By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Polly Sullivan kept lighthouses in her window, rows of miniature beacons that illuminated the old military dormitory at Lowry that is now Crooked Tree, a shelter for the formerly homeless.
It was nice, tenants say, comforting. No matter what else was going on in their lives, and there was usually something going on, Polly would always have those lighthouses glowing.
But on Christmas, the day she died, someone walked into Polly's second-floor apartment and turned off the lights.
"I've got butcher knives strategically placed all around here," Karen Battaglia says. "If someone comes through my door, I can get to them in seconds."
She takes a long slow drag from her cigarette. "And honey," she says, "I'm serious."
Battaglia is no stranger to violence, danger or tragedy. But what happened to Polly, who lived one floor up, has left her spooked.
"I'm not usually the scared type," Battaglia says. "Not with my background. But I have to remind myself of what happened. Maybe we were too lax or relaxed around here. Who's to say that couldn't happen to one of us?"
Many paths lead to the yellow brick housing complex that Polly used to manage. The 43 people who live here range in age from nineteen to sixty. They are ex-convicts, college students, former drug addicts and wanderers. They are Native Americans, blacks, whites and Hispanics. They are, Battaglia says, "a really cool group of good, dysfunctional people."
But no matter where they came from or how they got here, they all have this in common: With Polly, they got a second chance.
Battaglia was a hustler. From the time she was sixteen, she danced in strip clubs all over Denver. She ran escort services, booked newspaper ads under the name "Solitaire" and lived off her looks as a blond bombshell.
"I was paid, not played," she says. "I wore minks and diamonds, not cut-off shorts. And all mine were high-dollar-end," she says of her clients.
Battaglia eventually married a drug dealer who owned a seventeen-room house. She had a maid, a cook and a gold Mercedes.
"Honey, I had everything a woman could want," she says.
In June 1991, FBI agents knocked on the door. Battaglia's husband was arrested on 82 counts of racketeering. After an indictment that read like a who's who of Denver, her husband was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Authorities seized their bank accounts, stocks, bonds, real-estate holdings, business ventures, furniture, jewelry and art.
"I watched them pack everything I had and take it out the door," Battaglia says. "In one day I lost a husband, a home, and everything I owned. Life as I knew it was gone."
Battaglia, who had seven children, was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to a year under house arrest. She tried to get a regular job and a regular life, but with her past and criminal record, it was practically impossible. Somehow she got a job managing a string of seedy apartments along a drug-ridden street, but even working seven days a week, she could barely make ends meet. She began to feel the tug of her old lifestyle.
"I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown," Battaglia says. "This year I'm going to be 45. That's kind of old to be homeless."
Then she met Polly.
Battaglia had heard about Polly from a pastor at her church. Crooked Tree was just what she needed. The facility allowed people with police records, little or no income and spotty credit reports to pay low rent and stay as long as they needed. Battaglia applied, passed the evaluations, met the federal housing criteria and moved into a first-floor apartment in May.
"It was a dream come true," she says. "For the first time in years, I felt like I had stability. It let me get out and see what it feels like to be in society again. It gave me the opportunity to relax. If you're always in a shaky home situation, you can't focus or concentrate on anything else. But when that problem is solved, a person is able to do a lot. Crooked Tree was a real blessing."
Battaglia decorated her one-bedroom apartment with bamboo furniture and Asian artwork. She left her windows open at night and walked the hallways and smiled at neighbors. Crooked Tree felt like a home. And that was exactly what Polly had wanted.
"She wanted this to be special," Battaglia says. "She didn't want people coming from one institutional, prison-type setting going into another one. That's why you don't see security cameras. She wanted people to feel comfortable here. She understood how much friends and community are part of that process."
If someone needed a ride to a job interview, Polly handed out bus tokens. If they were short on weekly groceries, she gave them a box of food. And if they had a bad day, Polly treated them to a steak dinner.
"She understood that people who are down and out need a minute to regroup," Battaglia says. "She had the biggest heart in the world."
But Polly had rules, too. No drugs. No alcohol for tenants on parole. No visitors after 10:30 p.m. No loud music. No children. No overnight guests. Although she bent the rules when necessary, some tenants bristled at the strict structure. But Polly, all 4 feet, 10 inches of her, stood her ground. Several times she evicted troublemakers.