Motel of Last Resorts

Homeless families make up nearly 50 percent of Denver's homeless population, but only 15 percent of shelter beds accommodate families. Is enough being done to keep families together? 

By Kristin Pazulski

Karla Hood and her 20-year-old son Karron have been living together in a small motel room off Colfax Avenue since February. 

Their home is in the Volunteers of America’s (VOA) Family Motel. During the day, the sun glitters off the 70s-style lettering of the sign that still stands from the motel’s former life as Aristocrat Motel. In their room, there are two beds, a closet, a bathroom, two nightstands and a chest of drawers. The room is strewn with belongings that once filled their two-bedroom apartment, but are now confined to the two-bed motel room.

Karla, 48, and Karron had to leave their home of 20 years in February when the landlord of their subsidized housing in East Denver refused to renew Karla’s lease. “It was such a last minute situation,” she said. “I had to leave behind about 75 percent of our stuff. I couldn’t afford the storage. I just let it go. I cried a lot and prayed a lot.”

Karla still isn’t sure what happened. The apartment’s management company, the Ross Management Group, said they could not comment without a written release form signed by Karla, which we were unable to obtain by press time. But Karla said she never missed a rent payment even though her credit has suffered from missing other payments, the result of living on a fixed Social Security Disability Insurance income.

Since losing the lease, she has submitted applications to a number of apartment buildings, including subsidized housing, and rent-support housing resources. But because of her poor credit and, she suspects, a dropped misdemeanor charge on Karron’s record from a night he came home drunk and angry and destroyed some of their furniture, her applications have been rejected.

“My credit sucks,” she admitted. “But why can’t they go by the credit of paying rent for 20 years instead of some bill you didn’t pay?”

She turned to her sister who lives in Denver and has an extra bed in her home, but Karla was not welcome. “We have family (locally), but in last name only,” Karla said. 

With an eviction date set and no apartment to move into, Karla and Karron suddenly found themselves homeless.

Karla and Karron’s situation is similar to many other homeless families.

Last year, the Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) counted 1,643 homeless families, accounting for 5,145 people. That number is nearly half (46.5 percent) of the entire homeless population counted in MDHI’s 2009 Point in Time survey, which surveys shelters and reaches out to people on the street one night a year to count the number of homeless. (In 2009, a family was defined as individuals and couples with children as well as couples without children.)

The challenge these families face is not just trying to find a roof over their heads, but also trying to find one that keeps the family together during a time where thin threads can be torn by distance and stress.

“At the time that a family becomes homeless, it’s an incredibly stressful and painful situation,” said David Perea, the manager of VOA’s Family Motel, where Karla and Karron are living. “To be able to keep people together makes a huge difference in the focus and determination in becoming self sufficient.

“Once you split up a family, it’s a lot more difficult to get things done. If you have a family member elsewhere it adds to the stress and difficulty of the situation,” Perea concluded.

But Denver’s shelter system can’t accommodate the volume of homeless families. Emergency shelters are more geared toward individuals or women in domestic violence situations than to families, a problem the city and Denver shelters are aware of and have been trying to address.

In Denver County, there are 868 emergency shelter beds, according to the Denver Department of Human Services (DHS). Of those, 456 are for single homeless men and 241 beds are for women in the city, some of which allow children to stay, some of which cater to women escaping a domestic violence situation and others which only shelter unaccompanied women.

For families, there are just 131 emergency shelter units, according to DHS, though this number does not include the hotel voucher program, which provides families with a room as a last resort when emergency shelter capacity is reached.

Because of these gender restrictions, individuals in a family can find shelter, but it is difficult to house an entire family under one roof.

“Typically the default situation is that the mom and kids are going to find a place together to go to, and the male in the picture is kind of left to his own devices to figure it out,” said Brad Hopkins, director of Family & Senior Homeless Initiative at the Denver Rescue Mission. “There is a lot aimed at single men and domestic violence situations … and it’s challenging to keep your family together in a shelter. It’s much more difficult to find.”

Part of the reason for the shortage in family shelter options is because, for a while, homeless families were the “invisible” homeless. The issue wasn’t addressed. Families were considered “invisible” because they generally aren’t on the streets begging for money.

“They are couch surfing, in the low budget motels which are dangerous especially for children, (and) sleeping in cars,” said Hopkins. “So that’s what makes them the invisible homeless. That’s still the case, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are undercounted because of that.

“But our society is recognizing that family homelessness  is a significant problem and it’s good to see our society is becoming aware of that fact.”

When Karla and Karron found themselves homeless, she called local shelters, but none could house them together because of age and gender restrictions—Karron is 20 and too old to be considered a child. Individually they would be fine, but staying together was as much a need for them as a preference.

Karla has breast cancer. She completed chemotherapy and needs six weeks of radiation, but her treatments have been on hiatus because of an infection, which she attributes partly to the stress of being homeless. She also has been disabled since 2007 with severe chronic back and leg pain resulting from a gastric bypass surgery that almost killed her and prevents her from her former career as a nurse’s aid, which she was for 20 years at nursing homes and in private residences. Karron helps his mother get around, runs to get groceries, picks up her medication and has been apartment hunting for them.

“He’s my legs, basically,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

Karron, whose job hunt is on hold as he finds them a home, does all without complaint, at least none that were apparent last month as they sat in their small hotel room.

“I would feel horrible if I wasn’t able to be here for her,” he said.

Karla and Karron’s only housing option was in DHS’s respite program, which houses homeless individuals and families who are recovering from a medical condition or procedure. Karron was allowed to stay with Karla as her caretaker.

“I would have nowhere if not for this place,” she said. “I would have had to throw Karron on the street and house myself. Each other is all we got.”

With more families potentially on the street, homeless shelter providers could see a greater need for keeping families together.

Although MDHI’s Point in Time surveys have not shown a significant increase in family homelessness since 2007, shelter providers said they have definitely seen an increase in need from families.

“All of our numbers are up across the board, whether it’s for clothes or food boxes,” said Hopkins at the Denver Rescue Mission. “Families especially. As they struggle, they cut back on food to pay for bills just so they can keep their housing. We’re on pace for a record year … the need has definitely grown, as the economy has tightened up, families are losing their jobs and are looking for help.”

The Point in Time numbers don’t reflect this. In 2007, the number of homeless individuals in families in the Denver metro area was 4,887, or 60.6 percent of the total 10,604 homeless persons counted that year. Last year’s count found 5,145 homeless individuals in families, or 46.5 percent of the total 11,061 counted.  (Note that the 2007 count defines families as only those individuals and couples with children. In 2009, couples without children were included the family numbers.)

But at the Denver United Way, calls into their 211 hotline, which helps connect callers to resources for food, employment, housing and more, has increased every year since 2005. In 2007, the number of calls jumped 31 percent and jumped again in 2008 by 25 percent. Last year the number only increased by six percent, but 145,764 people called in asking for aid.

Part of the solution to preventing a worse situation for homeless families is Denver’s Road Home (DRH), the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. Established five years ago, DRH aimed to improve the network of Denver’s homeless shelters and resources to better connect the homeless to those resources. Each year the program’s plan is reevaluated to accommodate the changing homeless population and the program’s progress, but in January 2009 Mayor John Hickenlooper requested a deeper revaluation in wake of the increased number of homeless, particularly of families, resulting from the recession.

“With the economy shifting … the mayor called to revisit all the goals [and] objectives,” said Jamie Van Leeuwen, who just left as project manager of DRH to work on Hickenlooper’s campaign for governor. “We know the economy has changed this … how do we reevaluate our services so we’re really reaching out to families.”

The network of shelters and participating faith congregations coordinated though DRH has helped a number of families stay in their home or get into a home. DRH’s 2009 annual report listed that more than 950 families received eviction assistance and more than 560 families have been mentored out of homelessness with the help of local shelters since the program’s implementation in July 2005. By 2009, the program had added 1,500 transitional housing units, mostly apartments, though also some houses, and DRH anticipates adding 400 or 500 more in the next two years, said Karla Maraccini, DHS’s director for the Office of Drug Strategy.

There are other transitional programs, too, that put families in homes. These programs are not emergency shelters, and there is an application process and usually income requirements for acceptance.

Colorado Homeless Families, Inc. has about 40 transitional homes around the Denver metro area. Families pay 27 percent of their income and are allowed to stay up to two years.

Catholic Charities Samaritan House has 21 family rooms, and families can stay up to four months for free. But they are required to have an income and to save 85 percent of it.

Rapid Re-housing, a three-year program that began last year, provides direct financial support to families to get them back into housing. The program, which is funded by a $3.7 million grant given to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless as part of the federal stimulus package, provides anywhere from a month of rent to the deposit and six months rent to families who have hit a hard spot.

To date, about $650,000 has been spent to help 234 families get into housing or stay in their current homes through Rapid Re-housing in Colorado.

But these options are temporary and usually require families to have an income, which isn’t always the case. About 35 percent of the total homeless population surveyed during MDHI’s Point in Time survey last year were homeless because someone lost a job. The housing programs offer resources and employment training to heads of households in the family, but there are still families that aren’t ready or able to contribute income.

“Some [families] have an income but not enough to be able to sustain themselves in a regular housing situation,” said Hopkins of the Denver Rescue Mission.

In addition, the transitional housing process can take days, even weeks as their application is processed. At Colorado Homeless Families, the process can take two to four weeks. With Rapid Re-housing, it can take 10 to 14 days.

Some families, at least in the Rapid Re-housing program, are helped by the program before they have to move out of their current home. DHS said 100 families, or about 42 percent of those helped by Rapid Re-housing, have been able to stay in their homes, but for the other 58 percent, they need to find a temporary roof while papers are processed. Like Karla.

Karla said she applied for the Rapid Re-housing program in February when she lost the apartment, and heard back from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless at the end of March that she was being given rent assistance, but needed to find an apartment, the latter of which she has been struggling with.

And the question becomes—where will they stay in the mean time?

Shelters present dangers and as mentioned, often mean a family needs to split up. Plus, like Karla and Karron, who left more than half of their belongings behind, they can’t afford storage and belongings are lost.

The Denver Rescue Mission has a program called The Crossing, which houses families who are between shelters and transitional housing. Families can stay in one of the rooms in the former motel for about $375 a month for up to two years, Hopkins said. There are about 89 beds in the program and about half are used by families; the other half are used by individuals. The Crossing offers a real option to families looking to stick together, as long as they have some income, but not for Karla. She said she was denied housing at The Crossing because she needs to be on narcotic pain medication, and they have a strict drug free policy. Although even if she was accepted, she did not want to stay there; she did not want to pay rent for another hotel room and have to live such a restricted lifestyle, since she wouldn’t have been allowed to comfortably have visitors or cook in her room, she said.

Another option for temporarily housing a family is a hotel voucher. The Hotel Voucher program is a program through the Department of Human Services that provides families with a night or more in a local hotel room. Families can stay on a voucher up to 14 days or longer, if really necessary, but DHS tries to get families out of hotels and into homes as soon as possible. The voucher program is really a “last resort” for emergency sheltering.

The Family Motel, where Karla and Karron are staying through the respite program, offers 40 of its beds to the voucher program. The rest are contracted with local hotels, which offer empty rooms.

The voucher program might have been an option for Karla and Karron, but only if the other shelter beds were full. For now, they have their temporary home in the respite program, but this home is not stable. To stay in their small motel room, Karla must get a note from her doctor every two weeks. Although the length of stay in the respite program is determined by a person’s doctor, said DHS’s Maraccini, Karla claims the DHS program manager has threatened her with multiple move out dates. None of the move out dates have come to fruition, but the latest one was June 1.

“I’ve seen the people that milk the system so I know why they have to be tough, but I don’t think they should group everyone into that group,” Karla said. “I’ll take about anything they give me so I don’t have someone standing over my shoulder saying I might not have a place to stay tomorrow,” she said.

And it’s not for a lack of trying. She’s put in so many rental applications she can’t keep track, and has called a number of housing agencies. “I’ve gotten to many different lists (of agencies), but at the age of 48, places don’t want to help you because you’re not a senior. It’s rough.”

Despite the stress, she’s happy to have the motel room for now.

“As much anxiety that I go through, I’m still very blessed to have the roof and bed, because I could be on the street and not know where I would be sleeping every night,” she added. “And to be with Karron. Each other is all we got. That’s the bottom line.”