No Reservation Needed
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.
"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.
"Our goal is to provide safe, secure, Motel 6-like accommodations for people who are without a place to stay at a time when there isn't shelter space available in the community and they have no other resources," says Dianna Kunz, president and chief executive officer of the VOA's Denver branch. "For a very short-term basis -- one to four nights -- individuals and families can find a place of respite here and also have case-management assistance to help them move on in their search for independent living in appropriate housing."
Kunz describes the other thirteen motels on the city's voucher list as "occupying the lower end of acceptability. Most of them are not very good environments, especially not for children."
More than half -- 55 percent -- of Denver's lodging vouchers go to homeless families with children; 10 percent are given to couples, and the remaining 35 percent go to single women, many of whom are fleeing domestic abuse. Single, able-bodied men are not eligible to receive vouchers.
"It's our sense that there are enough shelter beds for single men who seek shelter in Denver," says human-services department spokeswoman Sue Cobb. There are 774 beds available for single men in Denver, as opposed to 78 for women, she notes. "Now, that's not to say that shelter space for men wouldn't be pushed to the limit in severely cold weather, but the critical shortages are the areas of single women and families."
Because many of the homeless families with children who receive vouchers comprise young parents with babies, fifteen of the rooms in the refurbished Aristocrat, including the one where Marcus and his family stayed, have tiny nurseries, converted from kitchenettes.
"It was pretty cool to show up and find they had a crib for us," says Marcus.
After checking on his daughter, asleep in the nursery, Marcus rousts his son, who is stirring, murmuring that he's hungry. Still in his pajamas, the three-year-old rides on his father's shoulders downstairs to the Aristocrat's lobby, where Rochelle Bowles is behind the front desk. An ex-cop and social worker from Chicago, Bowles worked most recently for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless as the director of a shelter for women just released from prison.
She moved to Denver nine months ago because the Volunteers of America hired her as project manager at the Aristocrat. She's a proud disciple of tough love. "I don't believe in mollycoddling," she says. "People come in here saying, 'Give me my breakfast.' I'm like, 'Excuse me?'"
Like a lot of motels, the Aristocrat offers juice, coffee, fresh fruit, muffins and bagels to its guests in the morning. Marcus asks politely where he might find something to eat for his son, and Bowles points him toward a room behind the lobby desk, where the modest buffet is arranged on a folding table. Marcus's son eyes the bagels and starts chanting, "Doughnut! Doughnut!" Marcus gives his boy a blueberry bagel, then pours himself a cup of coffee.
"I never even thought this would happen to me, you know," he begins, blowing the steam off the rim of his Styrofoam cup. "I had a decent job -- installing axles in new motor homes, mostly -- and then it seemed like last fall, business just wasn't what it used to be anymore, so I got let go."
He says he looked for a new job every day, and he found a few, but none of them paid enough to support a whole family. His wife couldn't work because she had to stay home to take care of the baby, and daycare wasn't an option, financially. "The landlord tried to work with us for a while on a week-to-week thing, but we couldn't stay ahead of it. I've never even been out this way on Colfax before. I'm a little dazed, to tell you the truth. This is all new to me."
This is Friday morning. Marcus has a cousin who might take the family in starting Monday, but he's not sure what they'll do until then. And that's where Bowles comes in. As Marcus passes by her post on his way out of the lobby, she stops him, hits him with a few questions about his particular situation, then tells him to go down to the human-services department to get a lodging voucher good for three more nights. "Tell them Rochelle at the Aristocrat sent you," she says.
Marcus thanks her, then asks for garbage bags so he and his wife can begin to organize their possessions, which they had hastily crammed into the back of their Honda as they were being tossed out of their apartment. Plastic bags and twist-ties in one hand, three-year-old son in the other, he heads back upstairs to wake his wife.
A woman passes him on her way down. Andrea (not her real name) didn't check in until 3:30 this morning, but "I couldn't sleep anymore," she says. "I've got too much trouble on my mind."
She's 32 and has three children -- a two-year-old son, a four-year-old daughter and a fifteen-year-old son. She has never held down a steady job and is separated from her husband, who is in jail for non-payment of child support. Andrea's two younger kids live with her grandmother. Until last night, she and her teenage son lived at her husband's grandmother's house in Aurora.
That's when "my son sort of borrowed my husband's grandmother's car without permission, and when he brought it back, she kicked him out of the house, and I told her if my son left, I was going with him, so she kicked me out, too," Andrea says. "It was sort of the last straw for her, I guess, because my son had been getting in a lot of trouble and disrespecting her and stuff. But when we got kicked out last night, he still had the keys to her car in his pocket, so we threw our stuff in the trunk and took it. We just drove around for a while, then we decided to go to the plasma center to donate blood to get some money, and while we were donating blood she [the grandmother-in-law] showed up with the cops. She knew just where to find us."
Andrea says the police arrested her son and took him to a juvenile detention center but released her on her own recognizance with a court summons and a lodging voucher. She has no money, she says, and no marketable skills. "All I've been since I was fifteen is a mom."
"Lord, our God, whose home is in heaven and earth, come and bless this hotel and all those whose labor has made this place a home to many families in need. Surround this shelter with your Holy Spirit. Encompass all its four sides with the power of your protection and let no evil or harm come near."
At the official dedication for the Volunteers of America motel, held on a brilliantly sunny afternoon in early May, VOA Director of Development Michael Thomas gave his opening invocation from behind a podium in the motel parking lot, which was festooned with red, white and blue balloons.
"May your divine blessing shield this shelter. Bless these doorways and all who come through them. Bless all the rooms. May they be filled with the spirit of hope. May no dark power ever be given shelter within these rooms, only banished as soon as it is recognized. May the holy light of God's presence shine forth brightly here. Amen."
"Amen," responded the crowd of about fifty, seated in folding chairs. They were a curious mix of city officials, VOA volunteers and administrators, electricians, drywall hangers, plumbers, painters, landscapers, roofers and other employees of the 31 contracting firms whose workers collectively volunteered a year's worth of Saturdays to help the VOA whip the Aristocrat into shape.
Tom Chandler, president of Meadow Homes, a prominent local construction company, sits on the board of the Denver branch of the VOA, and Kunz confided in the crowd at the dedication that Chandler had "put the ever-so-gentle squeeze on his subcontractors," to provide free labor and supply materials at wholesale cost.
"The remodel you see today is worth around a million dollars, but we paid less than four hundred thousand," she says. "From the beginning, the board of directors and I decided that if we were going to do a hotel, it had to be one we were willing to stay in ourselves. It took a lot of people giving a lot of effort to bring this place to that point."
Like many of the small motels erected along Colfax back when the thoroughfare was better known as Highway 40 -- the primary, pre-I-70 route in and out of Denver -- the Aristocrat didn't age gracefully. By the time the VOA purchased it last year for $1.75 million from a Korean couple who had owned the motel since 1987, the Aristocrat had accumulated the stench of three decades of smoke, grease and bodily functions in its walls.
VOA workers liberally deployed Kilz, an industrial-strength odor-and-stain sealer, to entomb the reek. The Aristocrat's long-neglected swimming pool, once an aquatic playground for the children of interstate motorists, had devolved into a lagoon of sludge. It was dredged, filled and covered with grass.
Kunz would prefer to see the Aristocrat's vintage mid-twentieth-century outdoor signage similarly erased from the landscape. "I'd like to just more or less get rid of that awful sign, but the architect who oversaw the renovations tells me we can't do that because it's a valuable piece of Americana, so we'll see," she says.
The official name of the motel is also "a matter of internal controversy," says Kunz, who favors "Volunteers of America Family Hotel." For now, the phones get answered "VOA Aristocrat Family Hotel" or, for short, "VOA Aristocrat."
Whatever its appellation, the motel partially reopened with 25 remodeled rooms last July (renovations on the remaining 22 rooms were completed last month). Since then, nearly 3,400 guests bearing vouchers have signed in. "Now that we're fully functional, the majority, if not all, of the vouchers will come here on any given night," says Kunz.
However, she stresses that "We're operating this as a working motel, not a shelter."
Kunz is careful to hit on this point for good reason. The new Aristocrat must legally qualify as a motel to continue to receive the more than half a million dollars in yearly funding that the City of Denver has pledged to the project in addition to the $750,000 Denver gave toward the motel's renovation.
Early last year, the city put out an official request for proposals, seeking motel operators willing to contract with the city to handle the bulk of Denver's emergency-lodging voucher business. The idea was to better organize the program by consolidating the spaces for emergency lodging in one location. The proposal submitted by the VOA described a motel that not only would provide stable, secure surroundings, but also on-site professional social workers. City officials gave the proposal the nod, and the VOA signed a three-year contract agreeing to house and counsel as many voucher guests as the 47-room motel could accommodate in exchange for $561,000 a year in funding.
Now the agencies and shelters that issue vouchers direct homeless women and families to the Aristocrat first. On the nights the Aristocrat is full -- a rarity so far -- the overflow vouchers can still be used at the motels on East Colfax.
For this new system to work, however, the Aristocrat has to remain a motel in the eyes of the law. To get around zoning codes that are different for hotels and homeless shelters, Kunz says, she's come to an understanding with the zoning department: As long as the Aristocrat books a handful of paying guests in any year, it will remain a motel.
Ironically, the VOA discovered after it purchased the Aristocrat that the motel had three permanent paying guests, who were living there full-time, paying $800 a month each. The VOA told them they had to leave. "Of course, we helped them relocate," Kunz says. "Two were single women, and one of them went to live in another motel, while the other moved in with relatives. The third permanent resident was a man with children, and we helped him get into an apartment."
In the future, the VOA president says, the few paying guests the motel needs to meet its legal requirements will simply be drafted from the ranks of VOA volunteers.
"We keep the 'Vacancy' sign turned off."
There's a homeless woman using the phone in the Aristocrat's lobby; she's wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the earth on the front with the words "Your oyster." On the back of the shirt is the logo of a gold credit card and the message, "Now, go get the pearl." She's going for the pearl, all right, except the one she has fixed upon is of a different luster than the credit-card company's marketing department had in mind: She'd like merely to sleep indoors tonight. She's been at the Aristocrat for four nights, waiting for a space in a homeless shelter to open up. She's had no luck, and as of this morning, she's out of vouchers.
The ordinance upon which Denver's motel voucher program is based imposes a four-day limit on emergency-lodging assistance. Cobb, of the human-services department, says, "We use that as a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule." Even so, the woman in the credit-card shirt is convinced that unless she scores one of the 78 shelter beds for single women in Denver, she will be spending the night under the sky. She is feverishly calling around.
"Please, please don't take off without calling me back," she implores in a voice-mail message.
From above and behind the woman comes a series of thump, scratch, thump, scratch, thump sounds as a middle-aged woman with bobbed hair and thick eyeglasses drags a massive green duffel bag down the steps to the lobby, one by one. The woman introduces herself as Clara, then says she is 42, a veteran of the U.S. Army and afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Clara reports that she arrived in Denver on a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles yesterday morning. She says she lived in L.A. for two years, during which time she was intermittently homeless, though she worked part-time filing records in a warehouse. Clara moved to Denver more or less on a whim.
"I was at a vocational rehab center looking for some better clerical jobs on the Internet, and I saw a few jobs in Denver that looked pretty good, so here I am," is how she tells it.
The VOA originated in 1896 to help the unfortunate droves who came to Colorado during the gold rush expecting to strike it rich, then didn't and wound up destitute. Regina Buxton, the on-site case manager at the Aristocrat, says she is witnessing a similar influx in 2002 -- an influx of people like Clara.
"Especially after September 11, we're seeing more and more people coming here on vouchers who either moved to Colorado for a permanent job and then lost it, or who lost their job in another state and then came here because they were led to believe somehow that they would have an easier time finding a job here."
Upon arriving, Clara went straight to the Veterans' Affairs office to request temporary housing, of which there was none immediately available. The VA referred her to the Samaritan House, where all of the beds were taken for the night. An outreach worker there gave her a lodging voucher and advised her to redeem it at the Aristocrat.
Clara takes a seat in one of three comfy chairs in the lobby, next to a side table stacked with Aristocrat Motel postcards that look as if they were printed in the mid- to late 1970s, judging by the color tone and the cars in the photo on the front. The back lists the Aristocrat's many desirable qualities: "AAA rated Friendship Inn; Large, Luxurious Rooms; Heated Pool; Close to Bronco Stadium; 2 min. from St. Anthony's Hospital."
Propping her feet up on her duffel bag, Clara unfolds a Denver bus map and begins to memorize the major routes. "That's the first thing I do in any new city," she says. This morning she intends to catch a bus back to Samaritan House, where she's been told there is a caseworker on staff today who specializes in helping out homeless veterans.
The woman in the credit-card shirt hangs up the phone for the seventh time in ten minutes and mutters, "Oh, this crazy system."
Clara nods in her direction and whispers, "Her having a hard time is making me nervous, like maybe things aren't going to be working out today."
Bowles and Buxton do their best to see that things do work out. One or both of them meets with every guest who stays at the Aristocrat on a voucher before the guest checks out.
"We always ask them, 'Where are you going to go now?' and a lot of times, they don't know," says Buxton. "The problem for a lot of them is they just don't know where to go or where to begin, and we try to provide them some guidance in that area, to make them aware of what resources are available to each of them based on their individual circumstances."
Those resources range from a free room for ninety days in a public housing project to a one-time cash allowance to cover the first month's rent and a security deposit on an apartment. The latter is available to homeless families who agree not to apply for TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) in the next year.
"It's basically them getting their TANF money all at one time to get them into their own housing," says Buxton. "Every case is different, but a lot of the people who come here on vouchers are either working or able to work. And if a person is working, eventually they're going to get paid, and then they'll be able to afford a motel. Hopefully, staying in a motel, they can save up enough money to put down first and last month's rent and a deposit for an apartment. We just have to somehow get them to that first check."
Bowles, the ex-cop, says the Aristocrat "gives people a place to take a shower, to wash their clothes, to sit down and collect their thoughts," but she fears the voucher program is "too often a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
"People have four days here, and that's it. Four days isn't enough to help a lot of them, and the truth is, some of the people we're able to place in shelters or other programs, but a lot of the people who leave here are going right back out on the streets. The bottom line is we need more long-term transitional housing for women and families in this city. People say they don't want new housing projects and shelters in their backyard. I say to them, 'Well, the homeless problem is damned well going to wind up in your backyard, one way or the other, if you don't learn what time it is.'"
The phone in the lobby rings, and the woman in the credit-card shirt starts to grab for it, then checks herself, eyeing a sign that warns guests of the Aristocrat not to answer the phone under any circumstances.
The phone rings again.
The woman clenches her fists and dances in place.
The phone rings once more.
Buxton emerges from the back office she shares with project manager Bowles, picks up the receiver and answers, "VOA Aristocrat Family Hotel." She listens for a moment, then shakes her head at the woman in the credit-card shirt. The gesture hits the woman like a sucker punch to the gut. She hunches over, says, "It's not for me," and then crumples into a chair. Buxton hangs up, asks her what's wrong, then picks up the phone again and dials the number of the Brandon Center, a VOA shelter for women and families that has ninety beds and is located a short walk from the Aristocrat. In less than a minute, Buxton has a bed on hold.
The woman in the credit-card shirt looks at her as if she were a genie that just popped out of a bottle, then snatches up a knapsack and rushes out the door to go get her pearl.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.