What strikes you first about this place is how little it fits with your assumptions.
It is not frightening. It is not dreadful. And despite the obvious trappings of poverty, the Aztec Motel at 1921 E. Platte Ave., home to those who have no home, does not appear to be sinking into a quicksand of desperation.
On this Friday afternoon, it is hot enough to fry any exposed skin, and so the residents have pulled their yard chairs under the awnings to find a little relief in the shade. A collection of lethargic mutts sit alongside them. Inside one of the rooms, an 8-week-old baby girl is sound asleep on a colorful knit blanket. Her fuzzy head and tiny limbs are so dwarfed by the queen-size bed, and she is so still in her deep slumber, that she could easily be mistaken for a doll.
Only one living thing — a friendly, blue-handkerchief-wearing German shepherd — seems to have much of an interest in moving. Tongue hanging out, the dog trots back and forth in the parking lot, looking for any sign of adventure. She's not finding any.
Things aren't exactly jumping at this last chance motel today. And yet, there is something serene about the scene. Maybe it's just the clear, bright sun, or the flowers and fresh paint. But it seems as though hope is rising off the scalding asphalt.
The homeless program based at the Aztec has its roots in a city crisis that was hard to ignore.
By winter last year, downtown creek beds had sprouted into make-do villages. It was heartbreaking and blunt evidence of a painful recession, and for many people, "tent city" became a call to action. Individuals and churches — their hearts full of holiday spirit and compassion — started flooding the camps with food and supplies.
Husband and wife Karl and Teresa McLaughlin were originally just a couple of those do-gooders.
"I kept having this dream about helping the tent campers," Teresa remembers. "By the third time I had that same dream I said, 'Karl, why don't you let me do something?'"
The McLaughlins had no experience working with the homeless. But it was winter, and Karl's landscaping business was slow. So they started going to the camps.
First it was one day a week. Then it was seven.
The McLaughlins had found their hearts' calling and they followed it. When Bob Holmes, executive director of the homeless-service umbrella organization Homeward Pikes Peak asked them to help run a housing program, the McLaughlins said yes. Holmes' program was originally run out of the Express Inn at Eighth Street and U.S. Highway 24, and funded by an El Pomar Foundation grant. Its purpose was to assist the city as it eliminated the homeless tents, by providing temporary shelter, food, counseling and help with job hunts.
Holmes wanted people to get jobs and leave. That's often what happened. About 110 people who have gone through the program are now working. Others have started to receive benefits like Social Security or Veterans Affairs checks that have allowed them to get permanent housing and care for themselves.
In May, the homeless program (now funded by the city and El Pomar) moved to the Aztec. Holmes says the Aztec was a better deal, and its smaller size was more manageable for the shrinking program. Others cite mounting tensions between program leaders, residents and the owners of the Express Inn.
One thing's certain: A lot of folks seem happier at the Aztec, including the McLaughlins. The motel has room for 80 people, and 76 are living there now.
People seem excited about the future here. And that's good, because the homeless program is only funded through October. After that, the money runs out, the program ends, and anybody who hasn't made a new life will likely find themselves back on the streets or shuffled to some other program.
Most people hanging around the Aztec on a weekday afternoon are waiting to hear back on applications for benefits. They're older, disabled, or veterans.
Daryl Gottier is none of those things. At 43, his hair is gray but his build is still slim and strong. He walks around the Aztec with a rake in his hand, looking quite determined to get some work done.
Daryl says he's expecting job offers pending the results of a criminal background check. He's not worried about that part, he says. He's no criminal. But until he hears back, he's in limbo, and so he spends the days with his wife, Shelly, and looks for odd jobs to do.
Shelly has never been able to work. When she was a little girl, Daryl explains, Shelly was in a terrible car accident that damaged her brain and led to problems with motor control. Now one of Shelly's arms hangs limp by her side.
With Shelly disabled and Daryl unable to find a job, the future looked grim for the Gottiers just a few months ago, when the couple and their 11-year-old mutt Charlie were living in a tent.
"It was pretty cold sometimes," Daryl says, gripping the rake with both big hands. "But the dry snow was a lot easier to deal with than the spring snow."
After that first heavy, wet snow of spring nearly collapsed their tent, the Gottiers entered into a shelter, before being admitted to the Express Inn. When the program moved to the Aztec, they moved with it.
Daryl says he likes the new digs because there's plenty of job opportunities on Platte Avenue. Maybe now he'll have a chance to set things right again.
For most of his adult life, Daryl worked as an auto mechanic. But then in the early '90s his tools were stolen. He was never able to replace them, and found himself in less stable and lower-paying positions. He was a cashier at a Diamond Shamrock when his mother died in 2004. A week later, Daryl's dad died too — "from a broken heart."
Overcome with grief, and overwhelmed with planning two funerals, Daryl lost his job. The next few years were rough. The couple barely squeaked by with money from Daryl's temp jobs and some extra cash Shelly's mom gave them. But when the economy sunk and the temp work ran out, whatever luck they had disappeared.
She calls them her "street kids," and they seem far too numerous for anyone but her to keep track of.
Often these "kids" are 20-somethings. Sometimes they have families of their own. That's fine with Tina Turney. Because if there's anything the 42-year-old loves more than mothering, it's grandmothering.
Tina bends over and scoops the tiny lump of a baby off the bed, cradling the infant in her arms and cooing at her. The child is the daughter of two of Tina's "kids" — a young couple couch-surfing at friends' places until they can get their own home. The two work during the day, and they trust Tina with their baby.
Tina also watches another homeless friend's dog each day. And she is diligent in this duty as well, petting, praising, gently scolding at times.
"I've been adopted as mom and I look out for everybody," she says.
Like so many homeless people you meet, Tina wants to help others. But she hasn't been very good at helping herself.
With a sigh, Tina documents a dizzying numbers of moves over the past year. She lived with relatives. She lived at shelters off and on. Once or twice, she purposely moved back onto the streets to be with a boyfriend.
Amid all these moves, Tina's life has been a mess. She suffered a broken wrist last year, and it was never set right, so it healed into a painful mound. That meant she couldn't wait tables anymore. Which meant she didn't have an income. Not that it had been much before.
And then there was the rape. Tina says she shouldn't have trusted the man she was dating, when he invited her to hang out in a room he had rented. Sure enough, he got drunk and attacked her.
After that, she had a hard time feeling safe. Three months ago, she started dating the man she's now engaged to. She speaks with pride about his efforts to protect her — so she doesn't go places alone, or if she does, then she brings a weapon.
She says she likes the Aztec because it feels safe. But it's a very long walk to most homeless services downtown, and Tina still gets her mail at Marian House Soup Kitchen and visits Peak Vista's Homeless Health Center for help with persistent physical and mental ailments.
Getting to the clinic is especially hard. Tina usually has to walk all the way there, and she must leave at 5 a.m. if she wants to be seen.
Still, this place is home until she has a place of her own.
"I've made a lot of new friends here, a lot of my family is here, my street family," she says. "Any one of them, if I have a problem, will be right there with me."
She says her fiancé is working on getting his veteran benefits. Heck, he may even re-enlist. Once they have an income, she says, he's taking her away from here. They'll move to another state, and she'll be safe, and they'll be able to start over.
When Teresa McLaughlin made the decision to do this work, she tried to keep her emotions out of it.
It was hopeless and she gave up.
"Every time they get a job," she says, "I jump up and down like I won the Lotto."
And, it seems, the love is shared. When Tina says the McLaughlins are "the greatest," the other residents nod in agreement.
Any time the McLaughlins need help, the residents are on it. It was the residents who planted the flowers out front. And when Teresa said the motel needed to be painted, she arrived early one morning to find the residents up, already getting the job done.
Teresa estimates that she, Karl and the program have helped over 500 people. Sadly, she thinks about 160 people remain on the streets (a recent United Way count, however, put the number at 572). Teresa says most people still on the streets have serious addiction problems and can't be helped by this program — even if there was room at the motel, which there isn't. But she'll help as many as she can.
And, hey, sometimes you can help people more than you think.
Teresa remembers one day the police called to ask her if she could house a man and his dog who were living in a truck.
Sure thing, she thought.
But this wasn't just anyone. It turned out to be Teresa's ex-husband. She hadn't seen or heard from him in years.
She didn't know if she had it in her to help him. Wouldn't it be... awkward? But she talked to Karl, and they decided it would be OK.
And it has been OK. In fact, Teresa says with a thoughtful smile, it's worked out really well.
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