Editor’s Note: This is the third story in an occasional series by Colorado Community Media about why homelessness is growing in Jeffco, how homelessness is affecting communities, the faces of the homeless in our communities, and what churches, social workers, law enforcement and community leaders are doing to help find solutions.
In speaking with church groups, social workers and homelessness experts, a common refrain is that no one solution exists to homelessness, because there is no one cause. Each person facing homelessness often deals with multiple problems.
Broken into broad categories, it is easy to see the dramatically different challenges these individuals may face. There are the chronic homeless, the newly homeless, the veterans, runaways, victims of human trafficking, the disabled, struggling immigrants and those fleeing abuse. Even those in the same category can have quite different obstacles to finding more secure housing and a better life.
In this issue, three people dealing with homelessness share their stories. One is chronically homeless and dealing with drug use and mental health issues. The other two are parents, struggling to find safe and steady housing for their children, while trying to get back on their feet financially — one displaced by the economy and the other by injury.
There are countless other stories to tell. On a winter night last year, volunteers counted 5,467 homeless people across Denver and the surrounding six counties, including Jefferson County.
In the coming weeks, we will be reporting on some of those other stories, as well as looking at some of the more pervasive causes of homelessness in our community.
Amy Carrillo: On the fringes
For the past couple of months, Amy Carrillo and her two teenage children have been living in a single room in a boardinghouse in Westminster, where they share a kitchen and bathroom with other residents.
Carrillo was out of work for years, but in May, because of a referral from a former colleague in the nursing field, she landed a full-time job with a locally owned cleaning company.
“My boss is flexible and understanding. Even with all that I have going on, she took a chance on me,” Carrillo said. “It’s hard work, but at the end of the day, I feel accomplished.”
But Carrillo, 34, still struggles to pay the $800 monthly rent for the room. And she also is her children’s sole provider for food and other teenage expenses.
Carrillo wakes up before 6 a.m. each day so that she and the kids can be on their way to school and work by 7 a.m. She drives everyone around in a 1988 Toyota, which was given to her by a friend’s acquaintance not too long ago.
“It’s nothing fancy, but it gets me where I need to be,” she said.
The Carrillo family may not be sleeping on the streets, but Carrillo and her children still count as homeless in the sense they have not had a stable home to call their own for years now.
It was only about three years ago when Carrillo was renting a duplex in a cul-de-sac neighborhood in Lakewood. She had a good job — a 15-year career as a nurse. She did everything from home care to working in intensive care units in hospitals, and she had dreams to continue her education and work with infants and newborns. Then, in 2015, a back injury ended her job and nursing career.
“It’s been a pretty rough couple of years, but we’ve come a long way,” Carrillo said. “We all have our days. I’m just moving forward, one foot in front of the other.”
Carrillo moved to Jefferson County from Arizona in 2000 when she was 17. She and her oldest son, who was 2 at the time and now lives on his own in Colorado Springs, stayed with her sister as Carrillo put herself through nursing school.
Carrillo lost both her sister and her mother in the span of about a week in the spring of 2008. Her mother had health problems, but the cause of her sister’s death is unknown — she just didn’t wake up one day, Carrillo said.
In October 2015, Carrillo and her common-law husband separated. After she came home from a hospital stay related to her back injury, he moved out-of-state, and Carrillo had one week to vacate the home. Still in a back brace and using a walker, Carrillo said she had nowhere to go.
So she contacted 2-1-1, a nationwide free and confidential information and referral service that helps connects people with local community resources and health and human services. Carrillo received a long list of numbers of all shelters in the area. She called around and found a safehouse/shelter in Colorado Springs where she and her children could stay.
She was there for two months.
Carrillo ended up moving in temporarily with a childhood friend and her husband. She later returned to Arizona — where she was born and raised — to take care of a releative following his heart surgery. Six months later, she and her children moved to Colorado Springs and later to Jefferson County.
Carrillo contacted a friend who graciously offered them a cramped room in a small home in Arvada for a short time, before she found the boardinghouse.
Within the three or four months that Carrillo stayed with her friend in Arvada, she enrolled her two younger children — Tiona, 12, and Joshua, 14 — in Arvada schools. She eventually found the Westminster boardinghouse so the two children could finish up the school year. Now that school is out, though, Carrillo is hoping to find a more permanent living situation. She is on a number of waitlists for housing assistance, and is looking into any and all housing options.
Right now, Carrillo says she feels as though she’s on a good path. Carrillo is thankful to have a job that she enjoys and a safe place to stay, even though it’s temporary. She says her children have grown to become compassionate individuals.
“I pray a lot (and) I’m big on energy,” Carrillo said. “Looking at the positive side of things really helps. It took me a long time, but I’ve learned to stay positive and go forward.”
Tom: Struggling father
The only light in the dark apartment filters in through the windows. The living room, where two elementary-age children sit on a crib mattress on the floor, has little other furniture.
But it’s a home.
After almost a year of living in hotel rooms and doubling up with family, Tom, a 28-year-old single father of four children, was accepted into transitional housing at Decatur Place Apartments in Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood.
The older two children, ages 10 and 8, attend elementary school in Jefferson County and the younger two, ages 3 and 1, go to the childcare at Decatur Place.
The majority of families at Decatur Place are homeless and in dire need of basic living needs such as food, clothing, infant care, furniture and other household staples.
Tom, who asked that his real name not be used to protect his family’s privacy, said living at Decatur Place is allowing him to move forward with his life.
The single dad found himself experiencing homeless when the company he was working for did not get its contract renewed with Comcast.
“Everyone lost their jobs,” Tom said, shaking his head.
Although he did qualify for unemployment, he said it wasn’t enough to live off while supporting his children.
“To go from making a decent amount of money to a couple hundred a week, I wasn’t able to renew my apartment and wasn’t able to find another place because rent was so expensive,” Tom said. “I was feeling helpless.”
Tom was 18 years old when his oldest son was born. The child’s mother was 16. The two married and had a daughter two years later.
“I think it was a lot for her to be that young, married and have two kids,” Tom said. “One day she left and didn’t come back.”
Tom shares partial custody with the mother of the two youngest children.
Being a single father, he said, made the search for a new job with a schedule to fit his life more difficult.
“I knew I could do something, but it would have to be at the expense of my children and I couldn’t make that sacrifice,” he said. “I couldn’t leave them in a motel room by themselves. It was really hard to find a job that was able to work with me.”
Keeping his family off the streets
Rebecca Dunn, community and family connections coordinator for Jefferson County Schools, said she sees this situation a lot when parents are trying to get their families out of homelessness.
“A single homeless person, when you’re just taking care of yourself — that comes with burdens and stressors,” Dunn said. “It’s not an easy situation. But when you’re a parent and constantly trying to provide stability and every door gets shut, you face having to move outside of the county.”
Because Jefferson County does not have a lot of affordable housing, shelters or places for families in transition, Dunn said many homeless families in Jeffco are living in cars, RVs, hotels or doubled-up situations with families or friends.
In 2016, Jeffco schools identified 3,622 students as homeless. About 75 percent of those students live in a doubled-up situation, Dunn said.
“But that doesn’t mean they are living in the same home from month to month,” Dunn pointed out, explaining that many families are continually moving around to different houses.
For Tom, who couldn’t find a job after being laid off, staying in hotels was a way to keep his family off the streets. He used his time while unemployed to enroll at Red Rocks Community College in the fire science program. Grants paid for his schooling.
In November, after 10 months of unemployment, he found a job doing contract work similar to his old job,
But “I’m worried the same thing could happen again,” Tom said.
That is why he earned his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification and says he is working toward fire and paramedic certification — to be able to have a more stable job.
In November, Tom and his children also moved in with his sister.
“At that time, my sister let us live there so I could save the money, not be homeless and not have to spend money that I could be saving,” Tom said.
Determined to make a better life
In January, he and his children moved into a one-bedroom apartment with a six-month lease. But with monthly rent at $860, Tom wasn’t making rent.
To prevent being homeless again, Tom applied for housing at Decatur Place, and was placed on a waitlist.
At the end of May, just when he was being evicted from the one-bedroom, a unit opened and he was able to move his family in. He pays $200 a month at Decatur Place for a three-bedroom apartment with a daycare facility on site. If Tom complies with the regulations at Decatur Place and meets with an economic and life counselor weekly, he has two years there to get himself and his family into a stable situation.
Tom is determined to make a better life.
“Even though we ended up in that situation,” he said. “I’m going to make sure I don’t stay in that situation.”
David Russell: Facing depression and drugs
Even when sitting down, there’s a kind of kinetic energy that animates David Russell.
He occasionally rocks back and forth in his chair. His hands and fingers flutter when he gets particularly intense talking about his past or day-to-day experiences.
“I’m from the Lakewood, Wheat Ridge area,” he said, as he sits in the Mean Streets Ministry Café in Lakewood. “I know I’m going to die an addict.”
Russell, 32, is one of the many chronically homeless people in Denver and its surrounding cities. He’s spent years on the streets, most recently in the West Colfax area, occasionally in one of the motels, often in the alleys, after staying, for several months, in what he calls a “bush in Thornton.”
“I’m one of those people everyone has come across,” he said. “My normal day is just trying to make money and looking for company.”
Russell describes his younger self as a “geek who played guitar” and who came from a family of veterans. But instead of joining the military, he joined up with the Red Cross.
“I thought I was going to be doing things like helping build tornado shelters and helping with disaster relief,” he said. “What happened instead is I was sent to Iraq to help there. I would’ve rather seen combat than being stuck taking care of people, like I was when I was there.”
Like many of the people he worked with, and veterans he encountered, he found escape from his experiences and depression in drugs. The people and injuries he saw during his three years with the Red Cross, as well as the extreme conditions of the desert, made a big impact on him. He received disability because of his time overseas, and has been to rehab facilities twice in the 10 years since returning home, but said he remains addicted.
“I need the drugs to escape the memories,” he said, now that he’s back. “They also help to keep sharp on the street.”
The Colfax area can be dangerous at times, Russell explained, so some of the drugs he uses are stimulants, which help keep him awake, especially at night. He said he’s tried everything when it comes to drugs, and most recently has been smoking crack.
He earns money by being a gofer for people, running errands and fetching things for a fee, and has also gotten involved with gangs to survive.
“Making money is important, and it helps that I’m one of those guys who needs to follow orders,” he said. “I can’t keep my thoughts straight, but I need to be sharp and ready for anything.”
Russell’s personality is full of oscillations, and he’ll discuss some of his favorite horror or war movies and then suddenly switch to ruminations on violence and paranoia. At times like this, his body language gets more erratic, and his voice gets louder.
“I try to be civil enough to keep my mouth shut,” he said. “People see me on the street and don’t want anything to do with me, and I don’t blame them. It’s frightening for them — and heartbreaking for me.”
Russell isn’t sure what could best help him and others like him, but increased access to resources would be a start.
“We need more facilities to stay and to help us,” he said. “We need community with each other.”
What Russell’s future holds is unclear. He said he has considered suicide. He hopes to find a girlfriend who will help him go straight. But he doesn’t know when — or even whether — this will happen.
“I’d like to meet someone and have a kid that I could be there for,” he said. “But I’d rather wear the mask of drugs than to be crazy.”