Growing up in small-town Idaho, Nicole Dozier didn't have much to set her sights on.
Her mom took off when she was a baby. Her dad and sister left soon after to make a life for themselves in Colorado. Nicole was left with only her grandmother for family, and the older woman brought her up in a town of farmers and potato plant workers.
When Nicole was 18, what little vestiges of hope and security she had were swept out from underneath her with an uncharitable haste. Barely out of the house, and trying to make a life in a shared space with friends, Nicole got a call from her grandmother.
"It was kind of sudden," Nicole says, tears streaming. "She called me and told me she had cancer and she was going to die and she was OK with it."
Two weeks later, Nicole's grandmother was gone. And suddenly, Nicole, whose shared living situation hadn't worked out, was completely alone. And homeless.
That's when she started to get close to a boy from town named Jami McIver. Jami was the son of a farmer and handyman, who had always wanted to free himself of the family yoke. He had been homeless, too, for a short while, but had gotten a place, and soon Nicole was moved in.
The two got by for a while working in the potato plants, then moved to Colorado to reunite with Nicole's father and sister. But they weren't interested.
"It was closure to a lot of things," Nicole says softly.
Still, Jami got a job cleaning gutters, and they found an apartment here. Then Dahlia, their daughter, was born. And suddenly Nicole had a family again. There were a couple happy, hectic months with the newborn — until Jami was laid off, they ran out of money, and Nicole found herself looking for somewhere they could go.
"If we had gone to a homeless shelter," Nicole says, "we wouldn't have been able to stay together."
Room at the Inn
Nicole read about homeless people finding refuge at the Express Inn, at Cimarron and Eighth streets, back when the city was providing some funding for emergency housing at the motel.
The family has lived here in a tiny room for over a year now. Nicole has done a remarkable job with it. Dahlia has a toddler bed that slides under Nicole and Jami's bed. There's a couch in here, a couple TVs, bins of toys, and a neatly labeled shelf for all the canned and dry food. A full-size refrigerator is on one wall, next to a microwave/convection oven. There are hotplates and a dish drainer on the counter of the bathroom sink. Portraits of Dahlia on her birthday and Christmas are taped to the mirror. Nicole has even put down a soft blanket and books in one corner, so Dahlia, now 1 year old and walking, has a place for quiet play.
Nicole says the Express Inn has been good for them and the many other families they know that live there. Food pantry workers visit regularly, and supplement their food stamps. People bring by so many free clothes that they haven't had to buy any new outfits for Dahlia. And the management gave Jami a job in July as the housekeeping supervisor. That pays the rent, plus a few hundred bucks a month.
Jami says he likes the work — especially getting to help those homeless tent campers who are assisted through a program that runs out of the Express. "When I take sheets and towels to one of these homeless guys who have been sleeping in the streets, they're ecstatic," he says. "That really gets me off."
But even this temporary situation may not hold out for the family. The Express Inn is facing foreclosure. The C-C Boarding Home Annex, which runs the tent camper program, is looking into buying the hotel.
Kids in cars
Only a couple motels officially play host to homeless programs. One is the Express, of course. The other is the Aztec at 1921 E. Platte Ave., which is home to an El Pomar Foundation-funded homeless housing program headed by Bob Holmes. There are currently about 70 people at the Aztec.
Originally, its program was meant to help the tent campers who populated the creek beds in 2008 and 2009. But gradually, the focus shifted. Now the Aztec only accepts families with children.
The change started after the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team, which is charged with connecting the homeless to shelter and other resources, started finding more and more families with kids, all living in cars.
"A lot of times you'll see them sleeping in cars because they don't know where to go," says HOT Team Officer Brett Iverson. "There's no family shelters where they let the family stay together."
The Aztec, Holmes says, is the perfect resource for these families. They can stay as long as they're looking for work, or applying for needed benefits, such as disability. Once a family member gets a job, the family can stay at the Aztec until they save enough to get an apartment. Since the Aztec is rent-free, it's easier for people to get back on their feet.
But the Aztec also has small rooms, and people are packed in tight the way it is. What's more, the Aztec runs out of funding on April 15. Holmes is hopeful more funding will come through so the program can continue. But there are just no guarantees.