Aurora Sentinel by KARA MASON
AURORA | On an average day, the Ready To Work transitional housing center in Boulder is quiet, but steadily buzzing with interns hoping their janitorial work will land them a spot in the program among three dozen or so other homeless locals.
Bridge House, which runs the Ready To Work program, wants to replicate their services in Aurora if they can find a spot similar to the one they have in Boulder. There, the facility sits between an older neighborhood and some businesses. A bank is set to open across the street in the coming months and beyond that is a preschool.
From the outside the building looks like a run of the mill office space — because it was. Bridge House turned the building into transitional housing for up to 44 trainees, who are required to be sober and clean, work 29 hours per week and participate in other supportive services, such as financial development, counseling and drug testing.
The goal is to provide the participants with a place to stay for a year while they build up skills and work experience, then they’re able to return to the workforce full time and, even more, they’re able to live a life off the streets.
“Everybody around here has been so supportive,” said Isabel McDevitt, the executive director of Bridge House.
In Aurora, the search for a location for the Ready To Work program hasn’t been as painless.
In response to their attempt to expand to Aurora, the city council passed an amended ordinance this summer that banned congregate living facilities from operating within 300 feet of a school. That prevented Bridge House from planting their Ready To Work program in a former Bingo Hall at 16000 E. Colfax Ave.
Councilwoman Renie Peterson, who represents the ward where the center was first proposed, said more than 1,100 people who signed a petition opposing Ready To Work on Colfax don’t want it near their homes.
“This has gone way out of control,” Peterson said at the beginning of the year when the ordinance was first being drafted.
“It’s harming my residents. I’ve been serving them for 12 years, and I’ve done it well, and the people appreciate me and they know that I’ve always stood for them, and I’m not backing down now. No staff member, no deputy manager, no homeless coordinator, no city manager is going to stop me from fighting this.”
Now, with the ordinance in place and a process to follow, Bridge House thinks it may have found a different and far less controversial location near Nine Mile Station at 3176 S. Peoria Court. The 22,000-square-foot office building could easily be transformed into a building similar to the one in Boulder, with a kitchen, showers and bedrooms. It also meets the city’s new regulations.
The building in Boulder is staffed 24 hours per day, as would be the Aurora location. Residents are able to leave the facility for work, appointments, education and other events. That was a major reason why the program worked for Joshua Fobbs, who successfully graduated from Ready To Work and now works as a driver for an airport shuttle company.
He notes he just got his CDL license, an accomplishment Fobbs said probably wouldn’t have been possible without the Ready To Work program.
Fobbs landed in the center after he was given the choice between the program and five years behind bars for a drug-related crime.
“I kept running from a halfway house. I’m a firm believer that I’m going to do what I’m going to do. You’re not going to tell me I’m not going to go to the grocery store just because I’m in a halfway house,” he said. “But when I got here it wasn’t anything like that. I would get up and go to work, stay clean. They give you more trust, more respect. They give you plenty of resources (to do that).”
Fobbs went through the commercial kitchen program, which he still finds himself volunteering for even after successfully landing a job after going through the program. That track has catered several events, including Boulder city council meetings, and makes meals for the other Bridge House programs.
Participants of the program can go the route Fobbs did, or work on a crew doing landscaping and other outdoor work. Ready To Work has contracted with the city of Boulder’s open space department.
McDevitt is hopeful the same kind of partnership will emerge with Aurora Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces.
Trainees in the Ready To Work program may or may not have been in the criminal justice system, McDevitt said. That has been one apprehension from opponents of the program moving into Aurora.
“You really have to consider what happens: What do men do when they get out of jail? Where’s the first place … what do they look for? What do they do? Consider that,” Peterson said at a council meeting earlier this year.
Bridge House officials insist this isn’t a program targeting parolees. An intensive vetting process selects participants most likely to succeed.
The program is for men and women. The Boulder center can house 10 women and 34 men.
On a chilly weekday, Jennifer Wright, sporting a t-shirt and jeans and trendy pair of glasses, works the front desk at the Ready To Work facility. She’s currently staying there, and when the weather is a bit warmer she works on the outdoor light crew.
Her story is nearly opposite of Fobbs. She was homeless for six months, and then in jail for six months in Boulder County. It was a year she said she never could have imagined for herself. Wright was married and a stay-at-home mom to her son. She lived a comfortable life, but she said that all changed in a moment, and she had nowhere to go and no work experience.
“I literally cried when I moved in because it was such a relief. They really make it known that this is your home now — which, not having a home, was mindblowing to me,” she said.
Wright was an intern to the program before being accepted, just like the people dressed similarly sweeping and wiping down tables in the center’s cafeteria. Interns do much of the housekeeping at the facility. At night they return to the Path To Home shelter, also run by Bridge House.
“I found it very hard being alone, especially as a woman,” Wright said of her time on the streets. “I ended up staying outside during the winter. So that was interesting, yeah.”
Now, she works on the light crew with the outdoor team, a job she wasn’t sure she’d like, but came to love because she gets to be in the sunshine all day.
Others like Wright and Fobbs say they don’t know where they’d be if it weren’t for Ready To Work. At 47, Siphen Sangpraseuth looks much older. He was homeless for 16 years before enlisting in the program.
“All I knew was the street and jail, the street and jail,” he said. “It’s easy being homeless in Boulder. But I was getting too old.”
He’s been in the program for just over a year and has a full-time job at the Celestial Seasonings plant. Sangraseuth is still staying at the center. He pays $60 for his room and board, which includes meals, laundry, counseling and other resources.
Sangraseuth admits he never wanted a job. But he didn’t want to be on the streets any longer, so staying sober and going through the Ready To Work program was his only option. Now he works 40 hours per week.
A major driving force for the Aurora Ready To Work program is how successful Boulder’s has been, especially for those who have a criminal history.
“Our model is a housing-based solution, and it is a workforce-based solution. We put people to work. They’re paid employees. They’re paying taxes like you and me. This is not a drop-in facility. This is not a shelter. This is not a halfway house,” McDevitt said.
Fobbs, Wright and Sangraseuth all agreed they’d still be homeless if it weren’t for the option of Ready To Work. They didn’t have to choose the program, but they’re glad they did.
“If I didn’t go through this program, I’d either still be in prison or I’d be on the run somewhere. So, I just kind of made a decision. I’m an all-or-nothing type of guy. If I had a problem, I wouldn’t try to use and do the program. It’s either all in or all out for me, they give you all the tools you need and all you have to do is use them.” Fobbs said.