No Vacancy: Denver Nonprofits Rethink Motels as Supportive Housing

In Denver, two nonprofits have transformed old motels into livable spaces with social missions. The weathered lodgings along Colfax Avenue and Broadway could offer more viable housing for families in need.
Imagine a family of six crammed into a 325-square-foot motel room. There's a crib in the closet for the baby; older siblings argue over whose turn it is to sleep on the floor while a parent prepares dinner on a hot plate on the dresser.

There are different degrees of homelessness. Some folks live on the streets, others sleep in their car or on a friend's couch -- and then there are those who bounce between motels, living week to week, shelling out what little cash they have for seedy bedrooms.

Blame it on skyrocketing Colorado rents: Motel families exist by the hundreds in Denver, according to the New York Times. "It's one of those truly heartbreaking situations that gets overlooked," says Julie Smith, a spokesperson for Denver Human Services (DHS).

The Family Motel serves an estimated 620 people a week.The Family Motel

DHS partners with local motels, providing families with vouchers for emergency shelter. Today, though, the majority of those vouchers are issued for use at the Family Motel, Volunteers of America's 45-room motel located at 4855 W. Colfax Ave.

You might recognize the retro purple and gold sign out front, which still reads Aristocrat Motor Hotel. "It's a classic neon sign with the vacancy, no vacancy lights," says Lindi Sinton, VP of program operations for Volunteers of America (VOA) Colorado.

Building a band-new housing development is an expensive undertaking that requires millions of dollars and years of planning. Converting a motel to a housing program for homeless families, on the other hand, is cheap, quick and easy by comparison.

In the late 1990s, VOA purchased their Family Motel from private owners, and engaged a local homebuilder to convert the Aristocrat into an emergency shelter. Two years later, in 2001, the Family Motel opened with 40 rooms designated specifically for DHS.

VOA owns and operates the motel, and DHS pays for most of the rooms and provides free supportive services for boarders: three square meals daily, for example, along with peer navigation, housekeeping and on-site laundry.

The Family Motel serves an estimated 620 people a week, mostly families staying for short stints lasting one to three days -- though Denver residents can stay up to two weeks, and some veterans can stay up to two years thanks to a program funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The veterans program launched in 2007, and the Family Motel has held five of its rooms ever since for a niche transitional housing program geared toward female veterans and their families.

Joshua Station works exclusively with families, the majority of which are single mom families.Joshua Station: A transitional housing model

"Transitional housing is typically defined in reference to what it is not," explains Amy Jackson, the executive director at Joshua Station, a full-on motel-to-transitional-housing conversion that opened its doors in Denver in 2001, with 15 families who each stayed for 15 months of programming.

Joshua Station is neither an emergency shelter nor an immediate crisis organization. "And we're not what's considered long-term housing," Jackson adds.

Falling somewhere in between, Joshua Station provides time-limited housing, and asks tenants to participate in services during their stay and pay a non-market rate rent -- no more than 30 percent of the family's income, which could be $50 or $400.

"We try to mimic what renting is like in real life, but to a degree that works for our families," explains Jackson. The idea, she says, it to gradually ease tenants into a traditional housing marketplace.

"In our 15 years of operation, both the number of families and the program duration have grown, and we now serves 30 families simultaneously, each of which stay in the program approximately 26 months," says Jackson.

Mile High Ministries is the inter-denominational entity that owns and operates Joshua Station. The organization was founded in 1988, and it was providing services to homeless youth in downtown Denver in the '90s when staff members noticed a need for family-friendly housing.

Mile High Ministries purchased a block of buildings along Colfax Avenue in the mid-1990s, and transformed the site into a safe daytime gathering place for area kids. But the kids still didn't have a safe place to go at night. Mile High Ministries began renting motel rooms for those in need of safe, overnight shelter -- and that gave the organization another idea entirely.

Why not buy a motel to house homeless families in Denver? A search was launched for a building, and an old motel in Lincoln Park, near I-25 and West 8th Avenue, was selected, not just for its location, but for its layout, too. Existing motel rooms were easily transformed into 30 conjoined rooms, all of which have private bathrooms.

The transitional housing center works exclusively with families, the majority of which are single mom families. "But we have some two-parent families, single dads and even a few grandparents with kids," Jackson adds.

"We're not just housing," continues Jackson. Beyond providing a safe place to sleep, Joshua Station draws on the site's historic purpose, too, by cultivating a community rooted in hospitality.  

Drive by Joshua Station on a warm day, and you might spy children romping on the playground or digging in the community garden alongside their parents.

"We emphasize that we are a community of neighbors who look out for each other," says Jackson. Community starts in the kitchen. Since none of Joshua Station's units have full kitchens; residents, then, will typically gather in the on-site community kitchen to prepare individual meals in a group setting, she says, "Once a week, on Thursday night, we do a community dinner, when everyone -- families, staff, volunteers -- comes together."

"One unique thing about our program is that we set aside five units for resident volunteers," Jackson adds. Currently, seven resident volunteers work and live at Joshua Station, furthering the communal vibe.

From cookie making parties to a bi-weekly early literacy program, Mile High Ministries hosts regular and recurring community activities, many of which are designed to engage the children -- there could be up to 70 at any given time -- living at Joshua Station.

"We are a two-year program, and I do mean program," Jackson continues. Operating under the transitional housing model, Joshua Station gives families the tools they'll need to eventually move into market-rate housing.

All families participate in a counseling assessment at intake. "One of our strengths is that we work with the whole family to address emotional, social, behavioral and academic issues," Jackson says, pointing to a play therapy program created explicitly for young residents.

Residents meet every week with a family advocate -- a case manager, basically, who will help participants ascertain both short-term and long-term goals. Life-skills classes are offered, too, on topics ranging from parenting to finance.

"The majority of the parents here have jobs, but the challenge is that they are paid low wages," Jackson explains. As a job paying $10 an hour is hardly sufficient for a family of four to make ends meet in the real world, she notes, "We work with families on upward income mobility." A piece of that is helping parents start savings accounts, in hopes that they'll have built up enough money for a deposit on an apartment when they're ready to graduate from Joshua Station.

The need for transitional housing is substantial in Denver, Jackson says. In lieu of a waiting list, Joshua Station has a rolling admission process. When rooms became available, the organization holds an orientation. Families who are interested in the program can apply, and subsequently sign up for an interview. "Our full team determines whether the family is a good fit for our program," Jackson says.

Positive outcomes

"When people graduate a program like ours, there can be what is known as the 'cliff effect,'" says Jackson, noting that residents who relied on services, programming and community support might flounder when those elements are discontinued. "We don't want that to happen."

Staff members, then, keep in touch with families graduated from the program, checking in with them at three months, six months and 12 months. "That's our standard, but we usually talk to them more frequently," says Jackson.

Data collected from check-ins shows that Joshua Station's model is working: About 85 percent of families are living in sustainable housing within one year of graduating.

It's no secret, though, that affordable housing is becoming a huge challenge in Denver. "We fill that in between, from homelessness to self-sufficiency, but the problem is that there isn't enough truly affordable housing," Jackson says.

Mile High Ministries is in the process of developing an affordable housing complex that will function as next-level housing for families who have stayed at Joshua Station. "We have a piece of property in mind, but nothing is certain yet," Jackson says, adding, "We hope to be adding an additional 80 units of affordable housing to the city of Denver."

The organization's next endeavor will likely be new construction. In the meantime, motel-based supportive housing is gaining traction nationally. A few cities -- Flagstaff, Arizona, and San Jose, California, for example -- are likewise turning their distressed motels into transitional housing units, which has us wondering how the concept could be expanded locally.

Plenty of area motels are in need of some TLC. But converting them into transitional housing centers might not be as straightforward as it seems. Many motel owners capitalize on the fact that their properties are de facto low-income housing.

A group approached Mile High Ministries a couple of years ago about redeveloping more motels. But Kelsey Winters, development director at Joshua Station, says she's found that those owners typically won't sell.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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