Denver mentoring program for homeless families could be national model

? Arms folded, his chair jammed against the wall, Joe Maestas glowered at the men who could help his family out of homelessness. His wife, Christina, sat at his side, pale and tense.

This meeting was their best chance to escape the filthy motel where they and their four children had lived for two years. A novel city program had offered them $1,200 to move into a decent rental.

But the money came with a catch: For six months, Joe and Christina would have to open their lives to two men assigned to coach the family out of poverty.

The Maestas children warmed to the mentors at once as they all gathered in the break room of Christina’s workplace in mid-March. Corie, 9, drew them a smiling kitty. Domonic, 13, shyly asked for help with his literature homework.

Their father tugged his worn baseball cap down low, so his eyes were nearly hidden. Joe didn’t like anyone presuming to help his family, no matter how good their intentions. “They tell you how to live,” he said.

Mentorship program

Hailed as a national model, the mentorship program began two years ago after Democratic Mayor John W. Hickenlooper challenged every church, mosque and synagogue to adopt one of the 600 homeless families in metropolitan Denver.

Like other cities, including Los Angeles, Denver is trying to help the homeless off the streets with expanded counseling and more low-cost housing. This program would be something new.

Hickenlooper envisioned congregations raising money to move families into rental housing. Volunteers would teach the parents life skills: how to plan a household budget, advance at work, go back to school, find health care, shop wisely. If all went well, the mentors would become friends, and tethers, for families on the edge.

“So much of the talk about helping the homeless involves building affordable housing and funding services. That’s very important. But change happens with person-to-person contact,” said Brad Hopkins , who runs the program for the city of Denver and the Denver Rescue Mission, a nonprofit partner. “The big thing these families lack is healthy, supportive relationships to guide them to self-sufficiency.”

The Maestas family

In nearly 17 years of marriage, Christina and Joe had made their own way in life, and they were fiercely protective of their choices. Christina, 36, earned the sole paycheck as second assistant manager at an auto-parts store. Joe, 35, made dinner, ramen noodles or his specialty, bologna chili.

She took every overtime shift she could; he stayed home with the children: Joey Jr., 15 ; Domonic ; Corie ; and Angel, 7.

Dave Scott, an accountant, and Mark Zahringer, a manager at a real-estate investment trust, only recently had met. Neither had any experience as a mentor. Their only preparation was two hours of training.

Dave, 36, volunteered after reflecting about Jesus’ commandment to help the poor.

Mark, 40, ran through his own life story: kicked out of the house at 15, put himself through college, made it big in real estate – but left his job just before the Sept. 11 attacks upended the economy. Out of work for seven months, he lost his home; he, his wife and their two sons had to crash in a friend’s basement.

Joe nodded gruffly: “Been there. Done that.”

As Joe relaxed, the four adults talked, awkwardly at first, their conversation skipping from football to camping to love at first sight.

After the goodbyes, Dave stood in the doorway of the auto-parts store, and with the chill night air rushing in, unfolded the picture Corie had drawn. On it, she had written: “Remember us.”

New home

It was the first week of April, and Joe’s family was in a house.

Dave and Mark had asked their congregation for donations and hauled over a trove of hand-me-downs: an overstuffed couch; plaid easy chairs; a microwave; two dressers.

Joe had done a great job raising the children, but both mentors thought it was past time for him to find work. Rent was $900 a month. The family could make it, barely, on Christina’s salary of $11.90 an hour. But they had nothing to spare for a medical emergency or a repair to their 20-year-old van. If Christina ever lost her job, they’d be on the brink of eviction within weeks.


In the two years since Hickenlooper issued his challenge, 150 congregations have reached out to about 300 homeless families. More than 80 percent remain in rental housing a year after completing the mentoring program, which is funded by the city and the rescue mission.

At first, Mark and Dave felt certain the Maestas family would be one of the success stories. Joe would get a job. Little by little, the family would build up a rainy-day reserve, then start saving toward bigger goals.

At their second meeting, in mid-April, Dave showed Christina how to track household expenses on a spreadsheet. Mark gave Joe the name of a friend who had a warehouse job available. The job was Joe’s. All he had to do was call.

He didn’t. “It’s been excuse after excuse after excuse,” Mark fumed in early June.

In the spring, Joe said he would start work after the children settled into their new schools. Then, he thought he should stay home while they were on summer vacation. He told Dave and Mark that he had his resume out. But he went fishing a lot.

“He’s a really likable, good-hearted guy, but it’s like, what are you doing, dude?” Mark said. “It’s like they don’t want to get ahead.”

He tried to remind himself that he was there to serve the family, not to impose his values on them.

“When you’re a Type A person like I am, it’s frustrating, but I can’t nag Joe,” Mark said. “I can’t judge him. It’s not my life. All I can do is try to help him.”