East Colfax Motel Hell

No room at the Inn.

Mary and Charles's fourth child, Javier, arrived about the time Mary's brother got divorced. The Young family needed somewhere else to live but had trouble finding anything affordable.

With nowhere else to turn, they wound up at the Samaritan House shelter.

"Colorado's a tough place," Charles explains. "If you ain't got no education, if you ain't got no degree, you can't find a job good enough to pay the rent."

When the Dunes shut down, Amy Limon moved up East Colfax to the Sands Motel.
Mark Manger
When the Dunes shut down, Amy Limon moved up East Colfax to the Sands Motel.
Andy Klein arranged for Icon to help longtime Dunes tenants, like the Young family, cover the cost of new housing.
Mark Manger
Andy Klein arranged for Icon to help longtime Dunes tenants, like the Young family, cover the cost of new housing.

With five mouths to feed, Charles bounced around the different East Colfax day-labor centers, plotting his course by which jobs were available on which days of the week. He never held a sign at a stoplight, never asked anyone for change.

Charles was kicked out of the shelter after he missed a mandatory financial planning class, but his family was allowed to stay for a short while. Armed with a motel voucher from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, in August 2004 Charles moved into a room at the Royal Host, a shady motel at 930 East Colfax. His family joined him a few days later. It was the first time that Charles had ever exposed his children to an environment infested with drugs and prostitution, and he tried to keep their contact with the outside world to a minimum.

One of his first evenings at the Royal Host, Charles saw a drug dealer doing his thing on the steps. He asked him to leave. When the dealer didn't comply, Charles told him to leave. The discussion got physical, he remembers, but the dealer left, and Charles got a reputation for taking weapons right out of crackheads' hands.

When word of the vigilante tenant got back to the motel manager, he was impressed enough to ask Charles to be the Royal Host's maintenance man. Charles took the job and moved his wife and kids up to the employee-only floor, where they had two rooms -- one for him and Mary, one for the kids. Mary started cleaning other rooms for credit toward their rooms. Although it was a rough place to raise a family, the couple was on their way to a deposit on a more respectable home last summer when the Royal Host's owners suddenly shut down the motel so they could implement some big remodeling plans.

Charles was out of a job, the family was out of a home, and Mary had just had a fifth kid. With no other option, they moved into room 226 at the Dunes.

The Youngs thought they would only be there a month. But eight months later, as the Dunes was being evacuated, they were still there. Charles thought he had a job lined up as a maintenance man in a triplex, where the family could live in a unit with a big back yard as part of his pay. He'd even moved a lot of the family's things over there, but then both the job and the unit fell through.

With the Dunes set to close the next day, Charles moved his family to the King's Inn, another motel on East Colfax in Aurora.

"It's only temporary," he told Mary and the kids.


Over the next eighteen months, as motels, trailer parks and apartments shut down to make way for new developments along East Colfax, as many as 1,500 units could be emptied onto the streets.

Aurora isn't prepared for that.

In her eight years working on East Colfax, Maggie Tidwell says she hasn't been able to place a single person in Comitis Crisis Center, Aurora's only homeless shelter, which has just ten beds for adults and families, twelve for runaway youths and ten units of transitional housing.

The city is putting $1 million into the rehabilitation of a 22,000-square-foot building at Fitzsimons for Comitis, which will double capacity to 48 beds -- but shelter administrators say they want to stay focused on Comitis's self-help mission rather than simply increase the number of people they can shelter. The new facility is scheduled to open in June.

Tidwell thinks Aurora badly needs a larger shelter for its homeless as well as more transitional housing, but she knows the city is unlikely to provide it. "What the City of Aurora is afraid of," she says, "is that if you build it, they will come. But they're already here. We gave out 800 cold-weather vouchers in Aurora last year -- $12,000 worth. There are homeless people staying here, and it's the City of Aurora's responsibility to deal with them. There are plenty of poor people in Aurora, and when the motels come down, homelessness is not going to go away."

Those 800 vouchers used at East Colfax motels this past winter were administered by Housing Justice, a faith-based nonprofit created to address unmet housing and shelter needs across the state. Mary Hupp, executive director of Housing Justice, teamed with Tidwell's organization and other Aurora nonprofits last year in anticipation of a cold winter, and tried to come up with a plan to help needy families in Aurora. They thought a temporary shelter might do the trick, and found enough money and volunteers, even donated church space. But last June, when they approached the Aurora City Council with a request to relax certain building codes so that the facility could be created, the council -- citing a lack of sprinklers, restrooms and kitchens -- refused their request.

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