The apartment was sparsely furnished, the walls bare. Light from the windows illuminated the living room, showing a couch, chair, side table and table with a computer, which acted as the TV. But the …
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The apartment was sparsely furnished, the walls bare.
Light from the windows illuminated the living room, showing a couch, chair, side table and table with a computer, which acted as the TV.
But the Swain family was all smiles, happy to be somewhere they could call home.
Mary Ana Rodriguez-Swain, 28, and Enos “Eric” Swain, 26, sat on the floral couch with their daughters Izzie, 4, and Hermione, 2. They played games on smartphones, cuddled with a stuffed Pokemon and laughed. Dishes from that morning’s homemade breakfast burritos languished in the sink.
“It means everything,” Mary Ana said, looking around her new apartment — a two-bedroom, one bath in Arvada — that May morning.
“It means we can finally get on our feet,” Eric said. “It feels like we’re finally starting to become actual adults. The girls will actually be able to have a childhood they deserve.”
The Swains are one of 11 homeless families that found housing in Jefferson County with the assistance of a partnership between Arvada Housing Authority, Jeffco Human Services, and Mean Street Ministries — a shelter in Lakewood that provides housing for homeless families.
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The Swains had been homeless since moving to Colorado from Oklahoma in March. The promise of higher-paying jobs brought them here.
In Oklahoma, the young couple lived with their two daughters in a trailer. Mary Ana worked at Walmart, making $10 an hour. But her hours were getting cut.
“Some weeks, I would make $300 and that wasn’t enough for rent,” she said. “We couldn’t afford to live there anymore.”
Eric was a stay-at-home dad. For them, the cost of child care canceled out the pay from another minimum-wage job.
“Since we started living together in our early 20s we’ve never really been self-sufficient,” Mary Ana said. “It’s always been paycheck-to-paycheck.”
MORE: Getting off the street can be a struggle
But the Swains got lucky at the trailer. It was privately owned and the landlord didn’t check rental history. If he had, he would have found that a misunderstanding at an apartment in their early 20s left Mary Ana and Eric owing back rent on a broken lease.
This was a stumbling block for them when they got to Colorado.
They spent their first 15 days in the Denver metro area at a motel. After that, without a place to call home, they stayed at the family homeless shelter at Mean Streets Ministry in Lakewood.
Though the couple was having better success in the Colorado job market and earning more money, working at the local movie theater and in retail sales, they still had difficulty securing an apartment.
“The past was haunting us,” Mary Ana said.
But through a partnership of the Arvada Housing Authority, Mean Streets Ministries and Jeffco Human Services, the Swains became one of 11 homeless families in the county to attain housing this spring with Section 8 vouchers. Section 8 is a federal housing program assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. The owner must agree to a income-based rent under the program.
“It was great because we were going to have to wait in and out of shelters until we paid off our back rent,” Mary Ana said, adding that they were prepared to live in their 2005 Buick Century if they didn’t find something before Mean Streets closed its doors for the season at the end of March.
But the partnership — established when the Arvada Housing Authority realized it would have extra money this year because of an increase in federal funding for inflation rates — provided a lifeline. The funds help the authority to issue more housing vouchers.
“In years past when rents were rising, we didn’t see an increase in funding and we’ve had to decrease the number of families served,” said Carrie Espinosa, Section 8 housing supervisor for the Arvada Housing Authority.
The extra 14 percent in funding, however, needed to be spent by the end of the year to prevent it from being cut from the following year’s budget.
“We are at a point on our waiting list to where we have offered housing to most of the Arvada families,” Espinosa said. “People outside Arvada are in need, too, so we want to continue to help those on the waiting list, but also want to address homelessness in Jefferson County as a whole.”
Knowing that the shelter at Mean Streets would be closing its nightly shelter for the season at the end of March, Espinosa reached out to see if the extra funds could help find housing for families sheltering there.
This is the first year Mean Streets has been able to open its doors every night from September through March. Previously the shelter only opened on severe-weather nights.
“It’s really unimaginable that when families leave here they go back to sleeping in their car or under a bridge,” said Diane Chapman, volunteer coordinator and life skills trainer at Mean Streets Ministries. “It’s unimaginable that we would have to send them out without a place to go.”
That unimagined reality for the most vulnerable families in the community is why Chapman said the partnership means “everything.”
“These families are all around us,” Chapman said. “There’s not one model for homelessness.”
For the Swains, getting housing not only means they have stable housing, but it’s also a step to improve other parts of their lives.
“We can be on our feet,” Mary Ana said. “We wont have to struggle as much. We’re bettering ourselves actively.”
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