MONTROSE – Through the windows of a mustard-colored house on a street near downtown, sunlight pours onto century-old wood floors.
"We are all alcoholics here," said Erick, who oversees the Serenity Supportive House, a drug-and-alcohol-free residence at 137 N. Cascade for those working to free themselves from addiction.
Erick, 64, who does not want to use his last name, speaks matter-of-factly. The first step in the Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous recovery program is for participants to acknowledge an awareness of their physical and mental condition, and the terms "alcoholic" and “addict” are a lifelong reminder for the addict of his or her disease.
Erick, a recovering alcoholic who moved to Montrose in 1973 after serving four years in the Air Force, has been involved in the AA program for 34 years. He has spent 15 of those years working with inmates at the Montrose County Jail, doing drug and alcohol counseling, and has now poured his own money, as well as time and effort, into making the Serenity House a success.
Eight months ago, Erick contacted the owner of the property to discuss a way to build a transitional program for those just released from jail – and those seeking sobriety. It has six bedrooms, including a pair of rooms stacked with bunk beds; the maximum population in the house is 10, according to Erick.
The Serenity House is modeled on the Oxford House, the national self-help recovery housing program created in 1975, with nearly 1,700 locations nationwide. Residents pay $63 a week in rent, due each Monday, and must participate weekly AA, NA and/or AL-Anon meetings; according to Erick, Serenity House is more lenient than Oxford House, if residents suffer a relapse. "We continue to give them leeway. We can't put them on the street,” he said, although “stricter rules are applied” to residents, after a relapse.
"You have to understand we're dealing with metal obsession and physical craving,” he added. “We have to take this into account. Those who do not continue to follow the rules are evicted," he said.
‘I GOT TIRED OF SLEEPING ON ROCKS’
"This man has a heart the size of Texas," said Steven, a 37-year-old alcoholic, of Erick.
In 2010, Steven moved his family to Montrose from Las Vegas, where he had been successful in the air conditioning and refrigeration industry. He subsequently lost everything – his wife, his two children and his money – to his alcoholism, which peaked one day, when he lost control and ended up in a standoff with police. He was arrested and taken to jail, where he met Erick.
Upon his release from jail, homeless and drinking again, Steven said, he began “walking,” making his bed wherever he could, along the Uncompahgre River. No tent, no sleeping bag, just the clothes on his back.
Seven months ago, he contacted Erick, and said he wanted to get clean. "I got tired of sleeping on rocks,” Steven said. “I called him… ready to give up, ready to die, and I've been here ever since.”
Despite a few relapses, he has now stayed clean for more than two months, and sees his children regularly.
Serenity House Manager Joy, a 36-year-old mother of four, left her alcoholic husband after years of abuse, and wound up living in her car. A friend introduced her to Erick and she has been in the house ever since. Joy makes sure residents complete their chores and attend a weekly meeting; her kids visit, every other week, staying in the room next to hers.
IN OLATHE, HAVEN HOUSE SHELTERS HOMELESS FAMILIES
Erick’s goal is to launch a second recovery house in Montrose, with a similar program. To that end, he is applying for 501©3 nonprofit status, and preparing grants to help the house continue renovations. Helping Erick is Chad Gage, who, with his wife, Jessica, became homeless just after Thanksgiving.
The couple found shelter at the Haven House, a former farm dormitory in Olathe that now functions as a shelter for homeless families; its inhabitants are participating in the most intensive study of at-risk individuals and families facing homelessness in the area in years.
Chad, 38, worked for 19 years, climbing the chain of command to national sales manager of an office furniture company whose largest client was General Motors. Then came the recession came – and the bankruptcy of GM.
"We were part of the auto industry demise, and it was sad,” he said. “I worked for half my life for that company," he said – long enough, he joked, that he had “forgotten” how to put a resume together.
The couple described Chad’s losing his job, losing their home to foreclosure and winding up couch-surfing with family and friends.
A friend of a friend suggested Montrose as a great place with a "small-town feel." Leaving their two sons with relatives in Michigan, the couple arrived in Montrose in October 2011, looking for any kind of work they could find. Last summer they found work landscaping in Ridgway and Log Hill; the work ended this fall, and shortly after Thanksgiving, having depleted their savings to pay rent, the couple moved into the Haven House, both unemployed.
‘A GOOD STARTING POINT’
For three days last month, volunteers with the Montrose Coalition on Homelessness conducted a survey, in conjunction with the Colorado Counts Points in Time Survey and the national 100,000 Homes Campaign Vulnerability Index, to ascertain the region’s number of homeless residents and why they remain homeless.
Coalition Chair and Regional Director of Hilltop Kaye Hotsenpiller said of the 100 surveys distributed, about 50 to 60 were completed and returned. Hotsenpiller pronounced the survey “a good starting point,” in beginning to address “the gaps in dealing with this population." According to Annie Bacci, Homeless Program Manager with the Colorado Division of Housing in Denver, identifying and contrasting the needs of rural communities like Montrose with those of large cities like Denver and Ft. Collins can help develop a streamlined plan of action.
Survey results will give the coalition a point of comparison for the last formal count, conducted nearly six years ago, according to Montrose County Housing Authority President Tim Heavers.
Heavers described the Montrose homeless population as a "moving target" that fluctuates in both good and bad economies; many homeless people are transient, he added, and don't stay for very long in the area.
Still, the survey represents “the first attempt to get updated numbers that we can compare" to previous numbers, he said.
Through the housing authority, applications for a Section 8 rental assistance program have skyrocketed, between 2008 and 2011, with as many as 400 Section 8 applicants listing themselves as homeless, said Heavers. "As the economy got worse, we got more and more people on the waiting list, and we were telling people that it could be two year waiting list," he said.
"People here say that there isn't a homeless problem, that's because they don't see them," said Garey Martinez, a coalition member who is co-founder of Shepherd's Hands in Montrose, a nonprofit facility that serves breakfast and lunch to needy individuals and families each day.
Shepherd's Hands, operating out of the MADA Building, at 17 No. Sixth St., opened in November 2011, offering access to laundry, internet, the telephone and job services seven days a week.
Its clients are people who “are really [at] the bottom of the barrel, sleeping down by the river or in storage units," Martinez said.
There is no homeless shelter right now in Montrose, although Martinez hopes to obtain funding to operate a full-time shelter in the near future.
"The morning after our first snowstorm this year,” he said, “I arrived to unlock the door and there were five people standing in the cold. One told me he had slept outside under the patio bench in the storm. All they wanted was a place to get warm.”
Haven House residents like Chad and Jessica, who took the Montrose Homelessness Survey on Jan. 23, are among the homeless population’s lucky ones; the survey took them maybe 10 minutes to complete, because most of its questions were geared toward people sleeping outside, who lack permanent housing.
Agencies participating in the survey included the Haven House, Montrose Housing Authority, Sharing Ministries, Montrose County Workforce Center, Christ’s Kitchen, Center for Mental Health, Montrose County Health and Human Services, Montrose School District, Hilltop and the Shepherd’s Hand.
A debriefing of the homeless survey will take place on March 5 from 9-11 a.m. at the Montrose Department of Health and Human Services (1845 S. Townsend)
For information about Serenity House, call Erick at 970/240-8985 or Steven at 970/210-2147.