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Mile-high hope

Homeless families have a place to live, learn, and grow

Mile-high hope
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A man in faded jeans and a tattered shirt shuffles down a ragged Denver sidewalk, pushing a shopping cart brimming with plastic bags. On one side is a junkyard strewn with the remains of gutted cars. On the other is a motel building, neatly painted cream and red, with a sign that says "Joshua Station." The building houses families once homeless but now moving toward stability, independence, and hope.

Joshua Station, a program of Denver-based Mile High Ministries, provides a transitional home for homeless families, helping them develop the skills and self-sufficiency needed to secure stable housing. Joshua Station requires counseling and community involvement, helps families make goals for their future, and educates families in life skills like budgeting and parenting. The station is committed to extending grace and mercy while holding families accountable for behavior.

The leaders of Mile High Ministries first saw a need for transitional housing when they started a coffee shop for homeless teens in east Denver. They wanted to help homeless families that had moved from dangerous streets into violent, drug-filled, lice-infested hotels. In 1995, executive director Jeff Johnsen began to look for a way to buy a hotel and convert it into safe housing. He faced opposition from neighborhood associations that didn't want homeless families on their streets, but found a hotel just off the interstate where he could insulate Joshua Station from neighborhood vice and violence.

In 2001 a family donated the $1 million that Mile High Ministries needed to purchase the moldy, musty, prostitute- and drug-ridden hotel that would become Joshua Station. That October, 92 volunteers began the $1 million renovation. Churches and individuals "adopted" rooms-remodeling, painting, furnishing, decorating, and turning the rooms into homes. A dozen volunteers from the Denver Diaconal Conference came every week until the renovations were complete in 2004.

Now the motel has room for 26 families and is usually maxed out. Potted plants and flower boxes filled with white petunias line the second-floor railing. A playground sits where the pool used to be. A mural borders the building with the words "Love," "Joy," "Hope," and "Transformation" splashed across in graffiti lettering.

This July, when a single mother and her 7-year-old son first walked into their rooms, they saw an oak table set with silverware, green placemats, and ivy-patterned plates and cups. A sturdy bunkbed stood against the wall, covered in light blue bedspreads and pillow shams. Shelves, stocked with a crock pot and dishes, lined the walls. Candles and empty picture frames decorated the master bedroom-all of this was the work of "Spruce-a-Room" volunteers, who refurbish rooms for each new family.

Susan Sarno, a Joshua Station resident since February, said she wept when she walked into her room for the first time. Susan, her husband Roxie, and their daughter Carmen became homeless when Roxie developed back, hip, and knee problems and Susan underwent a difficult pregnancy. Susan and Carmen moved into the women's homeless shelter, while Roxie paid $200 a week at a nearby hotel.

The Sarnos attended a Joshua Station orientation, had an interview and background check, passed a drug test, and moved in. During the first phase of their stay, the Sarnos participated in a community meal three times a month. They had to attend four counseling sessions and a weekly meeting with their family advocate, who began to help them find the resources they needed to become independent.

In April, the Sarnos graduated to the next phase of the program. They worked with the advocate to set goals in areas such as financial management, education, spiritual life, and family life. Those goals included improving their marriage, finding Roxie counseling for alcoholism, and getting him the surgery he needs to find work. Joshua Station forbids alcohol consumption on its premises and asks that residents stay alcohol-free. It also requires residents to take classes on parenting, budgeting, and relationship-building.

The ministry does not require participation in religious activities, but Susan is attending church and plans to continue with the women's Bible study after she graduates. The couple has chosen to continue marriage counseling, and Susan is helping other residents with their child care to fulfill her community-service requirement.

Like all Joshua Station residents, the Sarnos pay nominal rent. The amount is negotiable depending on the family's circumstances, but residents typically pay $50 a week for a single room and $75 for a double room. Families then pay an additional $25 per week, which the ministry puts into a savings fund and returns when the family graduates.

Family advocate Denise Vaughn explains that staff members let people learn from their own mistakes, always remembering the ministry's guiding rule-give grace and second chances. Susan Sarno says the staff is respectful: "They don't look down on you here. They understand that people have problems."

Half of the Joshua Station families eventually secure long-term housing. According to board member Gary Armstrong, those who drop out of the program do so because "their old life was more comfortable than the new life they're creating."

Joshua Station's success stories include that of Francisco Esquivel, his wife Maria, and their daughter Guadalupe, who lived there from 2001 to 2002, after Maria had a stroke and Francisco a heart attack. The Esquivels sold their piano, jewelry, and tools, but could no longer afford rent and food along with their medical bills. They were ineligible for food stamps because Esquivel continued to work, so the family slept in a car for two weeks and lived at another shelter for two months before coming to Joshua Station. Esquivel says, "This place saved our lives." The staff called and visited Maria while Francisco was at work, and a Mile High Ministries legal aid clinic provided help.

Some 150 volunteers, including former residents like Francisco Esquivel, help each year. Each week Esquivel repairs furniture and does odd jobs at the station, saying, "I try to pay back. It's my pride." Another former resident remained in the program longer than he needed so his family could help other residents by buying groceries and providing transportation. Three retirees-two of them involved since 2001-come each week to paint, fix toilets, repair air conditioners, and do anything else on the station's to-do list. Lori Ventola, a resident volunteer since 2004, rents an apartment at the station and runs a school for the children. She and four other resident volunteers model stability and act as good neighbors.

Susan Sarno says that at Joshua Station, "You learn a lot about yourself. You learn a lot about why you're homeless." She notes that she used to blame her mother for her problems, but now for her daughter's sake is working to break the cycle of poor decision-making: "I learned to look inside of me and see the qualities I have and they're not all bad. I'm smart, and I'm a good-hearted person. I'm ambitious." Sarno says she now believes she can change her life.

Alisa Harris Alisa is a WORLD Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD reporter.


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