HEART OF THE CITY
part 2 of 2
This Christmas it was the Kauffman family's turn to be creepidential. "It's a big family," Sister Maureen says, "and they put all the money they would have spent on presents for each other into an envelope. I just received this envelope--with nearly a thousand dollars in it. This is so good. There is so much in our new building that hasn't been paid for. Screens for the windows--maybe it will pay for that."
This morning the Sacred Heart staff has begun walking boxes across the street to the renovated 35-bed shelter, even though the city's building inspector has yet to declare it fit for human habitation. "Something about the back door," says Sister Maureen, with just a trace of irritation in her voice, "but we're hoping to start accepting families soon." And in the meantime, the homeless families--and their attendant agencies, programs and caseworkers--keep calling.
"This is mostly what nuns do," says the undaunted Sister Maureen. "Help people." But that's not what drew her to the convent in the first place. The oldest girl in a family of ten, she grew up in east Denver reading the Catholic missionary magazines her mother subscribed to and longing for foreign lands. At eighteen she entered the order of St. Joseph of Carandolet. Although Sister Maureen never left the United States--a younger sister, also a Sister of St. Joseph, ended up in a remote part of Peru--she enjoyed her work running a series of pastoral retreats "to help people understand Vatican II, to integrate their spiritual and worldly sides. I did that for fifteen years," she says, "and it was a powerful thing. But at the end of it I was tired of saving the saved, if you will, and I went to work for the mentally ill. Their needs are so simple."
At Denver's now defunct Boardwalk Community, Sister Maureen became "the mom, I suppose, cutting hair, making food, passing out pocket money," she says. "I wasn't a counselor. I grew into a friend, and they grew into mine."
After Boardwalk closed in 1987, Sister Maureen started a drop-in center for the mentally ill in the basement of a Capitol Hill church. Approaching burnout four years later, she took over for Sister Sue at Sacred Heart. It's been two years now, and the coffeepot and kitchen table are still key.
"How do women with children get off assistance?" Sister Maureen again asks herself as she sits for a minute in the middle of the moving chaos. "Not even single people can live on the minimum wage, so they're going to need job training. But some of them will never have the stick-to-it-iveness required for a highly skilled job. And the kind of manufacturing jobs that used to be high pay/low skill are all gone. Transitional housing--that's supposed to be time to breathe after falling apart, and the government says it should take two years. I say it takes longer. Meanwhile, these women are on assistance--"
"Wait a minute," says Patricia Polidore, who has been answering phones in another room. "I used to live in the projects, and I resent that. Not everyone who lives there is on assistance. A lot of them work. I worked. And everyone doesn't want to live on assistance forever, except for that one little segment that doesn't care."
"Sit down, Patricia," says Sister Maureen. "This is interesting."
"Well, I know it's none of my business, but people are not being taught about life," Patricia says, making herself comfortable. She's been a housing manager assistant at Sacred Heart, doing everything from answering phones to cooking breakfast to setting up bunk beds, since November--but her opinions stem from her seven years working in the Curtis Park Community Center daycare program. "People are having kids, and those kids are raising themselves," she says heatedly. "Parents are not parenting. Kids are learning nothing but TV, street and telephone. When you are a parent, you are responsible for a life, and that life will do whatever it sees and absorbs, so you'd better give it something good to see."
This brings up the touchy topic of birth control. Sister Maureen decides she had better not comment. "Maybe you should talk to Garrett," she says, in an attempt to change the subject. "He's our handyman/accountant, and he left a big firm to come here full-time. Or maybe you should talk to Janet Morris. She organized the new building almost all by herself. She just seems to get off on it."
"Are you kidding?" asks Janet, who has just come in from across the street. "I love to shop with other people's money."
As assistant shelter director, Janet is usually busy raising money and wrestling with the Sacred Heart budget, but for the past few weeks she's been looking for bedspreads, buying kitchen equipment and hoping to find exactly the right area rug for the dining room. She's supposed to work four days a week but hasn't worked fewer than six for as far back as she can remember. "The days are running together," she says. "My husband eats eggs for dinner, and I don't have a life. Maybe after we open I will."
In the early Eighties Janet worked as an accountant for several major oil companies before deciding that she was "tired of pushing paper around and wanted to really do something," she says. She came to Sacred Heart four years ago and plans to stay. "The public is hard on us because there are no answers to the homeless problem," she says, "but this is a family. We all work some with the clients because we're so small. Some I bond with, some I don't. Some are system-users, some aren't. Anyway, if I was doing this to make me feel good, I'd be in trouble. What I think is, maybe if a person gets to stay here, it will lock into their brain later at some point--maybe they will realize there is another way to live. I mean, this new building is nice."
Light-blue bedspreads, wall-to-wall carpeting, Swedish modern furniture and all. The only problem is, it's not open yet.
"No, honey, it isn't," Sister Maureen is saying into the phone. "We had planned to open for Christmas, but we can't. Have you tried to get a hotel voucher? Oh, that makes me mad," she says as she hangs up. "An entire empty building and no one can stay in it yet."
That night, the Sacred Heart COWs meet in the kitchen of the small blue house across the street from the renovated shelter. Counselor Carol Wedig is making coffee. Someone else is rummaging through the refrigerator for donated soda. Even with just six days to go until Christmas, the six women who formed this group two years ago have all managed to attend tonight, all of them anxious to vent their holiday misery.
"I need this," says Laura, a large woman in her forties. "I didn't think I did, but whenever I fell into a depression, they would pick me up. I didn't think I had anything in common with all of you...COWs."
"There's times where it's too much stress at work and stress in the house, and I can't deal," says Jeannie. "There's times when I have no place else to turn to. I get all the support I need here. Not one of us can take more credit than the other, and--"
"Who wants a fat-free Newton?" someone asks.
"Not me," barks Laura. "I can barely fit my fat ass under this table, and I'm not about to eat a fat-free anything."
"No diet for me, man," says Jeannie.
"My husband don't like it," says Lydia, who has been quiet up till now. "He can find him a skinny woman."
"See if I bring y'all any treats again," says Kim, plunking down a tray of Christmas cookies, which everyone begins eating right away. Then someone realizes a crucial COW is missing.
"She said she'd call, but she didn't," says Deborah Smith.
"Here's what I think," Carol says. "She's boozing. She came in to get her presents, and she's got that puffy look."
A recovering alcoholic herself, Carol does not hold with boozing. "Not if your kids don't have cold-weather shoes," she says vehemently. "That tells me there's a problem. Those are the first three COW rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence."
There are also lesser, understood rules. One is: You are entitled to a half-hour-long bubble bath every night, even if you have to use dishwashing soap for bubbles and plug yourself into a Walkman so you don't hear your kids banging on the door. And that's not all the COWs feel they're entitled to.
"Let's talk about adoptive families," Carol says. "Who's been adopted for Christmas? You have, right, Kim? And Lydia--"
"No one adopted me," says Laura. "No one's interested in women with older kids."
"That's not fair," says Kim.
"Yeah, well, it's a fact of life," Laura snaps back. She begins a story everyone at this table has heard before--how she moved her family here from Florissant to find treatment for her severely developmentally disabled thirteen-year-old boy and ended up at Sacred Heart. But only for a week. Since then, her boy's bounced in and out of institutions, her two teenage girls live at home and can't keep jobs, and an older son, who just got out of jail, is "nothing but a shitass kid."
"Well, my adoptive family even gave me a Braun coffeemaker," Deborah interrupts. "And we got lots of new clothes. I opened the packages already, because I got three job interviews coming up."
"I can't go no more," Jeannie says. "You know I never worked before." Before, she says, she was "on welfare, AFDC, all the assistance that there was, and going to school, majoring in legal secretary, and then I had to stop 'cause of medical problems." Jeannie, her husband and their three boys, ages four to six, ended up at Sacred Heart for a month last year. Now living in a housing project, they're still getting "a little help" in the form of Medicaid and food stamps. Jeannie's husband is looking for work; when he finds it, they'll need daycare for three at a price they can afford.
"My assistance check barely covers anything," Deborah commiserates. "That $469 is the largest check I've gotten. It's depressing."
"How's your stress, Lydia?" Carol asks.
"Oh, my work is hell," Lydia says. "I'm still haggling with that hag. I was this close to upside the head with her the other day, and basically that's it."
"What about your stress, Kim?"
"Fine. I don't have none. I don't have time. I'm working."
A side complaint emerges: The water in the housing project where Laura and Jeannie both live has been off for two days. This, they say, is because an out-of-control Vietnamese family lets their children run wild in the basement, and the kids hung off the pipes until they broke.
"And the mother's never there," Laura says.
"And the women around home are such bitches, anyway," Jeannie adds.
"Let's not worry about that, okay, girlfriends?" Carol says gently. "The point is, you're making it, right?"
"I'm one of them," Carol says a few days later, from her characteristic perch on the stoop of the small blue house, cigarette in her acrylic-fingernailed hand, wearing her uniform of jeans, a sweatshirt and new running shoes. "I'm a ninth-grade dropout with a GED. I come from the same place most of these women do. My dad was an alcoholic, my family is big and not necessarily poor, but there were abuse issues."
Carol came to Sacred Heart four years ago, when her then-husband got a job as a night manager. Over the next eight months, she worked her way up from janitor to phone receptionist, to untrained caseworker and, finally, to director of the Follow-Up program, her favorite part of which is the COW group.
"They're just rich," Carol says. "They thought of it themselves--a time once a week when they could get away. They range in age from 22 to 45, they're all races and religions, but first and foremost, they've all been in the shelter, they all have some kind of history of abuse. And they run their own yard sale once a year for emergency funds."
Last year, she says, they raised a thousand dollars, which they've used to pay for babysitters on COW nights, to serve as a bridge loan for a COW who was late on her electrical bill, and to stop the gap in a medical emergency. "We even spent some on a retreat," Carol recalls. "We went out to a camp at 50th and Sheridan and slept in our little bedrolls and burped soda and laughed. Shit," she sighs, "this group is my whole life."
Of all the Sacred Heart staffers, Carol is clearly the softie. With her unwavering faith in therapy, the value of self-esteem and continuing education, she is all the champion the COWs could ever hope for. Naturally, she wishes the government would do more for them.
"To be polite, the government stinks," she says. "The government gives you two years to get back on your feet after you've been homeless, but that's not enough. Nintey-six to 100 percent of the homeless people I see have been severely abused. Not that that's an excuse, but nobody's taught them how to deal. It may not be in my job description to teach them, but it's in my heart."
Which is why she and Sister Maureen have been having a "discussion" about how long women in the Follow-Up program should be eligible for adoption at Christmas, for holiday baskets and for other charitable perks.
"I don't think it serves anyone for us to be Santa Claus forever," Sister Maureen says. "It's an individual thing, but how long should these families depend on our Thanksgiving baskets, for instance? I say two years, and that's it. Carol says three."
And she would--but she's too busy trying to screw together a metal desk at the building across the street. At last, the city inspector has signed off on the new Sacred Heart rooming house, and it's set to open tomorrow. The staff, of course, is frantic. The minute Carol gets this desk set up, she'll begin fielding calls from families in the middle of their own unique crises. Sister Maureen's already doing it. "We can't take them all," she says. "There isn't room. So we try to interview well enough that we find folks who really do want to get back on their feet. I ask them: Why are you homeless? What do you want from your life? If they tell me they just want a place to sleep tonight, I ask: What about tomorrow night? And even then, there are always children involved. It's awful to send the children away."
So awful that Carol sometimes doesn't.
"Oh, I ask where they've been, what their family background is, if they want to change and all that," Carol says, "and I know when they're dancing around the answers. But when I see a family with kids, and the kids are totally haggard and they haven't been settled in years and they have big rats in their hair--well, I don't always care if the parents want to help themselves.
"What else can I do? I give them a place for the night."
end of part 2
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