Jan 182010

Rev. Richard Thebo has spent most of his life helping impoverished members of his community rise to their feet.

In his decades of ministry and charity work, he has seen drug addicts drop their bottles, needles or pipes for good and ex-convicts assimilate themselves into the working world.

Of the myriad reformations he has assisted, perhaps the humblest is that of an abandoned Dachshund named Grace.
Originally found in an abandoned lot by a friend, Thebo describes the animal as fierce, almost feral.

“She’s no longer hostile,” he says. The dog that once snapped at any person she saw has climbed from the ground to nestle herself in the reverend’s waiting arms.

When asked how he turned a snarling, aggressive dog into the humble creature seen following at his heels anywhere he goes Thebo has a simple answer.

“Love,” he says. “L – O – V – E.”

Thebo is the caretaker, owner and minister of the Open Door Mission, a homeless shelter near the railroad tracks on Jefferson Street. Originally a Greyhound bus station, the shelter is now a temporary home for some 30 to 40 men and women.

The shelter has seen an influx of homeless in recent years, many of whom have been drawn by the abundant jobs promised by magazines across the country lauding the choice city as one of America’s best places to live.

Since the economic downturn last year, the problem has worsened, with more men, women and families finding themselves unemployed and on Colorado streets.

Thebo purchased the land in 1993, when the owner, a prominent local figure he declined to name, enlisted him to evict the renters of a day center for the homeless that had been failing to pay monthly rent. After making a monthly payment of $1,000 for three to four years, Thebo became the shelter’s full-time owner.
Since 1993, Thebo has expanded the once day center to include separate men’s and women’s dormitories, a full kitchen, dining and laundry room and living areas complete with couches and TVs.
The interior of the shelter is bare, but hospitable.
Wires and pipes can be seen through gaps in the drywall near the ceiling, and nearly every available shelf or table is covered in bibles or religious pamphlets. In the dining area, a tiled room furnished with several fold-out cafeteria tables, Thebo gestures to the space available in times of unexpected need.
“God has shown me a way to stretch the walls,” Thebo says, explaining that when the number of homeless coming through his door has exceeded the number of bunks available, he has filled this dining area with army cots to provide some kind of shelter.
“I have a lot more room available when I fully utilize it,” he says.
Behind the counters of the Mission’s kitchen, veteran truck driver and short-order cook Jim Rhoten makes soups, steaks and potatoes for the hungry men and women that come in each night for dinner.
With a well-manicured moustache and a head of graying hair, 59-year-old Rhoten came to the Mission as just another temporary occupant, but has since found a calling much like Thebo’s.
“I’m here because God wants me to be here,” Rhoten said. “I’ll stay here until I die or God tells me to move on.”
Rhoten’s religious sentiments are not uncommon in the Mission, where an undercurrent of faith runs through all of the day-to-day operations.
Those virtues respected at the Mission expand beyond the tenets of Christian charity to include the lessons of responsibility and work ethic learned by Thebo over a lifetime spent surrounded by homelessness and indigence.
As a child of a single mother in Missouri, Thebo spent much of his early life in shelters, working a variety of jobs before joining the armed forces at the age of 17. After returning to the United States, Thebo became a minister at a Kansas City Mission and has been working with the homeless ever since.
“I would rather have 10 people here who want to get back on their feet than 1,000 people who just want to eat and go,” he says.
Thebo requires that those staying in his shelter work (or look for work) during the day, and does not allow anyone to stay more than four consecutive Fridays. He does not allow people who are drunk or using drugs on the premises and has called police several times on troublemakers.
Because of his ideals, Thebo does not take money from charities like United Way, which he says support behaviors he considers sinful, such as homosexuality or abortion.
“We’re just walking two different streets, but we’re both trying to help people,” he says.
Refusing contributions from large organizations has made Thebo something of a black sheep in the charity community, he says. His unique approach has left him relying on his “horse-trading” abilities to keep the doors open year-round.
The Mission is funded entirely by donations and typically works with a budget of about $400,000 annually, Thebo says. This year, however, a typically steady flow of donations has slowed.
In addition to finding himself $35,000 below his projected numbers for the year, Thebo found himself unable to give Christmas presents to poor Fort Collins children for the first time since the Mission opened.
While the mission is typically overwhelmed by yuletide charity, Thebo said he had only received a single phone call from a woman offering to buy toys for the city’s indigent children.
At 69, with sparse white hairs stretching across his scalp and a jolly, if somewhat grizzled, countenance, Thebo is not an unlikely Santa Claus. While unable to give out toys, he organized 70 food baskets to distribute to poor families throughout Fort Collins and served homeless men and women a dinner, “with all the trimmings,” on both Christmas and Christmas Eve.
Despite lean economic times, Thebo is confident he will be able to continue to provide for the city’s homeless. Rather than relying on his own wits to keep the shelter afloat, he says he places his hopes in higher places.
“This is not my place, this is His. I sold out to God many years ago.”
News Editor Matt Minich can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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