Longform

HEART OF THE CITY

part 1 of 2
Sister Maureen Kottenstette is trying to escape the office for the third time this evening when a knock sounds at the door. She needs to leave before dark, she explains, because she's just had cataract surgery and can't see to drive at night. As she gets up to answer the door, the phone rings. No sooner has she said, "Sacred Heart House, hello," than the second line rings. Whoever is at the door knocks again, impatiently. Sister Maureen puts both calls on hold and hurries to the front of the house, navigating through drifts of donations for the homeless that always come at Christmastime.

"That's when everyone cleans up their garbage and sends it to us," says Sister Maureen, without a hint of sarcasm. "We go through it, and sometimes there is good stuff."

In the room Sister Maureen has just vacated--a combination kitchen/dining room/storeroom/office--camouflage-patterned bedrolls, well-worn cowboy boots, plastic bags full of day-old bread and wrapped Christmas packages are stacked wherever there is space, and there isn't much. This week, Sacred Heart House, a shelter that houses single women and families, will move across the street into an abandoned convent at 28th and Lawrence streets that's been gutted and renovated over the past two years. Everything needed to run the new facility--from file cabinets to soup kettles--is packed inside this much smaller house.

"Well, hello, girl!" Sister Maureen says, ushering in a nine-year-old in sweats and her mother, a blank-faced, doughy woman who stayed at Sacred Heart briefly last year. The girl gives a shy hello to Sister Maureen. Her mother says nothing.

"Just look at you," Sister Maureen says, trying again.
"We came for our Christmas package," the woman says.
"I'm here all by myself, honey," Sister Maureen replies. "I don't know where your Christmas stuff is."

"We got a ride and everything."
"Well, honey, I just feel so terrible," Sister Maureen says, "but weren't you supposed to come several hours ago?"

"Maybe," the woman says, frustrated. "But I don't know when I can get back here."

"Well, help me look. Maybe we can find your name on one of these boxes."
But the woman doesn't help Sister Maureen look. Instead, she wanders around the kitchen, radiating anger. Meanwhile, her daughter stares raptly at the miniature canopy bed that sits precariously at the top of a pile of donated toys. "What about this box right here?" the woman finally asks.

"Honey, I can't give you someone else's presents," Sister Maureen answers, just before she remembers that both phone lines are on hold. She is dealing with that problem when the woman leaves, slamming the door behind her.

"No, we won't be open for Christmas, honey," Sister Maureen says into the phone. "Have you tried Samaritan House?"

As she hangs up, a small boy with a haircut so short you can see his scalp hurtles into her arms.

"Look at you, look at you!" says Sister Maureen. The boy's mother, a tiny black woman with curly hair, a squeaky voice and a crucifix around her neck, has come, on time, to pick up her Christmas basket, which, as arranged, contains presents for her son, two teenage daughters and herself. She left Sacred Heart House almost exactly a year ago and is doing well, she says.

"But are you eating, honey?" Sister Maureen asks. "I haven't been that skinny since I was four."

"I'm eating, Sister Maureen," the woman says. "And this is so nice of you."
"Wait," Sister Maureen says. "We have this bicycle. It's just about your size," she tells the boy. "What do you think? Do you have a bicycle?"

"No," the boy breathes, staring covetously at the bike--an old BMX-model Rustoleumed into a second career. His mother arranges to pick up the bike when they're not traveling by bus.

"She was cleaning for a living and lost her job," Sister Maureen says after the woman leaves. "After she came to us she found work, and her kids went to grandma's after school. She found transitional housing, and she's saving a third of her income. She's going to move up in the world. It's good," she decides.

By now Sister Maureen is late for the "peaceful demonstration" she's planning to attend outside the Denver City and County Building. "The point," she says, "is that here it is Christmas, and there is still no room at the inn. We are just going to hold up banners and not cause any disturbance; it's a Catholic--"

Another knock. This time Sister Maureen opens the door to find two well-dressed Hispanic men in their forties, armed with toys.

"We work at Stapleton," one man explains, "and every year we do a toy drive, and someone told us you needed toys for your shelter."