Denver Set Out to End Homelessness Ten Years Ago -- Is the Finish Line in Sight?

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For Michael George, outreach was key.

When Jerene Petersen got the message that George was looking for her, she took him to Denver CARES Cherokee House, a rehabilitation center. The Denver CARES staff had seen George before; he'd been to the facility's detox center. Although Petersen hadn't noticed that George had been drinking, the staff did, and they put him in detox that day.

This time, something clicked. Maybe it was that someone had faith in him. But in the beginning, it was just the bed. "When I got there, I realized how wonderful it was to lay in a bed for the first time in all those years," George remembers. "The things I had forgotten, the basic little things -- taking a bath every day, wearing clean clothes -- just basic stuff, nothing big-time. You lose all that in your homeless plight."

During his recovery, he became friends with DRH director Van Leeuwen, who is now a senior advisor to Governor Hickenlooper. Van Leeuwen would make him laugh and laugh, George says: "I hadn't laughed in years. And [he] said to me, 'You are someone. We know it; you just need to see it.'" Conversations like that helped George not only get through recovery, but stay sober these past seven years.

"I think it was all the supportive people who came together through the thread of Denver's Road Home that helped him," says Petersen.

After more than six months in rehab, George moved into Catholic Charities' St. Joseph's Home for Veterans. A year into that program, Pat Coyle, the director of the Colorado Division of Housing, who was the DRH housing director at the time, gave him a housing voucher for his own place. George turned it down.

"I was so sure I'd go drink, I handed it right back," he says. "I was so scared to go into housing right away, because that's all I had been doing for 24 years. I knew I'd do just like my friends, and that was go get me a drink, tell my friends -- I was going to turn it into a big flophouse. I was feeling so unsure in that first year of not drinking."

The next year, he went back to Alabama for his father's funeral. At the luncheon following the service, his whole family was drinking. As George left, his sister came up to him and said she was proud of him: He hadn't touched a drop.

"Everybody was drinking over my dad...and it didn't dawn on me that I wasn't drinking," he says. "It didn't even come to mind, and that's when I knew, God, something is good here."

By that point, he was working with veterans at the Aurora Mental Health Center. He had an income and realized he was truly sober. He went to Coyle. "I said, 'Pat, maybe now.' I felt ready," he says. He was ready for a home.

Continue for more on Denver's Road Home.
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Kristin Pazulski has been a renaissance faire wench, a reporter, an espresso-shot slinger, an editor of a newspaper for the homeless and a grant writer. She's now a freelance writer covering Denver's restaurant scene.
Contact: Kristin Pazulski