A Colorado Springs nonprofit that operates residential treatment facilities for women who are homeless, addicted to drugs and alcohol and/or mentally ill may have to close because it’s losing $25,000 a year in federal funding — the result of its refusal to stop mandating Bible studies for clients.
“I think the Christian aspect is what allows the ladies to have something to lean on when they get in a jam,” said Marilyn Vyzourek, founder and executive director of Gospel Shelters for Women, which operates Liza’s Place and Hope Home. “It helps them in counseling, and I’ve seen ladies change their lives, and I’m not going to take the Bible studies away.”
Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, said Vyzourek and her board have that prerogative, but the rules surrounding federal funding are clear. Holmes’ agency helps to ensure proper use of the $1.88 million in HUD money that is allocated each year to agencies serving the homeless in El Paso County.
“HUD is very, very, very strict, very unequivocal, about programs have to be of a secular nature,” said Holmes. “We talked with Marilyn, and I think she made a well-informed decision that she needed to stand up for what she believed in, and we respect that,” he said. “But to continue to fund her knowing what we know would have jeopardized our entire HUD funding.”
Vyzourek has never shied away from characterizing her nonprofit as a Christian-based organization. The website for Liza’s Place, Gospel Shelters for Women’s oldest program and the name under which it does business, says its mission is to “help Homeless, previously incarcerated women with programs of restoration through the Love of Jesus, Bible truths and self-discipline.”
But Holmes said the three lead agencies that oversee the HUD allocations believed the Bible studies were optional.
“We did not know it was mandated,” he said. “We’d been told originally by her that it was being run in a secular fashion, and we only recently were informed by a client that was not the case. We checked into it, and it was validated.”
Vyzourek, an ordained minister, started Liza’s Place in 2002. Last year, she started Hope Home for a population with different treatment needs: women with both mental health and substance abuse problems.
Liza’s Place has been operating on a $200,000 budget, with the HUD grant accounting for about 12.5 percent of that. The nonprofit also gets money from its Gospel Center for Women thrift store on East Platte Avenue, but it lost another $25,000 grant, and private donations have dropped in the bad economy.
“We’ve started to lay people off,” she said. “We’re cutting back, and consolidating Hope Home and Liza’s Place. We do a great service for the community, and I am in danger of closing my doors at this point.”
She claims a 60 percent success rate among the nearly 700 women who have gone through the programs, and Holmes has been one of her biggest fans.
“I love Marilyn, and I love the work that she does, and she probably has the biggest heart of anybody in this business,” he said. “But HUD rules are HUD rules. You always need to follow the rules that funders set up.”