'What will happen to these people?'

For those sheltering with motel vouchers amid pandemic, the future is murky


James and Desiree Jackson felt like they had life pretty well under control.

The couple, together for nearly a decade, lived in a comfortable home in Aurora. Desiree stayed home to care for their two young daughters while James worked at his longtime job at King Soopers.

But late last year, when James came down with an autoimmune disorder that began consuming his internal organs, their situation degraded quickly.

Unable to work, they couldn't pay rent and lost the house. Desiree's family was mired in substance abuse issues and was no help. Now pregnant with a third daughter, the family moved in with James' mom — who soon passed away.

The family struck out on the streets with little more than backpacks and a stroller, lugging a heavy weighted blanket to keep the girls warm at night. They slept where they could.

The situation grew far more dire as the COVID-19 pandemic swept over the land: Hoarders wiped out baby supplies at grocery stores, and libraries and recreation centers where the family sought refuge closed their doors. James, his organs still being consumed, feared that contracting COVID-19 could kill him.

The couple had long dreaded confessing their situation to social workers, for fear of losing their children to foster care. Out of options, they presented themselves to Arapahoe County caseworkers.

Instead of taking the children, a caseworker connected them to Bonnie DeHart of HAAT Force, a nonprofit that provides motel vouchers to families and people with disabilities living on the streets.

DeHart booked the family a two-week stay at Englewood's Holiday Motel, and for the first time in months, the weary couple and their little girls had a bed and shower of their own.

As the two-week voucher ran out, Holiday Motel co-owner Dwight Kim offered James a job helping maintain the place. The couple's third daughter was born in August, and today the family of five shares a room beside the motel office.

“You can think you have everything together,” Desiree said outside the room as her girls napped. “And you can get down so low you think there's no coming up. But things happen for a reason. I have such gratitude. My eyes are open.”

Now, James and Kim help each other take care of the motel. Nearly three-quarters of the motel's 32 rooms are occupied by people who are elderly, disabled, ill, or caring for young children, none with anywhere else but the streets to go, all depending on vouchers to ride out a pandemic raging like never before.

James has taken on a mentor role for some of the other voucher recipients, trying to steer them toward outreach agencies, and even helping convert a room of the motel to use for meetings and classes.

"Before my mom passed, she always told me I would find a way to help people," he said. "I know she's looking down and smiling."

'A bandage on the situation'

In the past, HAAT Force and sister organizations provided overnight shelter to people living on the streets on nights when temperatures plummeted or blizzards blew.

As the pandemic reshaped society last spring, the groups shifted their focus, seeking longer-term shelter for families and those whose age or health meant they were under serious threat from living without access to hygiene or the ability to get distance from others.

As unemployment surged and churches closed their doors, donations dried up, but were replaced with funding from the federal CARES Act.

But federal funds came with a catch: they had to be spent by the end of the year.

Now, as New Year's approaches, local governments are scrambling to line up more funding to keep paying for vouchers.

Meanwhile, shelter groups face a convergence of other factors: eviction and foreclosure moratoriums are due to expire just as a new round of public health restrictions is putting more people out of work, potentially pushing many more people in tenuous situations into life on the streets.

“My biggest worry is, what will happen to these people?” asked Betsy Keyack, a board member at HAAT Force, who is running much of the group's operations as longtime board chair DeHart struggles to recover from a severe case of COVID-19.

HAAT Force is currently providing long-term shelter to 59 people in 25 groups, Keyack said, but the future is tenuous.

“They're supposed to figure out what to do when they have to leave the hotels,” Keyack said. “But that's really, really difficult.”

Many of the services they are instructed to work with require computer access, but many of those in the motels don't have computers, or are elderly and struggle to use them. Access to computers at libraries or places like Englewood's Giving Heart outreach agency is limited or cut off. Volunteers who would normally help people navigate complicated systems — many of them elderly themselves and therefore at greater risk from the virus — are unavailable. Meanwhile, affordable housing is extremely limited, and wait lists stretch years long.

HAAT Force has funding needs far beyond what the county can provide, Keyack said, including a need for a dedicated executive director who can help put the group on steadier financial footing and synthesize the group's offerings with other agencies that can help voucher recipients rebuild their lives.

“We're putting a bandage on the situation,” Keyack said. “These are people who desperately need stability. Places where they can improve their situations, find steady employment, or for kids somewhere they can get a steady education. Right now, people are making it by the skin of their teeth.”

'Value in human life'

Other shelter groups are facing similar challenges. The Severe Weather Shelter Network, a sprawling consortium of churches primarily in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties that open their basements to unhoused single adults on cold winter nights, is unable to operate as normal this year.

Many of its member churches remain closed to the public, said director Lynn Ann Huizingh, and public health guidelines disallow so many people in such tight quarters. Many of the group's volunteers are elderly, and are staying away from group gatherings anyway.

The group has shifted to a motel voucher system, lining up dozens of rooms at nine different motels.

The shift hasn't come cheap. In a normal year, the group might register 500 people for shelter between October and April. This year, Huizingh said, they registered 500 people by early December, with more added to the ranks every week.

“We're seeing a huge increase in people living on the street,” she said. “Maybe a fifth of our guests this year are new to the street, and most have lost their jobs and their housing since March.”

Providing motel accommodations is much more complex than providing cots in church basements, and the shift has not come cheap.

Faced with increasing duties and a lack of volunteers, the network has had to hire several employees to handle administrative tasks and check in on guests. Paying for motel rooms for a three-day stretch of bad weather can cost $20,000, Huizingh said.

A silver lining, she said, is that the group's registry is exposing the true scope of homelessness in the suburbs.

“We've known for years the number of people on the streets is majorly undercounted,” she said. “We're starting to get a real count. It could mean more funding from governments and foundations to help people.”

The work is difficult, but Huizingh called it a calling.

“For me personally, it's an extension of my faith,” she said. “Jesus said, 'What you have done for the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done for me.' There's value in human life. These are people who are marginalized, shunned, turned away. They're isolated and invisible. It's a burden on our hearts, and we have to do something.”

'We don't want people freezing'

Local government officials say they see the need and are doing everything they can to maintain the voucher programs after the federal money must be sent back to the national treasury.

Arapahoe County has already allocated nearly $900,000 of its CARES Act allotment toward emergency housing, said Nancy Sharpe, chair of the board of county commissioners. After the first of the year, Sharpe said the plan is to use community development block grant funding, and there is even some hope that limited CARES funds can be held over.

“We don't want to see these families back on the street,” Sharpe said. “We should be able to get them through at least until spring.”

Meanwhile, the county is beefing up its outreach programs, and working to provide “navigators” who can help walk people in need through the struggle of building personal stability.

In Jefferson County, officials have allotted $250,000 of CARES Act funds toward the Severe Weather Shelter Network's efforts, said Kat Douglas, the county's regional homelessness and housing development coordinator.

She said she feels confident the county will be able to provide additional funds, some drawn from grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, to cover the network's need until spring.

The network is doing vital work, Douglas said.

“We don't have a great shelter network in Jefferson County,” Douglas said. “Motels have proven to be a critical resource. Having families, veterans and people with disabilities on the street isn't good for anyone. With hospitals already taxed, it's no good to have people in there being treated for frostbite. We don't want people freezing to death.”

'A helping hand'

At the Holiday Motel, Dwight Kim, the co-owner, makes the rounds checking on guests riding out the pandemic.

There's Mary McDonald, a 1980 graduate of Arapahoe High School, who lost all her cleaning service's clients early in the pandemic. She salutes every fire truck, ambulance and police car that drives past.

There's Peter Shaw, a once successful contractor who lost his home after he got too sick to work. Recovering from a brutal car crash, he is hoping to access the final installment of his late wife's life insurance to buy a van to live in.

There's Michael Curtis, who found his way to the motel after months spent nursing a broken shoulder while living in his Jeep behind the convenience store where he worked until being forced out when he was fired.

There's Kayla Waters, raising two sons, ages 8 and 3, whose ADHD gives them such severe fits of rage that she was not allowed to renew the lease on her last apartment.

“Even once this pandemic is over, homlessness is not going away,” Kim said. “It can happen to anyone. We live in a fragile world. All people need is a helping hand.”


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