For the first time so far this year, Mayor Nick Gradisar declared a weather-related temporary emergency on Nov. 21 because of expected frigid temperatures over the weekend.
On that same day, the Pueblo Rescue Mission announced on Facebook it had closed on a building for which city council narrowly approved funding, where the rescue mission will be housing dozens of people on nights when the mayor declares such an emergency.
The mission was quick to start using the building by serving Thanksgiving dinner and sheltering some people Thursday evening. Here’s what the shelter will offer.
What the emergency declaration means
Per an ordinance first passed by city council in late 2021, Pueblo’s mayor can declare a weather-related emergency that temporarily allows religious institutions to shelter homeless people.
Some city regulations, such as codes relating to occupancy limits, are suspended when the weather declaration is in place. Tea text of the ordinance does not directly specify the criteria for temperatures at “dangerous” levels, but Gradisar has tended to declare an emergency when the weather is below 20 degrees Fahrenheit or steady winter precipitation is expected.
Last year, the city contracted with Crazy Faith Street Ministry for the operation of the warming shelter, which was funded by federal COVID-19 relief grants. Crazy Faith had to leave the location they had been leasing in Midtown when a new owner bought the building and they have not since found a permanent location.
The Pueblo Rescue Mission is now the only shelter serving Pueblo’s homeless. They shelter homeless people on a short- and long-term basis year-round but will also be the designated option for the emergency warming shelter on extremely cold nights.
Although the emergency declaration did not start until 7 pm Friday night, the rescue mission opened the new warming shelter on Thanksgiving.
Melanie Rapier, the executive director of the Pueblo Rescue Mission, told the Chieftain in an email that she made the decision with the mayor to open a day earlier than the weather emergency began.
Rapier said that 27 emergency warming shelter clients stayed in the new building Thursday night. The mission also served Thanksgiving dinner to approximately 65 people, according to a Facebook post.
“It’s nice to give folks something to be grateful for in tough times,” Rapier wrote.
Gradisar told the Chieftain that mission leadership “used good judgment” when they opened the new part of the shelter in a “soft opening.”
As of noon Friday, Rapier said that approximately half of those who sheltered there overnight were still on-site inside “watching TV and having coffee in our main day hall at the Mission’s main shelter.”
Rapier emphasized that the rescue mission already shelters people every day of the year, but that the new warming shelter “will be opened as overflow” when the mayor makes weather-related emergency declarations.
Details on the rescue mission’s new building purchase
In late October, Pueblo City Council narrowly approved a $400,000 grant for the rescue mission to buy a new building to expand and use as the emergency warming shelter.
Three councilors, including mayoral candidate Heather Graham, said at the time that they opposed the grant partially because of concerns about staffing and the organization’s financial health.
Rapier previously told city council that the mission has struggled to have enough people on staff to operate at a full capacity. She said Friday in an email they are “fully staffed at this time” but are working on implementing an on-call volunteer program.
“It means a great deal to me, my board of directors and our staff that Mayor Gradisar advocated for us and worked tirelessly to bring Pueblo a permanent emergency warming shelter. Mayor Gradisar understands how mental health is at the core of the work we do with Pueblo’s homeless and we appreciate his support,” Rapier wrote.
She added that the votes from city councilors Lori Winner, Dennis Flores, Larry Atencio and Vicente Martinez Ortega are “endorsements of confidence that we are the best people for this job.”
Gradisar said that opening this new temporary shelter the rescue mission is operating could end a “year to year problem” of finding a capable organization to help people on the coldest nights of the year.
“Despite some council members’ opposition to purchasing the building for a warming shelter, it’s up and running and I have every confidence that it’ll be successful,” Gradisar said.
He said Friday that the city was not planning on opening facilities such as the Transit Center or the lobby of the Pueblo Police Department headquarters over the weekend, as long as the mission has the capacity to shelter enough people from the cold.
The overflow building was first used to shelter people Thursday night, but Rapier said that the mission is in a “time crunch” to complete some renovations on the new building, including revamping bathrooms and removing carpet. They also would like to buy more bunk bed units, Rapier wrote.
“The mission would welcome any local business who might donate the labor and materials to complete any of these renovations,” she said.
City council heard testimony in October from some former clients who claimed that leadership at the mission, including Rapier, mistreated homeless people who sought services there.
Rapier and the mission’s board president disputed many of the allegations when Rapier was invited to speak at a city council work session.
Pet shelter has new option
The Pueblo Rescue Mission announced on Facebook Wednesday evening that they will now be offering a temporary pet shelter on nights of an emergency weather declaration.
The post said that this decision was made after consulting with mission staff and with Gradisar.
Rapier told city council at a work session in October that starting a pet shelter would be financially burdensome, partially because of an expected increase to the cost of insurance. The rescue mission pulled out of a grant application that city staff helped write that could have provided some funding for a pet shelter.
Rapier said in the email that the mission will be able to “manage four to six pets at this time.”
According to the mission’s Facebook post, pet shelter will be offered on a “first come first served basis” and the pets will need to be in a crate overnight. The pet’s owners will need to sign a general liability waiver and take their pet with them the next morning. They will also need to clean and sanitize the kennel after their pet sleeps there.
Rapier said that a year-round pet shelter is something that the rescue mission could consider in three to five years.
“There are a myriad of ongoing costs to operate a year round dog kennel that just a single grant wouldn’t cover. The kennel has to be sustainable and that takes a good amount of regular, constant funding,” Rapier wrote, adding that focusing on human life at this time “is the most responsible way to be good stewards of the funding we do receive.”
Rapier did not address follow-up questions from the Chieftain about why the temporary pet shelter is being offered at this time and whether insurance costs are expected to increase.
Anna Lynn Winfrey covers politics for the Pueblo Chieftain. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support local news at subscribe.chieftain.com.