On Dec. 21, the darkest night of the year, many of us gathered at Pioneer Park to mourn the homeless who had died during the year. In the darkness, with only the light of candles, we listened to the names, names like our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters.

The heart-wrenching sadness and complexity of homelessness have become a part of who we are as a city. When people visit our city and stay in hotels downtown, the growing level of need is palpable. During the past months, leaders have come forth with ideas about how to create more centers and lessen the burden of the inner city. Everyone is in agreement that there is a need for a new solution with more shelters. In Crossroads Urban Center’s recently published research, we have been given the rare opportunity to listen to the voices of homeless parents speaking of their needs.

Overwhelmingly, the women spoke of the need for another shelter for families. Our present facilities are insufficient and the new plans will not address the needs of families. At a press conference during which the main Crossroads facilitators revealed the results of their study, the problematic situation at the Rio Grande came into our minds. What if…?

I wish that I could create a link that would lead you to an architect’s rendering of what we imagine: the Rio Grande property, the Road Home shelter for adults that will be closed next year, refurbished into a family shelter with a playground, cooperative daycare and renewed, positive connections with the community. Out of this press conference, a dream emerged of a place for families that could also symbolize the state’s and city’s compassionate understanding that difficult times happen to families and how, by listening to their needs, transformative steps could be taken towards independent lives. The success stories emerging from this project would be evidence of the transformation of a broken part of our city into one of wholeness.

From conversations with mothers struggling with homelessness, along with the need for more shelter for homeless families, a common thread was the desperate need for childcare. Women should never have to make choices between the financial viability of their family and the care of their children. Better-paying jobs that would sustain rent and food costs necessitate access to childcare.

By not providing childcare, we are creating another glass ceiling that keeps mothers in poverty. A cooperative style of childcare could also provide a place of learning for new and experienced parents that would create stronger families able to keep their children instead of losing them to foster care. By responding to the needs of people we are trying to serve, we would also be using our tax dollars wisely.

Let us consider transforming the Rio Grande into a symbol of hope, a place of safety for families in need and a proud part of our city and state, a candle shining bright in the darkness.

Courtesy Photo Songwriter and storyteller Patty Willis, pastor at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society.

Rev. Patty Willis is pastor of the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society.