Action Center opens doors
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