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Chris Gillmore has little trouble admitting that homeless shelters aren’t solving the long-term homelessness problem, but feels purpose in what he does.
A supervisor at the Boulder Homeless Shelter, Gillmore has been working since December 2008 to make sure the homeless have a safe place to eat and rest their heads for the night.
The Boulder Homeless Shelter houses up to 160 people, features free medical and dental checkups and free meals. Despite the large influx of homeless individuals that come in each night, Gillmore said he and his staff work especially hard to make sure they all feel welcome.
“One of our core values is to treat everyone with dignity, so we do our best to learn everybody’s first name so we can call everybody by name,” he said. “A lot of times nobody calls them by their name the whole day. Every once in a while we get to connect with a resident. Even saying ‘hi’ to them can make a difference so someone doesn’t feel as down and out as they have been.”
Gillmore said he enjoys his job, but that the emotional burden of working at a shelter can sometimes take its toll. Between late night shifts and having to turn people away when the shelter is crowded—especially in past winter months—Gillmore said it’s important for him and his staff to find time to recuperate.
“You can’t do this work for too long without starting to feel it affect you,” he said. “When you work with so much suffering around you, you can get burned out. You have to take the time to take care of yourself. I think all of [the employees] work really hard to find time to exercise or be with friends—doing things we like to do outside of the shelter really helps.”
Part of Gillmore’s job requires him to meet with staff at least once a month to simply process the things that have been going on in an effort to vent frustrations and worries.
“We’re always wondering if we’re making a difference,” he said. “We know people are out of the cold for the night, we know in the short term we’re making a difference, but does the shelter really help with homelessness? I think that’s a question we all ponder.”
While Gillmore and his staff work diligently to make a difference in the short-term situation of the homeless, Gillmore’s sights have been set on something he feels could really help with the long term homelessness problem. A program called Housing First, originally started in New York, helps the homeless succeed by paying for their rent. By allowing them a permanent home, Gillmore said this not only helps the homeless, but society as a whole.
“If you add up somebody’s costs to a long term homeless person like police calls, ER visits, visits to homeless shelters, other social service agencies and jail, the amount is substantially greater than simply paying for their rent.”
Currently, 27 homeless individuals in Boulder are involved in the Housing First program, which works closely with the Boulder Homeless Shelter.
“The federal government puts all its money towards [Housing First] now,” Gillmore said. “We don’t need more shelters. I mean, even though we’re full, we don’t need more shelters. That’s not going to solve homelessness.”
Although Gillmore may only be helping with the short-term situation of many homeless individuals, he said he enjoys the strong sense of community at the shelter.
“I’m always amazed at how many of the folks who are living without homes really support each other,” he said. “They’re happy when they walk through these doors and they’re happy to see each other. It’s pretty neat to see how strong community exists here. We had a couple just last week that got married, and that was really neat.”
While another large issue exists with having less room for the homeless in the winter, Gillmore said he and his staff always make sure to take care of those who cannot stay due to lack of space.
“Lately there’s been a warming center open almost every night in the winter, and there’s a bus that takes people to them, so we put people on the bus,” he said. “If they don’t want to go there, or there isn’t a warming center, we will give everybody a meal even when we can’t house them. We’ll also give people blankets if they need it.”
Gillmore said he’s simply happy knowing the homeless have a place to go when the nights are especially cold.
“Most of the time you have to learn to say to yourself: I may not have made a difference in someone’s long term situation, but I made a difference in their tenant situation tonight.”
Contact CU Independent Features Editor Sebastian Murdock at Sebastian.firstname.lastname@example.org.