It doesn’t take long in life to learn, birthdays aren’t always happy. For Lisa Searchinger, executive director of Longmont’s Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement, her organization’s 10th anniversary this year is somewhat bittersweet. Without doubt, there is much to celebrate: expanded services, greatly increased awareness of Longmont’s needs by the community at large, for instance. And, particularly, the incredible work that has and can be accomplished thanks to the tireless dedication of committed staff and volunteers. The reasons for the organization’s existence, however, aren’t exactly jubilant.
A 501(c)3, HOPE’s mission is to provide life-sustaining and supportive services for homeless and at-risk individuals to encourage stability and self-sufficiency. Its work goes well beyond the words alone; HOPE’s work is guided by principles of compassion, community, encouragement, leadership and stewardship. Services are far from “handouts”. They are offered with the mindful, strong belief that every individual deserves to be treated with respect and dignity; with understanding and intentions to work with individuals on a case-by-case basis to support everyone in the opportunity to lead a healthy and productive life.
“Nobody really thought we’d still need to have a non-profit with a mission like ours after ten years,” Searchinger says. “We have made enormous strides during this first decade. But the sobering truth is, actually the need continues to grow. When HOPE was founded, there were about 25 to 30 people seeking shelter on a given night during the coldest months. Last winter was our first year providing seasonal overnight warming services, and we served more than 300 people seeking shelter.”
What factors are behind increased homelessness in Longmont? Not surprisingly, the answer is multifaceted and complicated. Yet, at the same time, there are certain undeniable variables that are clear-cut causes. “In the fall of 2006, Boulder County Cares came to Longmont,” says founding board member Ann Jennings, who remained a committed volunteer after her board term concluded. “This was their first street outreach in Longmont, and it coincided with a winter of just horrible storms. That winter, five people in Boulder county died of exposure. Our original director, Bray Patrick-Lake, had been a Longmont police officer. Through her job, her contact with people on the streets compelled her to leave the force and take a job instead as Program Director for Boulder County Cares, whose program ran September through April. After that tough winter, when the program concluded, a group of us realized that Longmont has distinct needs, and enough need to warrant our own program directed specifically to Longmont, one which would be Longmont-specific and would operate 365 days a year.”
The group, then consisting of about 14 board members, mobilized quickly, organizing and attaining the 501(c)3 designation. By the time HOPE was an official organization, the group, which continues to be run significantly through volunteer efforts, had worked their way up to about 100 volunteers. Since then, numerous circumstances have served to highlight and exacerbate the problems of homelessness in Longmont.
“In 2008, our country was hit with financial disaster,” Jennings says. “The whole housing crisis had a huge impact on people, contributing greatly to instability. So many people lost their homes. Then we had the flood of 2013…more people losing homes. The situation is different from when we started. HOPE has become to a large extent a safety net to people who are not technically unsheltered.”
HOPE holds an unwavering belief that all residents of our community deserve a stable and affordable place to live. Unfortunately, today there is less affordable housing than ever. “Minimum wage has not kept up with the cost of living,” Searchinger says. “You need to be working three full-time jobs at minimum wage just to find a place to rent, let alone buy here. It’s simple math. It doesn’t work. A comprehensive solution requires joint planning and investments from public, private and nonprofit sectors. It must include multiple forms of housing–affordable housing for low and moderate wage earners, physically accessible housing for seniors and those with disabilities, and permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless.”
“HOPE’s mission has always been twofold,” Jennings says. “Originally, the reason we existed was foremost to provide people with resources they needed to get through the night, until they could get connected with the services they needed, other existing agencies. No one in a county as well off as ours should die of homelessness on the street. Literally, we were trying to keep people alive overnight. But from the beginning, we were also focused on encouraging actions and conversations to help people on a path to self-sufficiency. Hearing people’s stories, learning their needs.”
HOPE’s supports and resources are vast, and there is always room for additional helping hands, at many levels. HOPE’s street outreach program operates out of a mobile outreach van seven nights a week, 365 nights per year. During street outreach shifts, HOPE provides basic needs support such as food, water, clothing, and blankets or sleeping bags. Teams may also provide transports to available shelter and medical facilities.
An emergency warming shelter, opened last winter, offers overnight guests a warm, safe place to sleep each night during the coldest months regardless of temperature. The shelter further provides services such as cases management, showers, laundry and medical care provided by the Hopelight Medical Clinic to treat emergent and chronic conditions.
HOPE offers an emergency assistance program that provides medical respite, bus passes, laundry vouchers and more on a case-by-case basis. They provide transitional storage options for people as they work, seek employment, attend classes and appointments. HOPE’s Step Up program pairs teams of volunteers with individuals experiencing homelessness. Partnering with local businesses and community cycling enthusiasts, Bikes for HOPE brings about distribution of bikes to clients with demonstrated need. “There is a lot of important collaboration involved in this work,” says Jennings. “We always relied on teamwork. It takes a village.”
Want to be involved? There are seemingly infinite, evolving ways to lend a hand. “We are always in need of donations and volunteers,” says Searchinger. “Whatever you can give, wherever you’re comfortable, there is a fit. There is always street outreach and there is always office work. There are meals to be prepared at home. We are always in need of people to coordinate clothing, blanket and food drives.”
Street outreach volunteers must be at least 18 years old and in good physical condition; for street outreach, volunteers attend classroom training and work several shifts with veteran partners. Numerous volunteer opportunities do not require training. The Soup Angel program, which began early on in September 2007, relies on volunteers each providing 20 delicious, nutritious meals per night. To date, more than 185,000 nighttime meals have been served to people experiencing, and at-risk of, homelessness, in Longmont. Currently over 100 people are served meals by the program nightly. Special projects are conducted throughout the year. Donation drives are always an enormous support.
Health equity is currently a rather hot term that shouldn’t in theory be controversial. Generally it means everyone deserves the opportunity to attain their highest level of health. Surely we can all get behind that? But what if you are one of increasing numbers for whom the quest for health represents luxury itself? What if you’re barely able to focus on pure survival alone? This is a real issue, here in Longmont. “The average person who uses our services is a Longmont resident who only makes use of what we offer five times a month,” says Searchinger. “They are using it as a crisis response. Even when people are housed in today’s climate, there are many who are experiencing food insecurity. Food insecurity and housing insecurity, there’s a direct link. People are coming for one meal just to get by.”
Thankfully, we have community momentum from organizations like HOPE. And thanks to that, we have reason to hope. “Once you have experienced a street outreach shift and had the opportunity to talk with and visit some of our clients, you can’t help but come home thinking, what a chance we have to make a difference in people’s lives,” says Jennings. “It certainly changes one’s outlook. I have enormous respect for people’s abilities to overcome such stark challenges, to keep persisting. That we who have a warm roof over our heads can help make the journey easier, that is something we should all be happy to do.”
Want to be involved? Please visit HOPE’s website and check out the Get Involved page for opportunities.