Tahliiya Harris, 6, left, and her brother, Darnell, 3, read a book at the Family Homestead apartments November 29, 2018. Tahliiya’a mother, Natalya Moore, single mother of three children, has lived at the apartment complex for two months re-establishing herself while taking care of her kids.
In 40 years of helping homeless families get back on their feet, the staff at Family HomeStead have never seen a more difficult time for parents trying to climb out of poverty.
Rents are rising, landlords can afford to be selective about tenants and wages have remained stagnant, said Shalene Onyango, director of volunteers and development at the Denver nonprofit.
“It is a very, very difficult time to be homeless in Denver,” she said.
The organization provides emergency and transitional housing in individual apartment units to families experiencing homelessness. Through the program, social workers help clients find work, enroll their children in school, repair their credit, connect with health services and search for stable housing. Parents also attend classes about childhood nutrition and learning.
In 2017, the nonprofit helped 218 families with 488 children find emergency and transitional housing while also providing case management services. More than a third of the children were under the age of 5 and about half of the households were single mothers with children.
In the past, the program provided emergency housing for up to 90 days per family and its transitional housing program lasted for about six months. But in order to accommodate the tight housing market, the organization has extended the lengths of its program to a total of a year instead of nine months. Many of the families who work with the organization simply cannot pay for an apartment at market price and are forced to wait for long-term subsidized housing to become available, Onyango said.
“We would be celebrating if every one of our families made it to $25,000 a year,” she said. “That’s just not enough.”
A family with one adult, one preschool-age child and one school-age child needs an income of about $57,000 to be self-sufficient, according to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.
Family HomeStead’s acquisition last year of 33 townhome units in Denver’s Clayton neighborhood increased the group’s stock of available units across three properties to about 80. The townhomes are larger than the apartment units at the nonprofit’s two other properties and provide a space for larger families with four or five children, Onyango said.
Large families experiencing homelessness often split up so they can more easily find a place to live, she said. In other emergency shelters, sometimes fathers are forced to sleep away from their families because dorms are separated by gender.
“That is the founding ethos of Family HomeStead — that we would keep families together in apartment-style units,” Onyango said. “There’s really nowhere else for them to go.”
More than 1,400 people in homeless families live in the Denver metro area, according to the 2018 Point in Time Report, which counts the number of people experiencing homelessness on a specific day. Of those households, about a third were living in emergency shelters and more than half were in transitional housing. Ninety-three families were unsheltered, meaning they were sleeping in a place not meant for regular overnight stays, like cars, parks, bus stations or camp grounds.
The number of homeless families has steadily decreased over the past five years, the Point in Time report shows, but Family HomeStead hasn’t seen a decline in the demand for their services.
The nonprofit doesn’t receive funding from the state or federal governments because its staff does not want to be held back by bureaucracy or make the staff social workers spend precious hours filling out paperwork, Onyango said. About 89 percent of the money the group raises goes directly to client services — the nonprofit doesn’t even have a marketing budget, she said.
“We are kind of an organization that flies under the radar,” Onyango said.
Instead, Family HomeStead relies on continued community support. A record number of supporters attended the group’s 40th anniversary gala in April, she said.
“We’ve seen a renewed interest by the community in what we’re doing,” Onyango said. “We’re just hoping to continue the trajectory.”
Name: Family HomeStead
Address: 999 Decatur St., Denver
In operation since: 1978
Number of Employees: 12 – six full-time staff, and six part-time
Annual budget: About $944,000
Percentage that goes directly to client services: 89 percent
Number of clients served last year: 275 adults and 488 children in a total of 218 families