Homes for homeless: Group works with landlords who have vacant units
Judy Ogle breathes a sigh of relief now that she has a place to call home, something she hasn’t had since January.
She sleeps on an air mattress in the living room of the modest one-bedroom apartment, giving her 15-year-old daughter full reign of the bedroom. Quarters are tight, but it doesn’t matter. Thanks to a lucky break, the 46-year-old single mom hopefully never will have to go back to sleeping in a van, finding money for motel stays or sleeping in a tent by the Colorado River.
“People need to stop being so afraid of homeless people,” she said Thursday while playing with her granddaughter, Abby. “A lot of (homeless people) are just like them; they just don’t have the funds to stay afloat.”
Ogle’s family is one of 14 receiving temporary shelter with the help of a program called Home Now, a collaborative effort by people from local nonprofit organizations, businesses and government agencies that was begun in response to an increasing population of homeless families in the Grand Valley.
Organizers hope to have 50 families in homes by May.
After years of low vacancy rates in the Grand Valley, property owners are seeing more open units as people have abandoned Grand Junction in search of work elsewhere. As of September, 7.5 percent of rentals were open this year, up from a 2.4 percent vacancy rate last year.
Ogle said she simultaneously held down two jobs for more than three years to pay rent on her Grand Junction home. During a two-week span in January, both jobs dried up, and she soon lost the house. It spiraled downward from there.
“I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing when the economy went down,” Ogle said.
The program is not a free ride. Participants pay rent, but often the obstacles to renting — initial expenses such as first and last months’ rent, security deposit and activating utilities — are more than some families can afford. Other barriers include criminal history or a poor credit report.
Home Now works with property owners to allow participants to rent homes at reduced rates or pay rent on a sliding scale. The nonprofit group can help with some costs and take on some of the risk to landlords. In-kind donations by landlords may be eligible for a tax deduction.
The aim is getting people off the street, while filling rental units that might otherwise sit empty.
“The problem is many families have real barriers to finding housing,” said Cathy Haller, Prevention Services Coordinator for School District 51. “Kids can’t focus on their ABCs if they don’t have a place to call home.”
Haller said 323 district students, or 185 families, are considered homeless.
Home Now’s goal is to place 50 families in homes by the spring, but it is aware the need is much greater. Homeless families are identified and referred to the program through the county’s various groups, such as the school district, Hilltop Resources and the Mesa County Department of Human Services. Families in the program also receive follow-up assistance, so they don’t fall back into the cycle of homelessness.
Another Grand Junction family was 15 minutes away from being on the streets, short on money for another night’s stay at a motel. It now has an apartment, at least through the spring.
“I’m not one of those bums on the street that people think about when they think about homelessness,” said the woman, a mother of two who is not being identified because she also is a client of the domestic violence safehouse Latimer House. “It’s so much women and children that are homeless. She’s working her tail off but can’t make enough to get off the ground.”
Families in survival mode can pay up to $1,200 a month for the most reasonable rate at motels, but they don’t have enough money left over for move-in costs to get permanent housing, said Jackie Sievers, executive director of Latimer House.
“These are people who are employed, and then the economy hit them,” she said. “When the economy was booming, landlords could be picky. Now we hope we can match property managers to families.”