Photos: Homeless initiative celebrates 1,000th family moving into permanent housing

When Tia Jones got the call yesterday, she was elated. The Family and Senior Homeless Initiative reached its goal three and a half years early when it helped its 1,000th family transition into permanent housing on February 8. One month and sixteen more families later, it's time to celebrate. As a former member of the program, would she like to come down? "Oh, yes, yes, yes," Jones responded. "I'm one of them."

This morning, in a small but serious meeting at the City and County Building downtown, Jones celebrated the largest landmark to date in the history of the program that assisted her and her four children. As a single mother to two daughters and two sons, ages seven to 22, the 41-year-old found the program in 2009 after ditching the stigma of asking for help. When her family moved from a shelter to a hotel, she called every number on a list of outreach programs until the Family and Senior Initiative answered.

Two weeks later, she and her three youngest moved into their new Lakewood apartment, which the organization guaranteed for them by paying -- not loaning -- the $1,032 she owed for the deposit and first month's rent. For seven months, she worked with one of 2,000 mentors who volunteer through the program, a collaboration between Denver's Road Home, the Denver Rescue Mission and the Clergy Council, among other partners. Of the city's 1,500 congregations, 350 have joined the faith-based push to help families and seniors find permanent homes.

"My children still don't understand why people would want to help," Jones says. Today, she drives them around in a 1998 Ford Escort wagon donated to her through the group's vehicle program. When her original apartment fell victim to a bedbug infestation and her family was forced to get rid of the majority of its furniture, they were given a new set. "They're so used to other people's lives and the drama out there and they don't understand when people are good. I just keep telling them to believe."

Page down to continue reading about the Family and Senior Homeless Initiative's benchmark. Once inducted into the program, families work with mentors for six months to tackle physical, professional, relational and spiritual needs. Of those who have joined the program to date, 87 percent remain in permanent housing one year after they began. The same model of service is implemented in 26 cities across the country, and in Denver more than $1 million has been spent on rent and deposits. Of that total, $327,00 comes from the congregations.

"We're a national model when it comes to the faith-based community," Mayor Michael Hancock says. Although the program began in Denver in 2005 under former mayor (and current governor) John Hickenlooper, Hancock says there was never a question of cutting it. "People are looking to Denver when it comes to the homeless."

In recent months, the city's homeless support network has split on the issue of urban camping, with city councilman Albus Brooks and Hancock supporting a bill to make it illegal on public or private property. Although the city lacks the number of beds needed to serve as replacement shelter if the ordinance is approved, supporters suggest faith-based opportunities as a viable alternative. But for today, says Denver's Road Home executive director Bennie Milliner, "you can take the ordinance out of the picture."

On its own, Denver's model of collaboration between faith and government "does have a life to continue because it's a more sustainable and enduring approach to a niche population," Milliner told Westword. "It's like with any other fundraising opportunity: You just have to ask. Maybe one church won't be able or available, but then two small ones can want to play a role in this."

From here, the next step is clear-cut: 2,000 families. "There are about 1,500 churches and one million who attend them at least twice a month," says Don Reeves of the Clergy Council. "That's a million people who care and can help us get another 1,000."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple