Hope for young mothers
Michelle Marquez was homeless, sleeping in shelters, parks and sometimes on friends’ couches when she found out she was pregnant.
At first, Marquez was frozen with fear and afraid to ask for help. She worried authorities would call her unfit and take away her baby. But at six months pregnant, when she finally told her doctor at Denver Health’s Westside clinic that she had no home, a social worker there told Marquez about Volunteers of America’s transitional housing program for young parents.
Now the 25-year-old and her 6-monthold son, Zechariah, are living in an apartment in Jefferson County. She’s about to graduate from the steppingstone program after working at King Soopers and paying her own rent.
The “rapid housing” program for young parents, which has 12 families currently enrolled, pays the apartment deposit, plus the first three months’ rent. After three months, the portion of the rent paid by the renter goes up incrementally, usually 20 percent per month. Parents in the program are required to find a job and participate in life skills classes that teach money management, parenting and cooking.
“I’m thankful every day now,” said Marquez, who chokes back tears when she thinks about what could have happened to her and her son, a calm baby with a shock of brown hair that sweeps across the top of his head. “I felt alone and lost. I probably would have given up my son because I didn’t want him growing up on the streets.”
At a Volunteers of America house on Bannock Street south of downtown Denver, young parents gather for cooking classes in a donated kitchen and “shop” for shampoo, diapers and clothing in a room stacked with supplies. Parents have case managers who help them find jobs, complete GEDs and computer courses, and enroll in classes on nutrition and budgeting.
Parents and expectant mothers ages 16-24 who are living in shelters are eligible for the program, which is one of about 50 programs receiving funds from The Denver Post’s Season to Share campaign this year. Once they are accepted, people have 30 days to find housing that accepts the program voucher. The goal is that people are paying their own rent within about 15 months.
Those with substance abuse or mental health problems typically aren’t good candidates for the program and are referred to other subsidized housing programs that offer treatment, and sometimes, on-site case managers or social workers.
Volunteers of America also runs a family motel for homeless families, plus housing for veterans and people with mental illness.
Sara Schlabach, a Volunteers of America residential case manager, has 13 parents and 19 children on her caseload, including Marquez.
“Our goal is to get everyone rooted in the community,” Schlabach said. “I’m psyched to be part of this program. It makes sense.”
Marquez, who grew up in Denver, was homeless for eight months when she moved back to Denver from Arizona. She stayed with her mom briefly, but the two had a falling out and Marquez ended up homeless.
“I was like the homeless person that would be sitting at the park reading a book and didn’t look like a homeless person,” she said. “I was never asking for money for beer or drugs.”
Marquez and her son soon are moving back to Arizona, where she’s already lined up an apartment. “I feel like I’m ready to do it on my own,” she said. “I have more than enough strength. They gave me power that I didn’t know I could have.”
Michelle Marquez holds her 6-month-old son, Zechariah, as she looks around the storage room at Bannock Youth and Family Center on Nov. 4. The center provides housing for teens and young mothers. Seth McConnell, The Denver Post
Through Season to Share, a McCormick Foundation fund, 49 charities received more than $2.29 million in grants last year. The organizations serve low-income children, as well as those who are hungry, homeless or in need of medical care. Donations are matched at 50 cents per dollar, and 100 percent goes directly to local nonprofit agencies. To make a donation, see the coupon on Page on 7B in today’s paper, call 1-800-518-3972 or visit seasontoshare.com.