Nancy Jordan, a staff member at Boulder’s Outreach for Homeless Overflow, parks her purple mountain bike in front of Flatirons Coffee at the corner of Arapahoe and 29th. She walks in from the oppressive heat of a late afternoon in July, flashes an endearing smile, sits down and fishes three pieces of paper from her backpack. Each is a different testimonial from homeless women living in the city. On top of the short stack is a long poem written in looping cursive:
The sun will dry away the chill & I can bask in the warmth of the day I am the nation’s homeless The ones you don’t seem to see I sleep in the alleys & woods hidden away from the harassment that comes from fear & misunderstanding
The author didn’t sign her name. In fact, only one of the three women gave her name on her testimonial. It’s understandable.
“I’m just guessing there’s a very dehumanized way of looking at the homeless,” Jordan says. “They’re very visible — they’re out flying a sign or whatever they’re doing. I don’t know what people think when they see them. [Maybe] they see like, ‘Oh there’s a homeless person,’ and they move on to the next thought. Or they say, ‘Oh, what a nuisance’ or ‘Oh, those people are lazy.’ But I can tell you, these people walk a fair distance or have to take busses and stuff. This town is great for resources but a lot of those resources are sprinkled all over Boulder, so they have to go way down town and get some food, and then say the warming center is out on Baseline and 37th, that means they gotta get from downtown or wherever they were during the day all the way over there. They may not have bus fare. They may have to walk with a backpack. I would hardly call that lazy.”
Jordan’s thoughts come from an empathetic place.
She was one of Boulder’s homeless for a short period of time in the late ’90s. She admits it’s been a long time since those wayward days that left her dispossessed — she didn’t endure any of the bone-chilling nights that strike Boulder at least a few times each winter. She had couches to surf for awhile. She says that’s why she brought the testimonials from the homeless women, each of whom are utilizing BOHO’s new women-only shelter.
According to Bill Sweeney, BOHO’s treasurer, the organization’s main focus has traditionally been to provide a safety net for the surplus of people who can’t find housing during the winter due to other shelters being full. But he says that BOHO has also been looking for smaller groups who might not be receiving services for other reasons.
“Turns out there are some women who are not able, because of trauma for example, to take advantage of services offered by the Boulder Shelter primarily because the men in their community are using the same community area in that building and that may be the primary source of [a woman’s] trauma and they simple aren’t comfortable with being served there,” Sweeney says.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness among women, with between 22 percent and 57 percent of homeless women reporting that domestic or sexual violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness, depending on the region and type of study. The Center also reports that up to 100 percent of homeless women have experienced domestic or sexual violence at some point in their lives.
The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s 2013 Point-in-Time Survey found that of respondents who said violence was responsible for their homelessness, 29 percent were in transitional housing. Nearly 5 percent of all persons who reported experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence were unsheltered.
The idea for a women-only shelter in Boulder arose from weekly meetings of the Boulder Homeless Women’s Initiative. These gatherings bring together homeless advocate organizations, faith groups and female members of the homeless community.
Katharina Booth, chief deputy of the Boulder District Attorney’s office and lead of the DA’s sexual assault and domestic violence unit, says that she and other prosecutors from the DA’s office began attending the meetings this past winter after noticing a “rash” of cases involving homeless women as victims of serious violent offenses.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a way for us to track specifically how many cases of violence are occurring among homeless women,” Booth admits. “There’s fear of retaliation for coming forward and speaking. This is true for all victims of sexual assault, but especially with the homeless, they are left out there without any protection.”
Booth says that approximately 16 percent of housed people who are sexually assaulted actually come forward, but when they do, access to resources is much easier: phones, transportation, solid support systems — a permanent home.
“Our homeless survivors just don’t have that,” she says.
With help from the Boulder Women’s Homeless Initiative, BOHO launched a pilot women’s shelter program for a total of 30 nights in February, March and April. The program officially launched on June 1 with all female staff and volunteers. Unhoused women wanting to participate must complete an application, meet a few basic requirements (such as having an ID and a history of homelessness in Boulder for at least six months) and sign a behavioral contract. The program has a limit of 18 guests per night, with a different faith-based congregation hosting the shelter each night. Jordan says the combination of rotating the location of the shelter and not revealing which organizations are providing accommodations provides women with even more comfort.
Sweeney says that the program has grown faster than expected and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The women are sending out some really good comments. They’re saying, ‘I feel safe. This is what we want. I was able to get a good night’s sleep.’ That’s really good news,” Sweeney says. “We seem to have correctly measured an unserved group that needed to be addressed.”
In the testimonials that Jordan has collected, one woman writes, “It is mentally and physically exhausting not to have a place to go to, especially at night. Many of the women who have lived on the streets have suffered in terrible ways.
“I am entirely grateful to all who have had a part in the implementation of the program. It has made a tremendous difference and may all blessing return to those involved.”
Booth says listening to the homeless women who come to the Women’s Initiative meetings has been “eye opening.”
“I think it’s good for people like myself and others to see the wide spectrum of people who are homeless.
Everyone can be one paycheck away. There are certainly folks who choose to be homeless, but there are plenty of others that don’t,” she says.
The poem at the top of the stack echoes these thoughts:
It can happen so suddenly
Striking like a disease In the prime of your life
Or moving in slowly with age
Weakening your grasp on all you hold dear
Until there is nothing to warm you
And all that is familiar is gone
Pray for me and for yourself
That it doesn’t happen to you
Treat as though you might walk in my shoes
Jordon sees it every day, working with the “front line” of the homeless population. She’s seen the brink in her own life.
“I know for a fact that I’ve lived sorted of peripherally in that I don’t make lots of money. Even now I have a job and I live in an apartment but I don’t make lots and lots of money. So if I were to lose my job it might be only a matter of time before I was out on the street, too,” she says.
“Some of these women [using the shelter] have jobs,” Jordan adds. “I think that’s commendable and respectable. That’s them advocating for themselves in a difficult situation. They may not have their own beds, their own shower or their own car. One gal bought herself a bike. That’s fortitude. The human spirit is strong.”