Alex and Savanna are normal kids.
At ages 2 and 5, respectively, they are wildly creative with markers, curious about strangers, and inquisitive about the world around them. Savanna has a halo of brown curls and wide, dark eyes that penetrate. Alex has a mess of blond hair and a hint of mischief about him.
They are easy to love, Christina Cummings says. Which is good, because Savanna and Alex aren't the only kids that the 25-year-old Cummings and her parents, Teresa and Karl McLaughlin, look after. The trio runs the 24-room Aztec Motel on East Platte Avenue, home-for-now to about 90 people, including more than 45 kids like Savanna and Alex.
Most of the younger kids need free babysitting when their parents look for jobs.
Originally located at the Express Inn on Cimarron Street, the Aztec's homeless program grabbed headlines a year ago when it received various grants and city funds, allowing it to take in homeless campers evicted from creekbeds under the new no-camping ordinance.
Back then, the program accepted mostly adults. But that focus shifted as more families became homeless. Now the Aztec has mostly families, many pulled from cars where they were living after evictions or foreclosures.
"Just this morning there was a mom and a 2-week-old baby found living in their car," Teresa McLaughlin says, "and yesterday there was a mom and her 3-year-old child. ... It's getting worse and worse."
It's also getting worse for the Aztec. More families need help — often for longer periods of time, because of the difficulty of finding jobs in the sluggish economy.
Bob Holmes knows the Aztec is running out of resources. The executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak oversees the Aztec's financials and seeks funding for the program, which more than once has faced shutdown due to hardship. It's a difficult task. Grants have grown scarce, and the city recently refused to provide more money for the program, which also offers counseling, help with job searches, and child care. The program costs $200,000 a year.
"I don't see any interest on the part of the city to do anything," Holmes says, noting that at a recent meeting, city officials told him that Mayor Steve Bach believed the homeless problem should be addressed solely by nonprofits. "I'd like to see the city show some interest."
The city has little to say on the topic, other than confirming that officials denied Holmes' request. In the meantime, Holmes relies on grants as small as $5,000. Larger grants, he explains, often have guidelines limiting the consecutive years an organization can receive them.
Holmes had hoped the Aztec, which is waiting to hear back on several grants, would be more stable by now. But last August, a plan to transfer the Aztec program to Springs Rescue Mission control was nixed when the rescue mission announced it would run a small housing program of its own. Shocked, Holmes had to scramble to keep the Aztec's doors open.
Now Christmas is just around the corner. Holmes wants to keep the program going another year. At the Aztec, the McLaughlin family is hanging holiday decorations, and hoping a few presents will show up under the tree for dozens of needy children.
Last year, the Aztec's teenagers got nothing for Christmas. This year, Teresa McLaughlin wants it to be different, but her effort to find sponsor present-buyers for each Aztec family has a long way to go.
The McLaughlins are trying to make the holiday brighter. Teresa donated her old Christmas decorations for the kids to hang. Cummings helped the youngest children paint snowmen on ornaments for the tree — each one bearing a child's name and tiny fingerprint.
Churches and other charities have brought warm clothes, hot meals and other food items.
This Christmas, as at every holiday, Teresa will make a big dinner for the entire motel. That's 90 people.
"It's worth it," she says. "I want everyone to have a good holiday."
But there's still a lot of need. Women size 16 and up have a hard time finding warm clothes in the donation piles. Other costs aren't covered, like transportation and certain prescription drugs. At times, the McLaughlins help pay out of their own pockets, rather than watch families go without.
The worst part, though, is the job and housing situation. Though the Aztec program has helped more than 200 people find jobs and be independent again, lately it's been more difficult. In the past month, six clients have been hired, but only three full-time.
And even if Aztec residents find work, it's tough to get them permanent housing after an eviction.
"I just keep calling until I get a yes," Teresa says. "It's really frustrating because people are like, 'Why would I [rent to someone with a prior eviction]?' And I'm like, 'Why wouldn't you give people a second chance?'"
Meanwhile at the Aztec, families share tiny rooms. The need is so great, it's hard for Teresa to imagine the program closing. Yet, she knows how real that possibility is.
"We are going to keep trying, and that's all we can do," she says. "I was never a real religious person, but I will say, we're in God's hands right now."