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No Reservation Needed

Homeless women and families have a new place in Denver to lay their heads.

Marcus didn't feel at all like an aristocrat when he woke up next to his wife in their room at the Aristocrat Motel. He felt like a 27-year-old recently laid-off motor-home mechanic from Thornton. He felt like a guy with an eviction notice in the back pocket of his jeans along with a handwritten note from his landlord, saying what a shame it was to have to put Marcus, his wife, their three-year-old son and their newborn daughter out on the streets. Marcus felt, in short, like a dog that had just been kicked.

Slinking out of bed so as not to wake the wife and kids, he peeled back a curtain and looked down upon West Colfax Avenue, where the morning sun glinted off the used cars in the dealership across the street. Shaking off the mental fog of the previous night's deep and badly needed sleep, Marcus thought back on the worst week of his life.

Three days had passed since he and his family had been ousted from their $610-per-month one-bedroom apartment. Marcus and his wife were three months behind on the rent, so maybe they shouldn't have been surprised to find themselves suddenly homeless, but they were, and they had no money and no idea what to do next. That first night, all four of them tried to sleep in the family car, a Honda hatchback. The next day, a fatigued Marcus walked into the downtown office of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, laid out his predicament and asked for help.

 
Mark Andresen
 
As the project manager for the VOA Aristocrat, Rochelle Bowles helps people like Charles Davis.
John Johnston
As the project manager for the VOA Aristocrat, Rochelle Bowles helps people like Charles Davis.

"It was embarrassing, but I was too scared for my kids to be proud," he says. "I figured we could just get into a shelter or something."

He figured wrong. There are only 26 rooms for homeless families in all of the shelters in Denver -- and 26 is never enough. "They told us the shelters that could take kids are pretty much always full and it would be at least a week before we could get into one," says Marcus. "For a minute there, the room was coming in on me. I thought I was going to lose it."

Then a counselor delivered salvation in the form of an emergency-lodging voucher issued by the City and County of Denver, good for one night's stay at any budget motel that would accept a voucher as proof of the city's promise to pay back the cost of the room.

"We have a system of shelters in Denver, but the shelters are too few and the people are too many," says Donna Good, manager of the Denver Department of Human Services. "When we get to the point where the shelters are full, what we have done for many, many years in Denver is hand out vouchers to temporarily homeless persons who need one desperately."

Based upon an ordinance written into the municipal code in 1981 that calls upon Denver to provide short-term housing for impoverished residents who are unexpectedly homeless, the lodging voucher program has steadily increased in cost and scope as Denver's population has mushroomed. In 1992, Denver gave out an average of seven vouchers per night, for which the city reimbursed motel owners a total of about $87,000. By 2000, the average had spiked to 36 vouchers per night, at an annual cost of $423,850.

There are five agencies, shelters and organizations empowered to distribute lodging vouchers: the Department of Human Services; the Stout Street Clinic; Samaritan House; the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless; and the Denver Police Department.

"A lot of the motels in our price range won't even take the vouchers, because they only take cash up front," says Karen Miller, who has overseen the lodging-voucher program since 1990. "Until recently, there were only thirteen motels that would take them."

And those thirteen were concentrated among the shabby string of no-tell motels and "crack shacks" on East Colfax between Colorado Boulevard and Yosemite Street, where Marcus and his wife and children would likely have shared the premises with drug dealers, junkies and prostitutes.

"In the past, we've just given them a voucher and a list of motels they could go to and said, 'Here, go on out,'" says Good. "We felt like we were turning the sheep loose in the wolf pen."

The Aristocrat Motel, the newest motel on the voucher list, is vastly more hospitable. True, there's no room service, no concierge or complimentary shoeshine. But the carpets and furniture are new, the walls are freshly painted, and there's maid service as well as 24-hour security. In addition, the motel's staff includes a pair of trained case managers who know the ins and outs of Denver's labyrinthine social-services bureaucracy.

This is all by careful design, because the Aristocrat, as they say in the motel business, is under new management.

Originally built in 1964, the 47-unit motor lodge at 4855 West Colfax was purchased last year and fully renovated by the Volunteers of America, a national, nonprofit, spiritually based charitable organization that was founded in Colorado in 1896. The takeover was funded by a $421,000 grant from the Colorado Division of Housing, $750,000 from the City of Denver and a $1 million low-interest loan from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority.

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