Colorado Springs, Colorado - Judith Thompson sits straight and still in her chair, eyes bright, warming herself from the cold. In Mandarin, she tells VOA she taught English at the Southwestern University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing, China. But those days of doing missionary work with her husband of 49 years are long gone. 'I've never been homeless before,' the American woman says. 'It's a whole new experience for me to adapt.'
Thompson has been staying at the Springs Rescue Mission since November. She is part of the homeless shelter's Hope Program, which includes job training. Thompson plans to return to the mission field, in outreach. 'I want to be God's light to give people hope and encouragement.'
The Christ-centered rescue mission and similar groups have reduced homelessness by 50% in Colorado Springs. Mission president and CEO Jack Briggs credits the success to community partnership and treating all clients as humans. 'It's people. I think we miss that sometimes. People on the streets are people.'
The welcome center is designed to increase safety and security of all clients. Drugs, alcohol, and weapons must be left in a locker outside the center, Jan. 17, 2023. (Carolyn Presutti/VOA)
To accomplish that, the mission meets people 'where they are,' Briggs says. Those with legal issues and/or addictions can enter. The single entry to the shelter, called the welcome center, increases the safety and security that homeless people seek.
Visitors and clients walk through a metal detector, and personal items are run through a scanner. Officers employed directly by the shelter physically search clients before entry. All drugs, alcohol and weapons are removed and placed in a locker, should the client want them back upon exiting.
Barking dogs greet anyone who opens the door to the kennel, just beyond the welcome center. It was created so clients never need to choose between separating from their pet and staying on the street, Jan. 17, 2023. (Carolyn Presutti/VOA)
Anyone who enters can hear barking coming from the next room, the shelter's kennel. Springs Rescue Mission does not want clients choosing between a roof over their head or their dog, oftentimes the only family they have.
Clients do agree, however, to part with their clothes, which in many cases are their only possessions. The shelter launders and folds them, then places them into one of 300 red lockers. 'When we build that trust and a relationship, that's the starting point to get better from the situation they happen to be in,' Briggs says.
200 loads of laundry
Thomas McDonald coordinates the laundry operations and the 200 loads washed per day. As a former client, he recovered from drug and alcohol addiction and returned to work at the mission, Jan. 17, 2023. (Carolyn Presutt/VOA)
Thomas McDonald, who, with the mission's help, recovered from addictions to alcohol and cocaine, coordinates the area that includes the showers and the laundry. McDonald says he manages 200 loads of laundry daily, which 'helps keep me accountable for my actions.'
Clients typically spend time working and living outside the shelter before applying for a job at the mission. Community partners step in with job leads, and the mission helps 40 people a month get jobs. Briggs says that is only possible because of the rescue mission's job training program.
'They aren't work ready - they just aren't. They've lost the skillset, they have lost the personal hygiene, they maybe have lost the motivation,' he says. Once they graduate, the mission vouches for them to liaisons in the community.
The mission boasts a dining hall that serves 500 meals daily - again, run by former clients. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when catering businesses around Colorado Springs lacked employees, the Springs Rescue Mission recognized the need and began a catering preparation business at the shelter.
Head Chef Matt De Laurell, a former methamphetamine and cocaine addict, explained, 'We do everything from little picnics all the way up to big 1,000-people corporate events.' During COVID, they also supplied first responders with well-appreciated hot meals at the end of their 12-hour shifts.
USAF general to CEO
Jack Briggs was a retired U.S. Air Force major general when he was hired as president and CEO of Springs Rescue Mission. His military attention to detail is evident as he pulls out his cellphone and shows numerous statistics from the 'client information gathering system.'
Unlike other shelters, Springs Rescue Mission has a full-time data analyst on staff. Says Briggs, 'We gather all the data that we can at a macro level for the whole place. But then we can break it down by individuals ... for care.'
Briggs says that the statistics show about 30% of his clients graduate with enough 'skills, talent and capacity' to get jobs and live independently, but that recidivism after graduation lowers that number.
Jesus greets all
An over-sized bronze sculpture is of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns with His index finger pointing to a cross atop the Springs Rescue Mission resource center, Jan. 17, 2023. (Carolyn Presutti)
Religion is at the center of the nonprofit's philosophy. An oversize bronze sculpture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns stands above the courtyard, where clients quietly talk outdoors when the weather allows.
It wasn't until the sculpture was in place two years ago during an $18 million renovation that Briggs realized Jesus' index finger pointed to the enormous cross atop the welcome center.
A handwritten sign in the dining hall reads, 'Need Prayer? Just ask, we would love to pray with you.'
Jack Briggs never shies away from crediting God for the rescue mission's success.
'That's the starting point of everything. When we focus on that, we tend to do good work. When we think it's about Jack or this particular program or something like that, we tend to get off track.'