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: Recovering a sense of celebration

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

With the seemingly ever-increasing number of days dedicated to celebrating various causes or events, the Church presents us with the season of Advent, a time of preparation that can help us recover a true sense of celebration.

More than 100 years ago, no less than Friedrich Nietzsche, the frequent critic of traditional values, warned that people were losing the ability to truly celebrate. “The trick is not to arrange a festival,” he said, “but to find people who can enjoy it.”

As a society, we have found so many occasions to celebrate that one digital marketer created the Days of the Year website to keep track of everything from Flossing Day to more serious things like Native American Heritage month. This flurry of partying is amplified by social media posts, likes, and shares, but one is hard pressed to give convincing reasons for commemorating things like Squirrel Appreciation Day.

As a culture, we need to recover the reasons we celebrate and feast, and that must start with one of the greatest events in human history, the moment when God entered human history as a man, which we celebrate at Christmas.

Truly celebrating an occasion, according to the theologian and philosopher Josef Pieper, involves more than just having a good time. It involves participating in “the utmost perfection to which man may attain … the partaking of the utmost fullness that life has to offer.” In other words, through our celebration we connect with and express our longing for the eternal, to be with the God who is love, truth, and mercy for eternity.

Pieper explains this in his book In Tune with the World by saying, “to celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.” And the most radical assent to the world and creation, he says, is to praise God for it, to recognize the gift and beauty of creation.

Pope Francis picked up the theme of celebration in his 2015 series of reflections on the family. During his August 12 general audience, the Holy Father defined celebration as “first and foremost a loving and grateful look at work well done. … It’s time to look at our home, our friends we host, the community that surrounds us, and to think: what a good thing! God did this when he created the world. And he does so again and again, because God is always creating, even at this moment!”

In just a few days, we celebrate Thanksgiving. For many people, the holiday is focused on family, the food, drinks and entertainment rather than the reason for celebrating – giving thanks to God for his provision and blessing. But if we can reconnect with the reason for celebrating, we will experience a deeper, more authentic joy.

Advent, which begins on December 3, presents us with another period of time to direct our hearts and minds toward the great gift of Christ’s coming at Christmas and his eventual Second Coming, when the longing of all creation for eternity will be satisfied.

Pope Francis has noted that the family “is endowed with an extraordinary ability to understand, guide and sustain the authentic value of the time for celebration. How beautiful family celebrations are, they are beautiful! Sunday celebrations in particular.”

Some of the ways that families and individuals can prepare for joyfully celebrating these great gifts include, using an Advent wreath, celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas, blessing the Christmas tree, reciting the “O Antiphons,” celebrating the Marian Feasts of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of the New Advent, and making sacrifices in pursuit of spiritual growth. All will lead us to a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ!

During this holiday season, I encourage everyone to rediscover the reasons we celebrate, which open us to the transcendent and help us become people who can truly enjoy the feast.