“I’ve been given the privilege to serve the most courageous and bravest people I’ve ever met.”

by Cecilia LaFrance

07.03.2019

Two siblings play inside the secured lot at the VOA Family Motel. Their mother, newly arrived in Denver after multiple stops from Minnesota, says they will be moving on soon, living a week at a time at different churches, until her paperwork for child care assistance comes through and she joins her husband in the work force to afford rent on their own.

The linoleum tile floor and the texture-coated ceiling tiles of the project manager’s office at the Family Motel date back to its more prosperous years as a Hwy 40 motor lodge. The simple room hosts practical furniture and not enough file cabinets to store boxes of files marked with shred dates. Manager Nichole Stephens’ desk is just up the stairs from the motel’s front desk, often mistaken as the Aristocrat Motor Hotel due the vintage sign remaining near the gate. The building resides near others in a depressed area along West Colfax Avenue, but a Volunteers of America sign on the gate clearly distinguishes it from others of questionable repute. A nonprofit affiliated hotel is remarkable enough, but having a licensed social worker as manager adds intention. For the homeless assigned at the temporary living shelter, Stephens’ role includes support in their plight to permanently get off the streets.

Nothing Like It

“There’s nothing like it in Denver,” Stephens says of the VOA’s joint venture with Denver County Department of Human Services and the Department of Veteran Affairs. She should know. Stephens spent 16 years working with the homeless population and managed two other shelters. Sitting stoically at a sturdy table opposite her desk, Stephens’ respect for her current post comes through in a calm, steady voice. Instead of the instability of a shelter’s rotating door, the Family Motel allows guests a reprieve from the daily burden of packing up each morning only to worry about finding a place to stay that night. What’s more, a family arriving with their voucher from Denver DHS receives support. “We have a social worker on site five days a week,” Stephens says, to build a plan for self-sufficiency.  In fact, Denver DHS assigns two case workers, and the VA stations one case worker at the site.

 “I’ve been given the privilege to serve the most courageous and bravest people I’ve ever met.” Stephens focuses inward, and, after a weighted silence, finds character descriptors of resilience, hope, and faith to add to the compliment. Her exposure to the families at the hotel ranges from one night to two weeks, her role a brief face during a traumatic time. “There’s something about them that blows me away.”

Through Stephens’ tolerance, an opposing view to common stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness is offered. Judgmental opinions and accusations against the homeless need to be dispelled, she says, like laziness or complacency. Stephens wants people to be aware of the costs associated with homelessness, both the monetary and the compound mental damage too abstract to measure. “I think we’re wasting an awful lot of human potential when people are scrambling day-to-day to survive.”

A Family Job

Stephens gives greater credit to the tasks of the temporary guests than to her work.  “We provide space, staff, and food. They’re the ones who have to figure out how to get their 10-year-old to school.” Sounding much like a lawyer representing a client, Stephens lists challenges parents incur beyond the fundamental labor of guardian responsibilities, elaborating on a scenario a 10-year-old’s mother may live out: her son’s school is in a suburb on the other side of Denver, but she has no transportation nor money for gas if she did have a car; a bus ride burns 45 minutes at a minimum–both ways if she escorts him; and, she’s due at work by 9:00 a.m. Those are only the morning’s challenges. “Being homeless is a tough job,” Stephens says. If on the streets, instead of in the Family Motel, the mother risks compounding her problems if she loses employment– she can’t shower, may not have a change of clothes, and is drained from staying awake at night to comfort and shield her child from further harm. “It’s hard to get everyday things done if you don’t know where you’re sleeping at night,” Stephens says. The Family Motel gives temporary security and some breathing room.

A Clear View

Working with the homeless wasn’t something Stephens planned on. “I literally fell into it.” The more time the social worker spent working with people without a home, the more she identified and challenged her own stereotypes and judgments. “I found this is the population I want to work with.”

“This is where I’m supposed to be.” Stephens light eyes reflect the afternoon sun beaming on the second floor office window. Outside, a mother carrying bags of groceries follows her two sons up the stairs. The youngest boy hops the last step onto the metal balcony, the fuzzy mop on his head bends with a tilted curiosity toward Stephens’ presence behind the glass. “I see it all,” Stephens says of the hardship, the grief, and struggles each day. “What I choose to focus on is the courage, faith, bravery, and resilience.” Her hands clasp under chin, elbows grounded on the table. A silver cross inlaid with jade hangs at the base of her throat. “That focus is what allows me to keep coming back here.”

Nichole Stephens says the VOA Family Motel is unique in that it allows a secure site for families for more than a night at a time. Stephens preferred not to be photographed for this interview.

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