When Together Colorado, a multifaith social action group, had their most recent public meeting, attendees first heard from Reverend Amy Morgan. Welcoming the crowd, the pastor at First United Presbyterian Church noted that many faith traditions teach that “we are connected to all of humanity, all of creation, in what author Barbara Brown Taylor calls a ‘luminous web of relationships.’”
“So as people of faith, when we consider the challenges, the needs, and the hopes of our neighbors who are unhoused — we are recognizing the truth of our interconnectedness.”
It was an apt way to open the meeting intended to address homelessness in the community of Loveland, Colorado. Focusing on systemic change rather than direct service, Together Colorado seeks to equip community leaders from many faith traditions with tools and training to enact social change on the local level.
By leveraging their own “webs of relationships,” Together Colorado members learn to use their roles within the community to influence policy, procedure, and law for the benefit of their most vulnerable neighbors. As part of the national network Faith in Action, the organization centers fundamental values like anti-racism, justice, and mercy across all of their efforts in order to strengthen the entire community.
As Reverend Morgan concluded, “We are here because every life has dignity and infinite worth, and when everyone’s basic needs are met, we are more whole as a society.”
Taking a humble approach to education
While the statewide organization has a 42-year-old history, the Northern Branch of Together Colorado launched in 2017 in Loveland, a smaller city of around 80,000 people 46 miles north of Denver. The northern branch began as a few people from four churches and other faith communities gathering to learn about community organizing. Today, the group is composed of around 45 members and supporters, which includes a group of supporting clergy.
In 2018, leaders of the northern branch surveyed 500 of their neighbors to uncover major concerns in their communities and where the group could enact change. Homelessness rose to the top of the list.
Before they could begin to teach the wider Loveland community about the issue of homelessness, leaders knew they first had to inform themselves to really understand the local issue and how they could play a role.
“I really think it’s important to get educated on the problem in a humble way. Since it’s always changing, you never really feel like you know everything,” stated Carl Mikesh, who has been involved with Together Colorado for two years and is a member of the First Congregational Church of Loveland. “That’s where just asking questions is really important.”
Over a six-month period, chapter leaders met with various government agencies on the local and county level to collect a wide strata of voices and representation to better inform the efforts ahead. They visited existing housing for low-income community members and veterans, speaking with people with lived experience of homelessness and building administrators to get a sense of their experiences.
Bringing faith, hope, and charity to systemic change
“It’s an easy sell, because these folks are believers, and they tend to embrace a mission like addressing homelessness.”Dick Reznik
As they continued to educate themselves, Together Colorado leaders recognized they were in the position to speak up for those unheard, with the goal of shifting the narrative about homelessness to focus on solutions. This time was also used to build a stronger coalition.
“Faith communities are almost a natural fit, because you’ve got folks that have a good understanding of faith, hope, and charity, and the historical, biblical perspective,” said Dick Reznik, a member of St. John the Evangelist Catholic parish who has been involved with Together Colorado for four years.
“When you approach a pastor or a congregant, and just say, ‘This is what we’re working on — would you be interested in joining us? Or could we present to your group?’ It’s an easy sell, because these folks are believers, and they tend to embrace a mission like addressing homelessness”
At the same time, members continued to ground themselves in the faith traditions that brought them to this work. Mikesh has seen firsthand why it’s important that faith communities lend their voice to advocate for social systemic change.
“In a world where it’s about the bottom line and economic resources, where city councils are trying to fit problem-solving within a budget, a faith voice within that dynamic — from a loving standpoint, treating others with dignity — provides a perspective that isn’t always at the top of mind,” Mikesh said.
Judith Mattoon, a member of Together Colorado for four years, believes some of the organization’s strength of influence comes from the composition of their membership, since most members are retired individuals with both specialized skills and time to devote to the issue.
“Many of us have connections and have been in the town a while and can network, which is extremely important,” Mattoon commented. “And I don’t mean ‘schmooze,’ but actually get with the people that you’ve already been involved with and pass the word. Because we’re an organizing group, we can tend to provide the focus for people who might not otherwise intersect.”
Organizing around stepping on toes
In 2019, leaders of the Northern Branch of Together Colorado chapter organized their first public meeting to raise awareness about homelessness across the faith communities and to advocate for the needs of their unhoused neighbors. In attendance were Loveland Mayor Jacki Marsh, four city council members, and over 150 community members.
During that meeting, it became evident the community needed to garner additional support beyond what the local government could provide. Drawing on a report compiled with recommendations for action to reduce homelessness locally, they discovered the need for a local homeless service provider to take the lead and help convene efforts across the homeless response system.
“So many of our service organizations are doing very good work within that organization for a specific thing. But they are siloed. No one’s really talking to each other,” Mikesh said. “Some of that humanness is just territorial: ‘Hey, don’t step on my toes here.’”
But that’s where Together Colorado’s bias toward action really shines, because, as Mikesh explained, “We’re a group that’s really organized around stepping on toes.”
“Some of that humanness is just territorial: ‘Hey, don’t step on my toes here.’ We’re a group that’s really organized around stepping on toes.”
— Carl Mikesh, Member of Together Colorado
Evidence of this was their 2019 Public Meeting, which became a catalyst for the city and others to take action and increase housing and support services throughout Loveland. The most recent public meeting in April 2022 continued to educate attendees on the complex issue of homelessness and champion systemic change across the community, with a new emphasis on advocating for the development of a youth shelter in Larimer County.
In addition to Mayor Jacki Marsh, guests included County Commissioner Jody Shadduck-McNally, State Representative Andrew Boesenecker, members of Northern Colorado’s Continuum of Care, and speakers with lived experiences of homelessness. The meeting resulted in an agreement by the county to convene a broad stakeholder meeting on youth homelessness.
The meeting made space for sacred music performed by local choirs, inspiring calls to action, and invocations led by several clergy members, like Pastor Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson from the First Congregational Church of Loveland.
“We pray that we may one day see when homelessness is brief and temporary because appropriate resources and interventions have been employed, to live hand-in-hand with those who are unhoused in our community,” Pastor Dale-Ferguson said. “Help us to work on solutions to the complex and yet very basic challenges faced by our neighbors who are unhoused.”
Becoming better partners through best practices
Before he joined Together Colorado, Reznik had spent 20 years in the Army providing mental health counseling, subsequently working for several years as a cop as part of a homeless outreach team. His past experiences taught him routine law enforcement responses to homelessness often consisted of sweeping encampments or arresting people experiencing homelessness. Joining Together Colorado opened his eyes.
“The more I learned and participated in some of the point-in-time counts in January, I realized that, wow, there is a lot to this and a lot that I didn’t know, and a lot that we as a team didn’t know,” Reznik commented. “And so that led to some real deep research in terms of what our best practices are and where they are being put in place.”
It was during this research that Reznik and other leaders found out more about the framework and tenets of Built for Zero, which had a presence in the area beginning in 2019. A variety of informative videos introduced them to key concepts like “quality by-name data” and “functional zero,” allowing the Together Colorado team to be better partners with their city and council as the work progressed.
The April meeting also included a video from Built for Zero Portfolio Lead Melanie Lewis Dickerson, congratulating the chapter on their progress and community-wide dedication to the work. Lewis Dickerson noted that Northern Colorado is on the path to reaching functional zero for veterans as a first milestone for ending all homelessness in their community.
Mikesh and others find this tangible goal motivating: “What’s also helpful is hearing about other communities who are reaching the functional zero — that’s encouraging to focus on, to know that it can be done.”
Centering lived expertise to go farther, together
As Together Colorado develops ambitious goals for the future, they know the importance of defining what milestones for success along the way — and taking the time to acknowledge those accomplishments.
“It’s easy to get lost in the grind of the whole thing,” Mikesh said. “I think it’s helpful to celebrate.”
Even as they recognize these wins, Together Colorado knows the work must continue. They hope to widen their luminous web of relationships by including more representation from other faith communities, like members of local mosques, and from more people with lived expertise of homelessness.
“As we move forward, that voice is really needed to guide us — just having that lived experience and really knowing from a boots-on-the-ground perspective of what it’s like to just live hour-by-hour.”
— Dick Reznik, Member of Together Colorado
“As we move forward, that voice is really needed to guide us — just having that lived experience and really knowing from a boots-on-the-ground perspective of what it’s like to just live hour-by-hour,” Reznik explained.
Mikesh agreed, noting that part of their meetings is reminding everyone that they don’t know what they don’t know — necessitating greater representation within their group.
“It’s a complex moving target and we are constantly trying to get better input,” he said.
No matter what the Loveland chapter of Together Colorado sets its sights on next, they continue to abide by the belief espoused by many faith traditions — that you can go farther if you go together.
“This is a long journey, so you want to find people who have a similar passion,” Mattoon said. “You want to encourage each other — you’ve got to have other people with you for support.”
Do you live in Colorado? Are you interested in getting involved?
Together Colorado has multiple branches across the state and welcomes anyone who is interested and has a passion for and/or expertise of any kind. Recognizing that not all communities’ needs are the same, each chapter also has a variety of sub-committees all centered around social dignity and justice. If there is not currently an active chapter in your community, Together Colorado is open to supporting grassroots organizing as well.