Longform

HEART OF THE CITY

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"You know who needs toys even worse than we do?" Sister Maureen counters. "Theresa Keneally at the Northeast Women's Center."

"Is she a Sister? No?"
"We're kind of prejudiced, Sister," the other man explains. "We both grew up in Annunciation, with Sisters teaching us. We like our donations to--"

"Just let me call," says Sister Maureen. "Did you see our new building across the street? Well, that building is like a geode, if you see what I mean. Ugly on the outside, but beautiful on the inside. Theresa," she says into the phone. "I've found your Christmas toys!"

She draws the men a map of how to get to Theresa's center.
"Don't you need anything?" they ask.
"Diapers," Sister Maureen answers promptly. "We need diapers real bad."

She returns from seeing the men to the door waving two hundred-dollar bills in her hand. "For diapers," she says proudly. "This kind of thing is why I'm not afraid. What we need has a way of turning up."

The phone rings again--"Another person wanting to adopt a family for Christmas," Sister Maureen explains after she hangs up. "But this woman said, `I want a family, but make sure I don't get one on welfare.' I didn't know what to tell her."

Because even though the talk at Sacred Heart centers firmly on self-sufficiency, that almost never seems to mean off welfare. It just isn't that neat. Around here, there are always too many children; there are jobs, but never high-paying ones; there are government training programs, but no one ever appears to graduate. Welfare is as much a part of the landscape as the ever-present need for diapers--and food stamps, assisted housing, Medicaid, even the gift certificates from Safeway, King Soopers and Target that stuff the Christmas baskets. As Sacred Heart's director, Sister Maureen is here not to fix all that so much as to help her clients find their way through the maze. Why it never seems to get any easier is something she has thought about and would like to discuss--but not now. It's getting dark too fast.

"A lot of people are scared of me because I have nine kids," says Deborah Smith. "I was on Section 8 housing, and Section 8 houses have been trashed, and when they see all those kids..."
Two years ago Christmas, the rental house where Deborah had been living for three years was sold and her family had to move. At the time, her children ranged in age from 1 to 19; Deborah herself was 35. "I always wanted a large family," she says. "I guess I got my wish."

But not once has her large family even come close to supporting itself. The winter Deborah lost her home, she was collecting welfare, working part-time at Taco House, and rapidly running out of cash.

"We went to stay with my sister," she recalls, "but she was on assisted housing, too, so we put her in jeopardy. Then, I guess, I was homeless. It's a horrible feeling. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

After several referrals from other agencies, she ended up at Sacred Heart House in January 1993. Because the renovation of the convent building had already begun, Deborah and her nine children moved into one room of the small, hundred-year-old house across the street, which was then serving as an interim shelter and now houses the Sacred Heart offices. The family shared the building's second floor--and its one bathroom--with two other single mothers and their three children.

"They didn't try to make me feel bad in any shape or form," Smith recalls. "We were made to feel welcome right away. The kids went right into Denver Public Schools and Curtis Park daycare, and you just didn't have to worry. I was free to go to school, and we all met at Sacred Heart at the end of the day."

When she wasn't studying legal administrative management at Denver Business College, Smith says she was on the phone, armed "with a notebook this thick," trying to find a landlord who would accept Section 8 money. It took nearly three months, during which she talked constantly with Sacred Heart counselor Carol Wedig, who gave her leads but refused to do the legwork. "She said, `You got to do for yourself,'" Deborah remembers, "and I was getting desperate. I finally found a three- bedroom apartment where they wouldn't do a credit check. My credit's no good, either," she adds sheepishly.

Deborah and her children moved to an apartment in Adams County that March, loaded down with furniture donated by Sacred Heart. They've since moved into a larger house, which contains new, rented furniture, as well as two late-model TVs. In November Deborah finished her degree at Denver Business College.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff