This Old Housing Project

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Jackson says that there's been a mass moveout of between ten and twenty families in the last few months. While five or six were evicted for drug use, most of the rest aren't waiting to find out the future of East Village. But affordable housing is hard to come by, so no apartment remains vacant for long. At present there's a list of 150 people waiting to move into empty East Village apartments.

Charmaine Barros grew up in the projects, DHA housing at the corner of 24th and Arapahoe, the fourth of fifteen children. Starting when she was six, Barros and her siblings spent much of their time working farms around Greeley. She endured being called a "dirty old bean-picker" by kids in Denver. But she and her brothers and sisters would also get a little extra spending money each week. It may only have been a quarter, but it was better than what the name-callers were making, which was nothing.

Most of the residents of East Village know her as "Shark." She's had the nickname since childhood, when one of her younger sisters couldn't pronounce Charmaine. The nickname works, given the aggressive role Barros has played as an activist. She has spent much of her life in various crusades, including helping to organize farmworkers and fighting for low-income housing.

When she had her fifth child, in 1985, Barros moved back to Denver. She eventually rented a house on the cheap in southwest Denver, where she got in the habit of opening her doors to anyone who needed a place to stay.

She had her rental house for eight years, until her landlord decided to retire and sold it. By then she was saddled with three grandkids and her two youngest children, as well as two Indian boys from South Dakota that friends had dropped off with her for the summer. "I wouldn't have moved in here if I didn't need the space," she says of her East Village four-bedroom apartment. "I never wanted to move back to this environment."

But she did, last summer; there's nothing as affordable in her old part of town. She feels safe at East Village, and her activist nature is back in the swing of things. On a recent Thursday night, Shark and Ruby Sanchez and Sanchez's son, Ralph, pass out fliers announcing a meeting about Section 8 vouchers scheduled for the following evening. The fliers have a copy of a photo of Mayor Wellington Webb holding a sign that reads "Vouchers to Nowhere."

Shark met Ruby and her husband, Marcos, last spring at a three-month leadership training course run by the East Side Neighborhood Leadership Program. In class they learned how to access local resources, as well as organizational and public-speaking skills. No sooner did the Sanchezes finish in June than it was time to take up the defense of East Village.

The fight to save the neighborhood has consumed their time. Last summer there were trips to the river with their four children, picnics, swimming; this summer is all about signs and fundraisers. "Every Saturday has been taken up with tabling out front," Ruby says. "We do not want to be homeless in the cold weather. That's what drives us."

Although passersby purchase food and cars honk their approval at the signs as they race by on Park Avenue West, the council has raised only $58 during its Saturday fundraisers.

After the fliers are distributed, Ruby sets a plate of chicken wings on a table outside the family's three-bedroom basement apartment. Ruby grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and came to Denver to be with her mother. She met Marcos, an ex-Marine, in 1977 at a disco bar in Capitol Hill called the House of Draft.

Neither is working. Marcos used to be a roofer, but he fell off a roof in 1992 and broke his hip. He received a $37,000 settlement, but after attorneys' fees and other expenses took home only $13,000. Two years ago Ruby worked briefly as a maid for the YMCA, and the change in income caused the Sanchezes' rent to be adjusted from $106 to $415. She quit, and now the family lives off of Marcos's disability pay. (Rent dropped back to $106 a month.)

Marcos has enjoyed the struggle: meeting city officials, meeting the mayor, dealing with the press. "Eventually, we're going to get this place fixed up," he insists.

This isn't the first time officials have considered demolishing East Village to make way for mixed-income housing. The whole parcel of land was supposed to be mixed-income all along.

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T.R. Witcher