Published: January 6, 2014
A homeless man named Jerry sat alone on a green park bench made for two. He had a backpack on the ground next to him, packed with a Bible and a coffee cup from Einstein Bros. Bagels.
Nearby, James Fernandez saw opportunity in that empty seat.
It offered a chance to talk.
Fernandez leads the Homeless Engagement and Response Team, or HEART, a program run by Catholic Charities. It started in 2012, but expanded this fall into a four-day-a-week initiative, one slated to continue growing in 2014.
It's all based on one thing: Sparking conversations and building trust.
"When you have a relationship that's not just about their need, but about the person themselves ... it breaks a lot more barriers down," Fernandez said.
Teams of two to six people walk the city's creek beds and streets in search of homeless people, looking to strike up conversations and build relationships with the people they meet. The goal is to gain enough trust to offer services to people in need and, if people are open to it, a bit of spirituality.
From Sept. 13 through Dec. 17, the teams conducted 94 walks, starting 350 conversations, sometimes with people they met earlier in the year, Fernandez said.
"As you start to gain trust with individuals, you're able to have what you do in any friendship ... the opportunity to go to deeper things," said Mark Rohlena, president and chief executive of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado. "It really is getting to know people on a human level."
The concept bears myriad similarities to the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team - minus the firearms and powers of arrest, but with an infusion of faith.
The two programs often cooperate with one another, and officers gave advice to the nonprofit before it began the program.
On a walk in mid-November, a handful of missionaries didn't sign anyone up for food stamps or housing programs.
Instead, they came upon Travis Graham, who pushed a shopping cart along Colorado Avenue, and they thrust a water bottle in his direction.
Graham looked up and accepted the small talk that interrupted his walk west of Cascade Avenue. Someone nearby struck up a ukulele.
"It's certainly a very loving environment they create," said Graham, as the missionaries departed, having done nothing more than talk for a few minutes.
About 30 minutes later, Fernandez spotted Jerry on the bench in Acacia Park.
Jerry, an aged man with a white beard, told of the house he once had in New York, and his camping trips in the lush, surrounding woods. He left when his wife died, wanting only to "get away from everything."
Fernandez asked where he's living these days, and Jerry detailed his foray back into camping, this time in Colorado Springs. He gets Social Security checks, and he insists that he doesn't want for anything.
"Actually, I'm beginning to like it," Jerry said, of camping. "... Now, I'm back getting my second wind."
Fernandez stood up, but Jerry kept talking. He wanted to know about Bible studies that might be on the horizon - a born-again Christian, he's been looking for something to attend.
Tomorrow, replied Fernandez.
"I might pop in, check it out," Jerry said.
"I'd like to have you there," Fernandez said.