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Home Grown

The Delores Project uses its big heart to make big goals a reality.

Emily Wheeland, CEO of The Delores Project, has been with the Denver-based organization for almost 10 years now. She began her work with them in 2015 as an overnight shelter assistant and her responsibilities and love for the organization have only grown since. In the last decade, she’s also served as the shelter manager and the program director before finally landing in her current position. “There’s always something new and exciting happening, and I just care for the community here so much that I’ve stuck around,” she shares.

The Delores Project works to provide not only housing, but also a true path to stability for those who come through its doors.

“When I first started here, our budget was under a million dollars and we had maybe 12 employees,” Wheeland says. “We had one program and that was just an overnight-only emergency shelter. We were on the teeniest shoestring budget.” After COVID-19 illuminated the extreme need for services like theirs in the area, the organization grew quickly. They now operate a 50-bed, 24/7 shelter; have more than 320 unique volunteers; and recently expanded to include their Behavioral Health and Wellness program, which includes onsite access to trauma-informed medical case management, counseling, group therapy, telehealth, and more.

The organization’s numbers over the last few years speak for themselves. More than 35% of The Delores Project shelter guests have moved into permanent housing, with more than 89% of housed guests remaining housed at the one-year mark. And since opening their Behavioral Health and Wellness program, 91% of residents have experienced three or less episodes of crises that required staff intervention. When you add to that The Delores Apartments—the 35-unit supportive housing community built four years ago, which serves unhoused individuals who are also disabled and earn under 30% of the area median income annually—The Delores Project looks unstoppable and ready to continue building on their already impressive community impact.

“Prior to 2020, we knew what the need was, and knew we wanted to provide more stability. We’d dreamt of creating a greater foundation for healing for the folks we serve, but we never really had the financial means to be able to do that. But then the city really stepped up. We got a PPP loan, and we got some one-time COVID funding. McGowan has been helping us for so long too; foundations like McGowan are such a blessing and help fill in so many of the important gaps we’ve had. Because of all that, it’s just been exponential growth in the last few years,” says Wheeland. “In 2021, we started our rehousing and continued care program and were finally able to start programming beyond the basics we’d been providing like showers, laundry, and meals. We were able to start working with our guests more intensively around their income, moving towards housing and goal planning. We started providing life skills opportunities, too. That’s one of the things that differentiates us from other shelter providers; we have continuously made the intentional decision over the years to focus on quality of services rather than quantity of people served. Though our numbers are growing.”

All of this is probably more than Delores Big Boy, a Lakota Sioux woman who was the inspiration for The Delores Project, could have imagined. When Big Boy passed away at 46, the number of unhoused women in the Denver area was a few hundred; now it’s in the thousands. “Big Boy’s legacy was sharing whatever she had with whomever she could and really just caretaking all of the women around her,” Wheeland explains. “If she was housed, she was housing others. She’d have 12 people sleeping in her apartment. That was the original Dolores Project. She felt a responsibility to care for folks in her community who had less than she did, and we are proud to carry on that tradition in her name now.”