In the two years since the family left Sacred Heart, Deborah's stayed in touch through its Follow-Up program, whose director thinks of her as a "major success story." What this seems to mean is that Deborah has not slipped back into homelessness, despite several medical disasters, marriage to and divorce from a husband who beat her senseless, and the near-loss of her oldest son to gang warfare.
"I'm still on assistance," Deborah says, "but not as much as I used to be. I'm working 28 hours a week at Sacred Heart, and another 16 hours at Fashion Bar, and now I have this degree. But I cannot afford daycare so I can get out and look for work. They have a child-care assistance program in Adams County, but they're not accepting any new families. Fine. I'll do without their help. Some of these program people are so snotty and nasty, anyway."
Deborah is interrupted by the excited screams of her three youngest children, who are one room away staging an organized raid on a box of donated Christmas candy. "Go in your room and watch TV," she tells them, but her youngest, now eighteen months old, runs over and leans against her knee. With practiced ease she scoops him up, pats him on the back and, five minutes later, lays him down on the sofa fast asleep. "I am going to have to make fourteen, fifteen dollars an hour even to break even," Deborah says, "but those jobs do exist. I was offered one, in Cherry Creek even, but the night before I was supposed to start, my ex beat me up pretty bad. There it went, down the drain. But come rain or shine, I will find daycare for these guys and I will get a job."
Meanwhile, she says, she's spending quality time with her kids, trying to enforce certain messages: You must stay in school, you must not get started in the welfare cycle, you must do for yourself.
The last lesson doesn't come easy. "My oldest son is bitter about how I've been treated," she says, "and he should be. Some of these programs are worthless. Adams County, they haven't done nothing for me. How can anyone succeed?"
This question comes up often during Smith's favorite weekly appointment--the Monday night meeting of Sacred Heart's Circle of Women, all of whom passed through the shelter during the past three years.
"We call ourselves the COWs," Deborah laughs. "We get together and work through things, give each other emotional help or any other kind of help we can. We're all human, we get loud, we drink coffee, we cry, we get away from our lives.
"It's our evening. It helps. Sometimes," she concludes, "I'm not sure anything else does."
"Sacred Heart House is more like a home," says John Parvensky, director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "Compared to what people generally think of, Sacred Heart is dwarfed. It's a lot less like an institution than most shelters."
Technically, in fact, Sacred Heart isn't a shelter at all but a rooming house--thanks to a recent decision by the Denver Zoning Department.
This unusual reclassification came about as the Salvation Army prepared to open a new shelter last year. With the city threatening to shut down its decrepit Blake Street Shelter, the Salvation Army located a possible replacement a few blocks away in Denargo Market, an old warehouse area in the Platte Valley.
Those who worked with the homeless saw the new building, which would provide beds for up to 210 single men, as ideal. "All the needed services are situated very close to there, and yet it keeps the men off the streets," says Sister Maureen. "And with Blake Street closing, it was critical."
But neighbors anticipating economic spillover from nearby Coors Field were considerably less enthusiastic over the Salvation Army's plans.
"All of us want to help, but this is a business area," says Jorge Oteo, owner of Prizma Industries, located directly across the street from the Denargo Market shelter. "The city talks about redeveloping, and this is an enterprise zone, and I don't think it's fair that we have such a disproportionate share of these kinds of places in our neighborhood. I don't think the mayor himself would want this shelter next door to him."
With the aid of Denver City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, the Globeville Neighbors Coalition and the Denargo Market Neighbor's Association asked Denver District Court Judge Larry Naves to issue a permanent injunction to prevent the new Salvation Army shelter from opening this fall. To back up their complaint, they cited the city's two-year-old Group Home Ordinance, which prevents more than three shelters from operating within a 4,000-square-foot radius. And three shelters--Sacred Heart House, Samaritan House and the Denver Rescue Mission--were already operating within 4,000 feet of the Denargo Market site.