Starting Conversations: Grand Valley Peace and Justice closes gaps

by Bea H

There is in the Grand Valley, an organization that is all about giving a voice to people who can’t speak for themselves.  Grand Valley Peace and Justice seeks to make members of the community who are typically pushed aside have someone there to support, encourage and help them.  The organization works in conjunction with other organizations as part of the Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless.  They work alongside a number of nonprofit and government-funded organizations, services providers and programs to meet short-term needs in order to help homeless individuals reach a point of self-sufficiency.

According to GVPJ Coordinator Sherry Cole, Homelessness is not a quick fix.

“Our goal is end homelessness,” said Cole, “but it’s also about closing gaps. We determine what’s happening and ask ‘how can solving that problem’.”

In order to close gaps, GVPJ finds and solves smaller issues that can create barriers to self-sufficiency.  Some of these gaps include struggles with computer literacy, problems obtaining birth certificates and other ID or simply needing help to create a powerful resume.  

“It’s eye-opening because there are obstacles you don’t think of,” said Cole.

Each year, GVPJ hosts a Resource Fair in collaboration with the Homeless Outreach Team. Service providers satisfy immediate needs, such as food and clothing, and provide opportunities for employment and housing. Attendees are also able to receive HIV testing, make identification cards and get haircuts. The high demand for haircuts began an ongoing partnership between GVPJ and the Intellitech Cosmetology school, which now provides free haircuts every other month.

The Resource Fair is one of many programs GVPJ has developed as a direct service program.  These programs directly provide for a specific set of physical needs for individuals.  Other programs that have been developed include the emergency shelter programs.

The emergency shelter program began in 2008 when Homeward Bound’s shelter filled in during the winter season. In response, GVPJ organized a nexus of churches and other businesses to provide two weeks housing for single men, who given shelter after families, women and veterans.

The emergency shelter program runs seasonally from October to April, when the need for indoor shelter is greatest. In the winter previous to the program, 34 homeless men died from exposure in Grand Junction.

“It is unacceptable for people to die alone on the street in Grand Junction,” said Mamo.

Since the program began, the number of deaths dropped to 23 in the first year, 16 the following year, and zero after its third season.

The program aims to extend its impact beyond providing a temporary shelter. Making homeless individuals feel welcome in a living space, Cole believes, helps them understand that they can integrate back into society.

“Someone else might call them homeless, we call them guests,” said Cole, “Our program is about the fact that these people matter.”

For two weeks, the shelter provides a temporary home and transportation to the site. Volunteers build relationships with guests by learning names, stories and having conversations to help guests feel like they belong. Hosts give them a warm welcome, provide food and entertainment, and offer opportunities for them to feel useful by helping with chores at the site.

According to Cole, the pain of exclusion is one of the reasons that homeless single men struggle to attain self-sufficiency. Through programs such as the emergency shelters, GVPJ aims to help them identify themselves no longer as homeless but as community members.

Educating individuals about the services available and how to access them is another gap that GVPJ tries to close. In order to meet these needs, GVPJ compiles information from other organizations and pair people with the resources that will work best for them and hosts a funded project for individuals to obtain an ID.

Their direct service programs try to meet needs both physical and intangible. “We not only save lives, we heal lives,” said Cole, who oversees GVPJ’s emergency shelter program.

Even though the organization has direct service projects in place, their impact primarily involves advocacy and education. “We can’t give money or build a building, but we can build a community that will fill those spaces,” said Executive Director Julie Mamo. GVPJ oversees a number of projects and trains volunteers and local churches to advocate for the homeless and educate the community.

Advocacy involves giving a voice to those who those who are not heard in the community, such as the homeless. Homelessness is only one of the many local issues that GVPJ seeks to remedy. As a justice association, most of their efforts involve issues such as environmental protection, immigration, economic equality, poverty issues over-incarceration and racism.

The stigma for homelessness is an intangible gap that can delay self-sufficiency. Language in reference to homelessness matters, says Mamo. Homelessness in America can happen to anyone regardless of economic status. When homeless feel unwanted, they are less likely to rejoin society. Interactions such as mumbling, sideways glances, and condemnatory actions reveal a stigma, and are disheartening to those who are homeless.

Changing the community’s attitude towards homelessness helps close the gap the stigma creates. Cole oversees GVPJ’s project Faces and Voices, a multimedia collection that gives the community the chance to interact with homelessness objectively. The traveling exhibit tells the story of Grand Junction’s homeless through photographs, audio, and written works.

The exhibit offers a multigenerational learning experience. “[Faces and Voices] is a really great way to tell the story of homelessness,” said Mamo. GVPJ uses the project as a way to start conversations about homelessness in the community.

 Faces and Voices represents the common humanity of homeless individuals’ . “Suddenly the story that you made up in your head, changes,” said Cole.

The exhibit will return to Grand Junction in November at the Western Center for the Arts. The exhibit is also available for viewing online.

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