Clients of the Samaritan House Women’s Shelter waiting to get inside the shelter during the winter.
The housing market is booming. Bad neighborhoods are becoming gentrified, cranes tower over downtown, and trendy restaurants are popping up on street corners. This is the state of Denver in 2017. But take a closer look—not everyone is benefiting from these changes.
Just ask Amena Ahmad, the emergency services manager at Samaritan House in downtown Denver, who oversees services for single homeless women. The Samaritan House Women’s Shelter provides vulnerable women with emergency shelter and hot meals.
“We’ve grown as a city, and the homeless population has exponentially increased in the last five years,” she said. “From November of 2014, our first day, we had 13 women. We average now between 180 and 200 women per night.”
Though the reasons for the increase are not clear cut, Ahmad points to the rising cost of housing in the Denver metro area as a major contributor.
“Our housing market has gotten so out of control that a lot of public housing options have disappeared for our clients. These clients have an uphill battle when it comes to housing,” she said.
This, along with mental illness, addiction, and broken relationships are the main reasons women fall into homelessness, according to Ahmad.
Samaritan House Women’s Shelter is the main source of emergency shelter for homeless women in Denver, according to Geoff Bennett, who oversaw Shelters and Community Outreach for Catholic Charities in Denver for the past ten years. Bennett is now the Vice President of Parish and Community Relations for Catholic Charities.
“Right now we have about 90 percent plus of the overnight emergency shelter beds for women,” he said.
Emergency shelter beds are crucial for women, keeping them safe at night instead of left as victims of the street. Often without families or friends to watch for their safety, women face serious danger.
“It’s pretty dire for the clients that choose not to seek shelter,” said Ahmad. “The bottom line is that my clients are very vulnerable. Many of them will experience rape, many of them will be violently assaulted. It happens over and over again.”
Nora Dee, a client of the women’s shelter, said that she witnesses the terrors of being a woman without shelter on a weekly basis.
“As women being homeless, we have a risk of being raped or even killed,” she said. “Last Saturday this girl was beat up really bad. Another girl was stabbed and died right away, just because she was camping out.”
Another client, Mary Sines, is an older, disabled woman, who has experienced the added challenges that come with her age and disability.
“On the streets, I was assaulted. Some guy tried to hit me, and his girlfriend pushed me down.”
Though physical and sexual assault are commonplace among homeless women, this population is riddled with endless other challenges that they must try to overcome.
Ahmad and Bennett have both observed more incidences of mental health issues in homeless women than in men in the Samaritan House shelters.
“With the abuse of living on the streets comes a lot of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a lot of trauma, that men who are homeless might not ordinarily face,” said Bennett.
The mere fact of having a secure place to stay often helps women overcome their mental illness, said Ahmad.
“I can tell you that a lot of women that we’ve had who have transitioned successfully into Samaritan House or other housing programs—a lot of their mental health problems do resolve after they’re stably housed.”
Evidently, a shelter provides more than a roof over people’s heads. Samaritan House, one of Catholic Charities shelters, offers a warm place to sleep, hot meals, clothing, and case management. But more importantly, it gives protection in mind, body and spirit, for some of the most vulnerable among us.
“When we meet those homeless women, whether it is on the street or in the shelter, we’re encountering Christ,” said Bennett. “That’s how we should respond to these women, with mercy and love.”
Bennett also talked about how Catholic Charities has put special focus toward meeting the needs of single women, women with children, and seniors. As part of this effort, a new shelter will begin to serve homeless women in September.
The new shelter is located on Smith Road and will serve as an overnight emergency shelter for 100 women. It also will provide 50 beds in its 29-day non-medical detox program, for those transitioning over to Samaritan House’s 4-month program.
The opening of the shelter comes at a point in time when safety, security and housing for vulnerable, homeless women is needed more than ever, according to Samaritan House directors and clients alike.
To find out more about the new shelter and learn how you can get involved with helping these women, go to www.samhousedenver.org.