The young man with HIV is literally sick and tired, and he just wants to be with family. But his relatives live in another state, and he’s broke. So he’s come to Ecumenical Social Ministries this fall day to ask for help, and Executive Director Carolyn McDole will come through with a bus ticket.
But first, she wants him to know there are strings attached to the gift.
“Always remember: In life, all of us need help, so at some point, when you get home, if you run across someone who needs help, remember when someone helped you, and help them to the degree you can,” she tells him. “I’m hopeful for your health, and that you’re able to get the treatment and help you need.”
Then she and another employee at Ecumenical Social Ministries join in a circle with the man and pray with him. The employee hands him food to take on the bus, and he’s on his way.
Through the day, more people will come for bus tickets. And they’ll come for food, or help with rent and utility payments, or a warm shower, or clothing, or job-hunting assistance, or medical co-payments and dental referrals. By the end of the year, about 18,000 people will have come to ESM in downtown Colorado Springs, primarily for short-term emergency assistance.
“We say at ESM that we are not social workers,” McDole says. “In a sense, we are, but we’re not trained with MSWs or BSWs, for the most part. What I say is, we’re crisis managers.”
The agency, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, started after eight downtown churches joined forces to do together what they had been doing separately: helping people in need.
“The eight downtown churches were friends with each other quite a few years before they founded ESM. The pastors used to get together once a month — the first Tuesday — just to talk about how things were going with the faith community and some of the social issues each were dealing with,” McDole says. “They realized people were going from church to church seeking services, and they said, ‘This doesn’t really make sense. Wouldn’t it make sense if we had a mission outreach in one organization?’”
Each church agreed to fund the organization, and it launched as a food pantry in a small office on St. Vrain Street. Soon after, ESM, now 201 N. Weber St., was helping people with housing costs, and over the years, the services — and client load — ballooned, especially as the economy crumbled a few years ago. And there’s no sign the demand is letting up.
“We used to see five or six clients a day. Now we see that in an hour,” says Hans Matthiesen, who has volunteered with ESM for most of its 30 years, and is one of 25 to 30 volunteers who show up every day, on average.
About 18 percent of the clients are homeless. They come for food and clothing, but one of the biggest lures is a shower; ESM is the only walk-in bathing spot for people who live on the streets, and they line up long before the doors open.
“Six hundred to 700 showers are taken every month here, to the point that we have to have somebody who monitors that,” McDole says. “They get 15 minutes to take a shower. Usually, we have people waiting.”
But most clients are the working poor who are having a hard time making ends meet.
“A good percent of the funding and programs go to people struggling to get by on a minimum-wage job,” McDole says. “They can’t even live on two minimum-wage jobs. People living at poverty or below poverty are our clients.”
It’s also a population that may be less than savvy when it comes to budgeting, so ESM requires a budgeting class for people who receive rent and utility assistance, with the goal of keeping them from reaching crisis mode.
“Our clients walk in the door the day the sheriff is coming to put them out because they’ve been evicted from their apartment,” McDole says.
There are also the stories of people trying as hard as they can to be self-sufficient, but keep hitting obstacles.
“We have one guy who works construction. I asked him, ‘Why are you homeless?’” McDole recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t make enough to pay child support and rent, so I live in my car.’” He was trying to be good and meet his obligations, but after he paid that, he didn’t have enough left over for himself.”
There is a limit to how much ESM can do. People can get help with rent or utilities once every 12 months, and some people don’t get help, often because they don’t qualify or are not telling the truth about their circumstances. The nonprofit’s nine full-time and six part-time workers have become experts at vetting people who come in for assistance, McDole says.
“After awhile, you have that sixth sense, that intuitive sense that something is not quite right with this story,” McDole says. “The Bible says, ‘Give to all who ask.’ We can’t do that, but we try to spend our funds in the most needed way possible, without judging.”
These days, the founding churches still provide monthly funding, as do many other churches.
But that amounts to only about $300,000 of ESM’s $1.2 million cash budget. So ESM relies on fundraising events and cash and in-kind donations to support the services it provides every year — at least 52,000 of them, such as the jobs assistance and showers that Harold Young has been using.
Young, who has been homeless for several months, relies on ESM’s phone to make job contacts and showers to stay clean if he has interviews.
“I can’t walk around looking homeless and try to find a job,” he says. “This is a great resource for someone in my position.”