La Puente offers warm place in winter

Alamosa may be small, but it has an astounding homeless shelter that feels like visiting grandma's house. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

Jerry Hadley, an Army veteran who ended up at La Puente when a car repair depleted his savings, reads a book at La Puente on Tuesday. Hadley said the shelter means the difference between a life of hope and sleeping in his car through the Colorado winter.

La Puente, Alamosa's hard-working homeless shelter, is heading into the winter short on resources, but long on hope and resolve.

The 45-bed shelter and its associated outreach services are staffed by a cheerful and dedicated crew of employees and volunteers determined to provide as much help as they can for the Valley's needy as the weather turns cold.

"People come here because they don't have a place to live, but there could be a multitude of reasons behind that," said Tona Ruybal, the shelter's director. "Loss of a job is a big one. So are medical issues or hospitalizations that force someone to divert their money to care rather than paying rent or heat. If they don't have heat or it gets turned off, they can't stay in their homes. Maybe they had a furnace go out."

Ruybal said the shelter means many things to its guests.

"This place is their home, their bed, but it's also their living room and their dining room and the place where they can come in out of the cold and chat with friends and play a game of checkers. It's a place where people can come in and use the telephone and receive messages from loved ones. People can make contact with service providers and doctors. It's a place where people from the community can come in and eat regardless of their situation."

Obtaining enough food to provide the shelter's guests with three meals a day is an ongoing challenge, Ruybal said. The shelter strives to provide nutritious food, mostly through donations from locals, including ranchers and farmers who donate some of their products. The shelter also endeavors to provide blankets to guests and community members. Winter brings a new set of worries.

"This winter I'm feeling a little nervous, because this one's here sooner," Ruybal said. "Today we woke up and there was snow, and once the temperature gets really cold, do people know where we are? Are we going to have enough firewood? Are we going to have enough food to feed people three meals a day? Every year, somebody out there freezes to death. Is that because they didn't know about us?"

One of La Puente's most vital services is its outreach services, which provide emergency payments of past-due utility bills, rent installments, and other necessary services. The program is already tapped out of funds for the year.

"We've assisted more than 240 households throughout the Valley this year, and we have people coming in daily," said Mae Mercadante, director of Outreach Services. "We've had 75 to a hundred families we've had to turn away."

Mercadante said the program never provides direct cash assistance and that its funds are transferred directly to utility providers, landlords, doctors, or pharmacies.

"We're hoping to get supplemental funding," said Mercadante. "We're waiting on folks in Denver to make that happen. We know we'll get more funds in January, but between now and January is a cold time. We have people relying on wood stoves, and Xcel energy bills and other bills are piling up on them. These folks are in great need."

Mercadante said there's a misconception that the program is a "revolving door," but said that most people who utilize the service are doing so for the first time, and the task is often breaking down people's barriers of resistance to reaching out for help. She related the story of a family from Antonito who had a parent die, and had their electricity shut off.

"They came in for emergency services, and it was the first time they'd ever done that," said Mercadante. "So being able to provide that household with the sustainability they need going forward, and just easing that burden in this time of terrible crisis, that's the part of the job I really love."

For Jerry Hadley, an elderly Army veteran, La Puente means the difference between a life of security and dignity and living in his car.

Hadley worked for 30 years in commercial construction, 12 years in National Parks, and six years as operations supervisor of a homeless shelter. When his ailing health forced him out of work, he came back to Colorado, where he grew up. A major car repair drained his savings, and he found himself destitute.

Hadley, who lives off his Social Security, found respite at La Puente.

"It's quite a place," said Hadley. "They're very good at what they do. I'm very impressed with their program. I've been here going on two months. I'm trying to save enough money to buy a small piece of property, and get some kind of home. Just someplace where I can putter around in the garden and relax."

"If I were still able to work, I'd do that," Hadley said. "La Puente is doing so much to help me get back on my feet. I can put away a lot of my income, and still pay for my day-to-day expenses. I wouldn't even have to do that, because they even provide hygiene products, clothing and so on, but there are so many people vying for these services that I like to provide for myself to the extent that I can."

The shelter can use all the help it can get for its Thanksgiving and Christmas programs, Ruybal said. Major needs are food, blankets and over-the-counter cold and flu medications. The public is heartily invited to join in the fun of the holiday programs, Mercadante said, especially the shelter's 26th annual Christmas party.

"We're encouraging community members to participate in any way they can," Mercadante said. "Cook a lasagna and drop it off. Donate a gift if you can. Join us for the celebration. It's going to be a great event. Everybody gets a gift, there's caroling, hot chocolate, and Santa will be here. It's a great time, and it's an opportunity to come and experience La Puente and the community from a different light. The joy of Christmas is something that everybody deserves. It'll be fantastic."