Chance of a Lifetime

Judith Schwartz moved into Warren Village with her two young sons in February 1974. It was a subsidized, live-in, welfare-to-work program for struggling single parents, and Janet and her sons were the inaugural participants in a grand experiment in human services. The first facility of its kind in the nation, Warren Village was conceived as a place where residents could gain a foothold, reaping the fruits of affordable housing, school referrals, on-premises child care and life-skills training.

Schwartz didn't fit the perceived profile of a welfare mother--she was a college graduate who'd been in the Peace Corps and enjoyed riding her bicycle in Cheesman Park or listening to the Denver Symphony. "You have to go back to that period in time to understand," she notes. "The women's movement was still on its cusp. When I was brought up, we still thought we were going to play a role as wife and mother, so I had no strong direction when I finished college." She'd married a flower child she met in the Peace Corps, and they ended up living in a ramshackle cabin in the mountains. But the responsibility of rearing small children didn't conform to the languid back-to-nature ethic her husband espoused: "We were supposed to be making granola from scratch, getting a PhD, juggling everything, breast-feeding and so on. In reality, I still didn't know how to stand on my own two feet."

Newly divorced and clueless about what to do next, Schwartz recognized Warren Village as a place where she could figure things out. She moved in and never looked back. And along with her fellow residents--a wildly varied group of people thrown together by every kind of adversity, unfortunate turn or case of bad luck imaginable--Schwartz persevered. Early residents at Warren had plenty to tackle: Daycare wasn't available at the outset, and when it did materialize, the basement facility was a dreary, dirt-floored, bare-bones space. The real-estate management company running things at the time imposed big-brotherish rules on residents. And the residents themselves were often their own worst enemies. "We had a number of women who were multi-generational welfare recipients," Schwartz recalls. "And no one was sitting down with you and doing a life plan."

It wasn't as if people in high places were pulling for Schwartz and the other single parents at Warren, either: Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which constructed the facility, were so certain the concept would fail they insisted half the building's units be one-bedroom apartments, regardless of the fact that families, some with several children, would be housed there. That way, if the project didn't succeed, HUD could easily convert Warren Village into senior citizens' quarters.

But that never happened. Twenty-five years later, Warren Village doesn't just persevere--it thrives. So this Saturday, when past and present residents gather to renew old acquaintances and mingle with the surrounding community, there'll be plenty to celebrate: The learning center has real floors, an extensive play area and classrooms filled with scrubbed, healthy children seated at semi-circular tables. Educational programs available for the adults are endless and well-tailored to a diverse constituency. And the lack of housing pressure in the residents' lives continues to make it easier to get ahead.

Yet everyone connected with the place agrees: There is no free lunch at Warren Village and there never was. "It's a privilege to live here," says director Susan France. "Residents earn that privilege by working and giving back to the community." A full-time job or school schedule (or a combination of the two) is required of every tenant, and rent and child-care costs are figured on a sliding scale.

Current resident Yvonne Gettel came to Warren Village to escape an abusive relationship. Unexpectedly pregnant, she landed in a shelter before moving in. "I don't know what I could've done to get on my feet this fast, because of what happened to me," she says, enthusiastically talking up the myriad of opportunities offered by Warren Village. "Here, you learn how to budget--I'm getting a car loan, and I'm enrolled in school. It's a great place to do anything you want to do--if you just try a little bit, you can go so far."

Another former resident, Sharon (she prefers not to reveal her last name), was homeless, alcoholic and had lost custody of her son when she found Warren Village. A four-year graduate of the facility, the former waitress with a GED enrolled in school and started attending a twelve-step program, regained custody of her child and is now an RN. Sharon also serves on the Warren Village board. "I didn't think I could do anything," she says of her former self. "First, they gave me a safe place to live with affordable daycare. And they believed in me. They gave me a new life. They gave me a chance to regain my self esteem--because I had none.

"That's why we're successful," she adds. "We stick to our mission. We don't give anything away free at Warren Village, but if you want it, it's there."

The concept works so well that Warren Village has sparked four clone facilities, North Lincoln Park and Decatur House in Denver, and communities in Rochester, New York, and Tampa, Florida. More are on the way: "Our next frontier is to teach others," France says. This year, she's launching a new Warren Village Without Walls offshoot as a way of passing on Warren's secrets for success to similar programs.

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