Another one in the books. The Bridge Emergency Shelter wrapped up its seventh season last month.
The shelter was open 185 nights from October to April and saw 233 different guests.
Many of them were repeats, so “guest-nights” totalled 4,136 for the season, 500 more than the prior year. The average stay increased from 16 to 18 nights.
Acting director and board president M.B. McAfee said about a dozen people stayed at the Bridge almost the entire season (20 nights or more per month).
Male shelter guests still far outnumbered female ones, but the ratio evened out a bit — Boyd said the men were down 5 percent and the women up 5.
Despite lacking an on-site kitchen, the Bridge served more than 10,300 meals in 2012-13, up 2,000 over last year.
Manager Donna Boyd is eyeing a commercial kitchen as a future investment, but it “won’t happen overnight,” she said. Right now the shelter depends on continued largesse from Hope’s Kitchen, at First United Methodist Church, and Grace’s Kitchen, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, for hot meals.
Any high-dollar investment will likely be put on hold until Cortez decides on a site for its new city hall.
The Justice Building, on Mildred Road, contains county court and the shelter, and is on the city’s short list. Montezuma County lets the Bridge use the old jail space rent-free.
The Bridge’s inclusivity sets it apart from many shelters. Boyd accepts both sober and intoxicated people that walk through her door, as long as they aren’t violent or disruptive. Inebriated guests are given their own sleeping quarters.
Thirty-six percent of guests occupied the “wet side” this season, down from 42 percent in 2011-12.
“People are trying their best to stay clean and sober,” Boyd said. “It’s an uphill battle for a lot of them.”
Boyd says she is hurt when Bridge guests become objects of scorn. In March a debate swirled on the Cortez Journal’s opinion page about the presence of homeless individuals in public spaces.
Some vented frustration about loitering and untidiness. Others stuck up for them.
“I feel somehow responsible for the actions of people we’ve taken in here. For me, personally, (the controversy) makes me feel like I’ve failed those individuals (being criticized). We can’t seem to get them on the right track,” Boyd said, noting that two-thirds of guests are not drunks but rather “people you’d see at City Market, the library or at a soccer game.”
“I think it shines the spotlight inordinately on those guests. The majority are not intoxicated and (vomiting) in the park.”
Aided by two AmeriCorps members, the Bridge placed more emphasis this season on case management. Services included mental health and substance abuse help from an Axis Health System counselor, getting valid identification and birth certificates, finding employment and affordable housing.
Christy Janiszewski, from Pittsburgh, took over food coordination and pantry stocking. Michigan’s Kristen Tworek specialized in case management and special events.
“These two have taken so much off my plate. Their work has let me concentrate on clients who need more (intensive) help,” Boyd said.
Janiszewski, 22, and Tworek, 28, will finish out their one-year commitments volunteering at the Day Labor Center and overseeing weekly cookout dinners at the Bridge.
One takeaway for Janiszewski was the varied backgrounds of Bridge clients. Some are mired in “generational poverty.” Others landed there by a stroke, or a string, or bad luck. Certain common threads, like substance abuse and depression, afflict many, but making assumptions and lumping everyone into one pot is a mistake, Janiszewski said.
“There are so many stories and reasons for ending up here. Lots of people are closer to homelessness than they realize,” she said.
Tworek explained that, in her interactions with clients, “walking the line between acting like a parent, a friend and (a case worker)” was a challenge. Again speaking of the diversity, she had to approach clients differently based on their personalities.
“Some respond to tough love, others need a pep talk. Some need constant reminders and some are very self-motivated. Some talk for hours and hours, some won’t open their mouths,” she said. “And of course they click with certain staff members more than others.”
The Bridge plans to hire a new executive director by July, to start work in August. Resumes are being accepted until June 1. McAfee has stepped in as de facto director since last September, but she isn’t formally trained at grant writing, the director’s foremost goal.
Cash infusions from local donors and government entities — as well as money saved by McAfee filling in for no pay — mean the shelter now has money to fund a director for next season. Ideally, a director pays for his or her own position, and then some, with grants and general fundraising.
In June, the Day Labor Center will celebrate its third anniversary. Manager Anna Bousquet said the number of workers, and job placement rate, has risen each of the three years.
Thirty-five percent of job-seekers found work in 2012-13, compared with 21 percent the previous year.
For those looking to donate supplies, the shelter is requesting camping gear (for those living outside during the summer off-season), work boots and gloves, and paper products (paper towels, napkins, plates, toilet paper).