Ac­tion Cen­ter opens doors

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Kieran Ni­chol­son Kieran Ni­chol­son: 303-954-1822, kni­chol­son@den­ver­post.com or @kier­an­ni­chol­son

The Echelmeiers, an ex­tended fam­ily of nine, plus two dogs, ex­pe­ri­enced a spi­ral to­ward home­less­ness ear­lier this year, at one point cram­ming into a sin­gle ho­tel room for about three months.

Leav­ing the ho­tel and liv­ing at a camp­ground for about two weeks, the long­time Lake­wood fam­ily fi­nally found The Ac­tion Cen­ter home­less shel­ter, en­rolling in the pro­gram seek­ing “path­ways to self-suf­fi­ciency.”

“It’s been won­der­ful, it’s been amaz­ing. It was def­i­nitely scary,” said Rachael Echelmeier, 41, the ma­tri­arch of the tight-knit fam­ily. “We spent a long time try­ing to un­der­stand how we were in this po­si­tion.”

In the spring, the Echelmeiers — Rachael, her hus­band, Sean, 38, their five chil­dren, a niece, a 68-year-old un­cle and two dogs — were hap­pily re­sid­ing in a rented sin­gle-fam­ily home when the owner de­cided to sell. The Echelmeiers were given 30-day no­tice to move.

“Thirty days, no big deal,” Rachael re­called think­ing.

The fam­ily had been in the rental home for four years. As they ini­tially looked for new hous­ing, in­flated prices in the boom­ing rental mar­ket caught the cou­ple by sur­prise.

“We re­ally strug­gled with the tim­ing,” Rachael re­called.

The fam­ily put most of their be­long­ings in stor­age and moved into a ho­tel room in April.

The sit­u­a­tion, at first, evolved as an ad­ven­ture, in part, so as not to alarm the young chil­dren.

The fam­ily took ad­van­tage of the ho­tel’s con­ti­nen­tal break­fast and, as the weather warmed, its swim­ming pool. While school was still in ses­sion, the chil­dren went every day. When school let out, it was trips to the li­brary, a park or play­ground, any public place where they could safely pass time be­fore head­ing back to their crowded ho­tel room.

“We tried re­ally hard to make sure they weren’t scared, keep­ing things as nor­mal as pos­si­ble, like we were on a va­ca­tion,” Rachael said.

But days turned into weeks, weeks into months. By mid-June, the Echelmeiers’ mea­ger cash cush­ion was just about gone. A GoFundMe page, ben­e­fit­ing the fam­ily, started by Rachael’s sis­ter, helped them to hang on.

The fam­ily ended up at a camp­ground in their 2002 Ford Ex­pe­di­tion, a large SUV. Com­pound­ing mat­ters, Sean lost his job as a limo driver — and the sense of ad­ven­ture turned into des­per­a­tion.

“At that point, we re­al­ized: ‘This isn’t work­ing. It’s not get­ting bet­ter, it’s get­ting worse,’ ” Rachael re­called.

That’s when the Echelmeiers turned to The Ac­tion Cen­ter, which has a shel­ter pro­gram for cou­ples, fam­i­lies and sin­gle adults. The cen­ter lim­its stays to 45 days, and clients — with the help of their case man­agers — must develop goals aimed to­ward even­tual “self-suf­fi­ciency.”

As part of the pro­gram, all the Echelmeiers com­pleted chores at the dor­mi­tory-like shel­ter, which also pro­vided sim­ple, mi­crowave­able meals.

They saved money from Sean’s earn­ings — he found work with a floor­ing com­pany in Boul­der. Rachael also pitched in — she had been earn­ing $20 daily, watch­ing chil­dren for a friend.

The shel­ter ex­tended the stay dead­line for the fam­ily, who in late Septem­ber found a new rental home in Lake­wood.

“They worked with us un­til we were able to come into this place,” Rachael said. “They were amaz­ing and sup­port­ive. Know­ing some­one is root­ing for you is most im­por­tant. It re­ally helps to know you weren’t alone.”

Now, the Echelmeiers are giv­ing back, while work­ing on be­ing in­de­pen­dent.

Rachael is part of an af­ter-care pro­gram, at­tend­ing meet­ings twice a month where she acts as a men­tor for oth­ers who — like her and her fam­ily — have bat­tled home­less­ness. She also gets fur­ther sup­port and en­cour­age­ment at the af­ter-care meet­ings.

“It’s pretty help­ful, a place where peo­ple are go­ing through sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences,” Rachael said. “There’s ca­ma­raderie, no one is judg­ing, it’s a wel­com­ing en­vi­ron­ment, very sup­port­ive, very help­ful.”

Mean­while, the Echelmeiers have a roof over the heads, and plenty of room, through the win­ter.

“We have been blessed in every pos­si­ble way,” Rachael said. “It is a won­der­ful pro­gram.”

The Echelmeiers gather be­fore din­ner in the kitchen of their new home in Lake­wood on Nov. 9. The large, ex­tended fam­ily had a se­ries of mishaps that left them home­less. He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

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