis Park neighborhood, continues to house the St. Francis Center.

“It’s been rehabbed and changed over the years to meet the needs,” Womack said. “And the population we’re serving has increased steadily. When I see what they’re doing today at the St. Francis Center, I am just staggered.”

Last year, total visits by guests to St. Francis Center were 225,904 with a daily average of 622 different individuals, though there were as many as 779 visitors on the busiest day. In total, 9,352 different guests were welcomed over the course of the year.

The shelter distributed more than 90,000 articles of clothing in 2011; placed 814 clients into jobs, including 42 full-time jobs; registered 3,242 visits to the Stout Street Clinic, located within St. Francis Center; provided access to 443 units of housing; the center’s outreach team logged 12,018 encounters with homeless individuals; and logged 16,159 volunteer hours.

Almost three years ago, Cornerstone Residences at St. Francis Center, a permanent supportive housing community, opened next door to the day shelter, providing 50 apartments and case management for the chronically homeless, and capping another of Womack’s longtime dreams.

When the Pastoral Care Center was first recognized as a Jubilee Ministry, Womack took to heart the promise he made to help others replicate what was happening in Denver. “The intent at the time was to establish a Jubilee Center in each diocese, and those Jubilee Centers were to spawn other direct service ministries through their diocese,” he said.

Over the years, the St. Francis Center has helped set up 16 direct-service agencies throughout Colorado, including several – Good Samaritan Center in Cortez, Cooperating Ministries of Logan County in Sterling, Caring Ministries of Fort Morgan, and Crossroads Ministry of Estes Park – that today are themselves Jubilee centers.

“It hit a chord in people in the church,” said Womack, who is now retired. “Congregations began to look at social outreach a little more seriously. And I was very pleased that we had something to offer back to others.”