The waiting game: Mile high rents send desperate residents to Samaritan House

Aaron Lambert

Jessica Gillard comforted her six-week-old son Cassius, not in the comfortable confines of her own home, but in a common area at the Samaritan House homeless shelter.

Gillard is one of many who are forced to live at shelters such as Samaritan House for a temporary period of time due to skyrocketing rental prices within Denver and the surrounding cities.

“It’s extremely hard to find apartments in Denver,” Gillard said. “I was considering transferring out of Denver County to a different county to see if the housing is any better there, but it’s an epidemic everywhere. It’s hard.”

Gillard moved to Denver from Florida in 2013. She lived with her dad for several years before moving out to live on her own in 2015. Rent prices were so high that she had to apply for a Section 8 voucher to help offset the cost of rent. She ended up in an apartment on Stout Street.

Four months into living in her apartment, Gillard lost her job at the Protein Bar. She reported her loss of income to Section 8, but there was never any follow-through on their part. She was evicted from her apartment, which brought her to Samaritan House at the end of November. She was eight months pregnant with her son. Two weeks passed, and Cassius was born on Dec. 16.

Samaritan House requires all of their residents adhere to a 120-day case management program while staying there. This includes attending classes related to employment and money management, regularly submitting “job search” and “housing search” logs, and saving 85% of their income.

Jessica Gillard turned to Samaritan House when she lost her job and was evicted from her apartment while eight months pregnant with her son, Cassius. Samaritan House has seen an influx of people who have become less as a result of getting priced out of the rental market. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

Gillard is just now getting back into the job market after having her baby. She’s been searching for housing per Samaritan House’s requirements, but what she’s found hasn’t been very promising.

She said she has an entire folder full of apartments she’s looked at, and almost all of them have no openings for two to five years. The ones that do have vacant units are out of her voucher range, so she’s stuck waiting.

“Am I supposed to be in transitional housing for two to five years before an apartment opens up?” Gillard asked. “It’s nice that they offer these vouchers, but once you have your voucher, the apartments that accept it have no openings for years to come. It’s a bit frustrating.”

Shawn Lovejoy, another Samaritan House resident forced to live there due to the unaffordability of Denver housing, agreed with Gillard. Lovejoy has been struggling to pay for housing in Denver and the surrounding area for the past 10 years. His wife went on permanent disability after their son was born in 2006, and their income dropped by half.

They lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Aurora, for which they paid $1500 per month. However, Lovejoy said that once water, utilities and similar expenses are factored in, it becomes closer to $2000 a month, which they couldn’t afford. They applied for government assistance, but didn’t qualify because they made too much money.

Shawn lost his job, which forced him to dip into their savings in order to live. They lived in a hotel for a while, but that was too expensive as well.

“It got to the point where we had no choice, so we came to [Samaritan House],” Lovejoy said.

Lovejoy and his family have been at Samaritan House since Jan. 3. Samaritan House helped him become employed again in Aurora. He recently started working again and is doing everything in his power to support his family and put his income into savings, but the search for an affordable place to live continues.

Jonathan Ghaly, a Denver real estate agent, attributes the rising housing prices to supply and demand. He said Denver is one of the rare cities in the U.S. that is both desirable and affordable; it’s not as expensive to live in Denver as it is in cities such as San Francisco and New York, and it has a strong and inviting job market, not to mention over 300 days of sunlight per year.

“These factors are leading to lower vacancy rates and high rents,” Ghaly said. “In 2000, rents in Denver averaged $762 a month. Today, they are averaging $1,300 a month. That is a huge increase, but is more evidence for the demand in Denver.”

Geoff Bennett, Vice President of Shelter and Community Outreach Services for Catholic Charities, sees firsthand the devastating effects of rapidly rising rents on people such as Gillard and Lovejoy.

“What we’ve seen lately is a large increase of people getting kicked out of their apartments because of rents being raised, sometimes doubling,” Bennett said. “They weren’t homeless, but they are now. We’re seeing a lot of new homeless who are getting priced out of the housing market.”

Samaritan House used to get only 15 to 20 families looking for a room to stay in when one became open, but Bennett said now they’re getting around 50 families on a consistent basis for every vacancy.

“It’s a significant issue that’s affecting a lot of families,” he said.

Samaritan House is the largest shelter under the Catholic Charities name, but they have several other shelters, including the Father Ed Judy House for women and children and shelters in Greeley and Fort Collins.

The employment center at Samaritan House finds jobs for 50 people per month, Bennett said. They also make sure that any school-aged children are enrolled in school within three days of staying there, and they help find child care if it’s needed.

Bennett said there are plans to break ground in March on their property in Greeley to build 48 new Section 8 units.

“The need is immediate, so it’s definitely something that’s high on our priority list,” he said.

In spite of their circumstances, Gillard and Lovejoy are grateful to be staying at Samaritan House. Samaritan House helped with Gillard’s postpartum care after giving birth, and Lovejoy said it’s great to have a place to stay and live in, as opposed to a walk-in overnight shelter.

They both said the 120-day program is helpful while staying there, but they’re still waiting for answers as to where they’re going to go after their time at Samaritan House comes to an end.

“Samaritan House does offer the program here, but once time runs out and we’re still in the midst of waiting, what is there to do?” Gillard said. “It would be nice to know where we’re going to go.”

“The give us classes and every tool you need to get back out there, but it’s hard, even with all that,” Lovejoy said.

COMING UP: Remembering John Paul the Great: Three new books

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When teaching college students a few years ago, I was shocked when I asked my students to tell me what they knew about Pope St. John Paul II. It wasn’t much. We went on to read George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2004), and the students were blown away by the greatness and compelling life of the Pope. The class made me realize how quickly the memory of even monumental figures can fade away if we do not work deliberately to continue their legacy.

The first place to begin “getting to know” John Paul better would be Weigel’s biography, mentioned above, along with the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2010). In addition, I would recommend John Paul’s interview book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995) and his trilogy of greatest encyclicals: Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. The great Pope left us an enormous legacy of writings to explore, but especially relevant now are his “Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio (an exhortation on the family), and the Theology of the Body.

For those looking go deeper in their knowledge of John Paul, three new books can help us to remember and continue his great work for the renewal of Church and society.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017)

The final volume of a tryptic of the Pope, Weigel provides a memoir of his interactions with John Paul and an account of how he became his biographer. For those who love Witness to Hope, Weigel provides a fascinating account of how the book came about, tracing his work within the Vatican, Poland, and across the world. It narrates his own story as seminarian, lay theology student, writer, and his activity in politics, including writing speeches for a leader of the pro-life movement in Congress. His work caught John Paul’s attention, especially his book chronicling the Church’s role in the fall of Communism, The Final Revolution. Weigel gives testimony to the providence that prepared him to write John Paul’s biography and the friendship they developed in their common witness to the hope that comes from Christ.

Paul Kengor, The Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI, 2017)

This book traces not only the remarkable working friendship of Regan and John Paul, but narrates the entire story of the struggle between European Communism and the Church. Surprisingly, the book’s common thread comes from Our Lady of Fatima, predicting Russia’s errors and uniting the faithful in prayer, as well as guiding not only John Paul but also Reagan. The two men recognized their providential role in what Reagan called the Divine Plan to end Communism in Europe. Portraits of many other key characters (on both sides) emerge: Stalin, Pope Pius XII, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Gorbachev. Kengor presents extraordinary connections between the two figures: both were actors, deep men of prayer, survived assassination attempts only months apart, and played key leadership roles in the world. The book presents ground breaking research to make a compelling and undeniable case that the two great men worked together closely and succeeded in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe.

Pope St. John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries 1962-2003 (Harper One, 2017)

This book gives us inside access to John Paul’s prayer life by presenting notes of his regular retreats from his time as a bishop through most of his papacy. It’s somewhat misnamed, as the book consists in his notebooks responding to the retreat material, not a normal diary. It reinforces what we know about the Pope: his strong focus on the Eucharist, his Marian spirituality of uniting our intentions to her fiat, and his concern as a bishop for the evangelization of his people. There are many gems, such as the following: “The most appropriate effects of the redemption in the human being are deeds that stem from it – deeds that through Mary are rooted in Christ, through one’s belong it Her, and that are simultaneously in accordance with Christ’s law, with His gospel” (10). The book will not disappoint those looking to enter more deeply into the spirituality of John Paul.