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A new pathway out of homelessness

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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 healthcare, 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.”

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.

The couple went to a bar every Thursday night to shoot pool. Other than that, they kept to themselves, rarely willing to risk a relationship for fear of being scorned.

“We don’t talk to but a few people,” Joe said.

Now, he was face to face with two earnest strangers eager to befriend him.

Dave Scott, an accountant, and Mark Zahringer, a manager at a real-estate investment trust, had only recently met, though both attended the same evangelical church in the upper-middle-class suburb of Parker, about 35 minutes south of Denver. Neither had any experience as a mentor. Their only preparation was two hours of training.

Dave, 36, volunteered thinking of Jesus’ commandment to help the poor.

Mark’s motives were more complicated. He had long viewed the homeless as unworthy of his time: “I thought it was their own damn fault.”

Then one night, he joined his church to serve meals at a soup kitchen. He watched the ragged families and wondered what kept them from a normal life. “God was telling me, ‘Check this out a little more,’ ” said Mark, 40.

He became a mentor hoping to turn a family around by modeling his work ethic. First, though, he had to break through Joe’s hostility.

Mark ran through his own life story: kicked out of the house at age 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. Joe told the mentors about the $15 steak dinner he bought his oldest for making honor roll. Corie interrupted to remind her dad she had to get to school early for student council. “It’s hat day,” she told him. “We pay $1 and we get to wear a hat. And all the money goes to poor people.”

With Angel starting to fidget, the mentors broached the topic of need. “What can we do to help and support you?” Mark asked.

Now that she had the $1,200 grant, Christina was sure she could find a rental. But what would they sleep on? She refused to take their motel bedding with them: “It’s all infested with cockroaches.” The mentors jotted notes.

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.”

A real house

Christina was practically singing. It was the first week of April, and her family was in a house.

A real house, red brick, with three small bedrooms, a bathroom with buckling tiles, and a basement hideaway for their oldest, Joey. He threw a thin mattress on the floor and hung up his treasures: a Denver Broncos towel and two Broncos hats, so faded the orange looked pink.

The neighborhood was poor; some homes had plywood tacked across broken windows, or iron bars in place of screen doors. But it was just a few miles from the Broncos’ football stadium, and Christina figured they could drive there on Sundays to watch the fans stream in. “The boys are so excited,” she said.

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 huge, ornate dressers.

One afternoon, Dave invited Christina and Joe to pick out a queen-size mattress -- on him -- at the furniture store where he worked.

“It was $700,” Christina marveled.

“After his store discount, $647,” Joe said.

“It’s so thick I need to jump a little to get up on it,” Christina said.

“We’ve never had a new bed that no one else slept in,” Joe said, “much less a bed like that.”

He and Christina had browsed the store in the past and felt the clerks sneering. This time, though, “they were falling all over to help us,” Joe said.

Dave had hoped for just such an experience.

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.

The way Dave looked at it, the key to nudging Joe into the job market was to give him confidence. So he asked his colleagues at the mattress store to go out of their way to let Joe know he mattered: “The point was, let’s show them that there are people out there who will treat them with respect.”

Joe and Christina were far more accustomed to being treated with suspicion. As soon as they enrolled Joey in his new high school, for instance, an administrator called them into the office. “He was like, ‘We need an action plan for attendance. We need an action plan for grades,’ ” Christina said, her voice rough with anger. “My son has all A’s. He’s never missed a day.”

Christina had been fighting assumptions since she first met Joe. He was living on the streets of Las Vegas, hanging with a gang, tattoos up and down his arms. Christina saw beyond the tough-guy pose. They married young.

The couple shuttled between Las Vegas and Denver several times over the years to be near relatives. Christina usually found work quickly, often at a fast-food restaurant or a Wal-Mart. But three years ago, she hit a dry spell and was unemployed for nearly a year.

The family spent several months in shelters -- each week a different church basement, a different set of eyes judging them.

The motel was more private, but with $420 due every two weeks -- about half her income -- Christina couldn’t save toward a security deposit for an apartment. So they stayed in their two-bedroom unit, their clothes heaped in plastic bins, all four kids crowded into a single room. Joe almost never let them play outside. It was too dangerous.

All that was behind them now: They had a fenced-in yard with a rope swing. They still didn’t have a table, and had to sit on the floor to eat. But there was a TV, left by previous tenants. And, in the bathroom, a linen closet. “We’ve never actually had a closet with a door!” Christina said as she opened it. The shelves contained a curling iron, a toy block and a washcloth.

Angel, trailing her mother, pointed out the washing machine and creaky dryer. “Now you don’t have to go to the laundromat on the weekends,” she told her mom. “And I don’t miss you.”

A turn for the worse

In the two years since Hickenlooper issued his challenge, 150 congregations have reached out to about 300 homeless families. More than 80% remain in rental housing a year after completing the mentoring program, which is funded with about $200,000 from the city and an equal amount from 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.

As the weeks dragged on, no one seemed motivated to set up the third mentoring session. Dave and Mark could tell from brief phone calls with Joe that the Maestas family was struggling.

The starter switch in their ’87 GMC van had died. The crankshaft was broken on their other car, an Oldsmobile with more than 100,000 miles. Grocery bills were up because the neighborhood school had not yet started serving free summer meals. The couple had missed part of a rent payment, though they caught up a few weeks later.

Dave wanted to help; how easy would it be for him to lend Joe $100 to fix the van? “But then it becomes something else and something else, and that defeats the point of teaching them to become self-reliant,” he said. Instead of offering Joe cash, he gave the boys baseball gloves and the girls a few board games.

Mark was far less sympathetic. During his stretch of unemployment, he’d worked two, three, four part-time jobs to keep his family afloat. Joe’s laid-back attitude annoyed him.

“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.”

Changing minds

Through the summer, as they struggled to keep their frustration in check, Mark and Dave watched the Maestases closely over several meetings. They saw a family that worked.

Joe brushed the snarls out of Angel’s thick brown hair. He took Corie fishing, and when she caught an 18-inch trout, he brought it back to show Christina.

Domonic cleaned out his dad’s fishing tackle and surprised his mom by picking up the yard. He watched while his sisters careened around on their bikes, making sure they didn’t veer into traffic. When the chains slipped off the bikes after one too many screeching halts, Joey sat on the stoop to fix them.

“You could line up your kids against mine, and yours would be better-behaved,” Dave told Christina in late August at their last formal meeting.

“I really honestly believe that’s because Joe’s been with them the whole time,” she said. “I told him, ‘If you get a job and the kids start messing up, you’re back home.’ ”

Angel ran over, waving the Barbie doll Dave had given her. “Her shoes come off! Her shoes come off!” she squealed.

“She’s pretty,” Dave said, inspecting the Barbie solemnly. “But not as pretty as you are.”

Angel glowed.

Christina shared her smile. Though she was working at least 50 hours a week, she was more relaxed than she’d been in years. She had received a raise at the auto-parts store in April, to $12.31 an hour. With overtime, she took home about $2,400 a month, enough to splurge on a cable package and high-speed Internet for the old computer Dave had given them.

When Dave presented her with a binder of spreadsheets, Christina hugged it to her chest. On her own, she’d never been able to plan her budgets ahead; if she had money at the end of the week, she spent it. Now she knew exactly how much she needed for upcoming bills. With school starting, she saved up to buy each of her children three new outfits at Wal-Mart. Joey wore a World Wide Wrestling T-shirt, so new the creases still showed. Corie twirled to show off her favorite dress, purple with a plaid pleated skirt.

Christina even found an extra $60 so Joey could join the high school golf team. “It feels great,” she told Dave and Mark. “No stress, man. I love it.”

A few months earlier, Mark might have tried to push her to do more, perhaps save a fixed amount from each paycheck. Now, he just nodded. He didn’t even press her for details on a job Joe had said he might be starting soon, with a relative’s construction crew.

“Different people put value on different things,” Mark said. “I’ve thought about it a lot the past few weeks. Getting that house, having that van, having that family -- that’s enough for them.

“And when I think of how we do it -- a $340,000 home with a huge mortgage, two fancy cars, working all the time -- maybe we’re the ones that got it wrong.”

His tolerance had limits. In his final report, Mark would give Joe and Christina only an average chance of becoming self-sufficient. He would also recommend letting future families join the program only if both adults were willing to work. But asked how the experience affected him, he checked the box marked “positive.”

Over the summer, Mark and his wife had faced an unexpected opportunity to adopt two young girls from foster care. Mark knew taking in the girls would leave them living nearly paycheck to paycheck. But he thought of Christina and Joe, and he said yes.

“Do I want to drive an old van like they do? Do I want to live where they do? No. But I don’t want to live in a $5-6-700,000 house anymore,” Mark said.

Dave, too, started thinking of life differently. He had always taken seriously his Christian duty to help the poor. Every Christmas, he and his wife would drive downtown to hand money to the homeless. Now he saw that cash was the least of it.

“You can hand them $10 and check it off your list,” he said. “Or you can stop, say, ‘Hi, my name is Dave,’ and make them feel part of society. . . . I gained the courage to do that.”

After they’d talked a while at a donated table -- no more eating on the floor -- Christina, Dave and Mark went out back to enjoy the late-afternoon sun.

The girls rode bikes through the dirt yard, ducking under the jeans that flapped from the clothesline. (The old dryer had finally broken.) Domonic watched to make sure Angel didn’t ride into the alley. Joey stood at attention, practicing for ROTC.

As the mentors stood waving at the girls -- and discussed how to get Christina another dryer by winter -- Joe turned into the driveway, home from a fishing trip. He shook hands with Mark and Dave but didn’t talk much about his job. “I haven’t worked in a while, so I’m a little nervous about it,” he said. “But I’m ready. This is what I wanted to do.”

A few weeks later, Joe told his mentors the job had fallen through.

He’s still looking, Christina says. “No rush.”

--

stephanie.simon@latimes.com


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