Hope for young moth­ers

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Jen­nifer Brown Jen­nifer Brown: 303-954-1593, jen­brown@den­ver­ or @jbrownd­post

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 sea­son­

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