Coloradoan – Five-year-old Zayden Slone furrows his brow, trying to find the right Lego blocks to make an epic superhero scene come to life. Seeing a slender red stick, he pauses and picks it up, noting how much it looks like a lightsaber from Star Wars — a toy he’s coveted since spying it on a store shelf earlier this year.

Still contemplating his creation, Zayden puts his family’s quest to find a home in simplest terms.

“When me and my mom get our own house, I can have a lightsaber,” he said, returning to the Lego task at hand. He and his mom, Fawn Martin, have been homeless for six months.

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With any luck, and loads of perseverance, they will join the minority of successful families from the Faith Family Hospitality program, a collaborative of 30 Fort Collins religious groups that house up to four families for week-long shifts. Less than half — 43 percent — of the program’s families find permanent housing. The rest either quit or are asked to leave because they aren’t abiding by the rules, which include prohibitions on drug and alcohol use.

When FFH Executive Director Annette Zacharias met Martin, she feared the 29-year-old woman wouldn’t make it. Martin didn’t have a high school diploma or a job. She didn’t have family or friends nearby, or even a driver’s license. She had nothing but two suitcases and “this adorable little guy who was smart and funny,” Zacharias said.

“Fawn could have turned into really horrible chronic homelessness,” she said. “Instead she came here.”

A spiral into homelessness

Zayden and Martin became homeless in Fort Collins after fleeing domestic violence in Arizona with the help of a special victims unit last fall.

“They stepped in at the right time,” Martin said. “That’s when Zayden and I were going through the most abuse. I was trying to find a way out, but I was so unsure of how to begin.”

Martin moved into a domestic violence shelter in the Denver area and was later transferred to Crossroads Safehouse in Fort Collins. Six months ago, she and Zayden were accepted into Faith Family Hospitality.’

“I would take being homeless over what I had there any day,” Martin said.

That doesn’t mean the road out of abuse has been easy. Martin’s resource bucket only “had a little bit of sawdust in the bottom” when she started the program, Zacharias said. Various agencies have spent the past six months helping her fill that bucket, providing childcare for Zayden, an internship for Martin and signing the pair up for every housing waiting list they can find.

The average length of stay for FFH families who successfully move into housing is 68 nights. Martin has been in the program nearly three times longer than the average, though not quite as long as the program’s longest stay of 427 nights.

As of mid-May, 91 families have shuffled in and out of FFH’s network of religious groups since the program welcomed its first family on Jan. 31, 2012.

Fawn is returning for the third time to churches she initially hoped she’d never sleep in again.

A pastor told her one Sunday that though he selfishly wanted to see her and Zayden again, he hoped they wouldn’t still be in the program for another visit.

“Every day is a struggle for her and every day she is sticking to it and making a choice (to go on),” Zacharias said. “I can’t imagine the fatigue she feels.”

At the beginning of her journey, moving to a different home every week wasn’t that bad. The public bus system, which Martin rides for hours each week, was a gift.

But her success in finding childcare for Zayden, starting an internship at Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center and enrolling in GED courses at Front Range Community College made getting the pair from Point A to Point B on time more challenging. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough time.

Those struggles — and Martin’s lack of tangible progress in finding permanent housing — are beginning to take their toll.

“I’m working my butt off,” she said. “I’m tired of moving church to church to church to church. … As soon as we get comfortable, we’ve got to pack up and go again.

 What it takes to make itThere’s a difference between families who make it out of homelessness and those who don’t, Zacharias said: “Choices.”

For six months, Martin has persisted in making decisions that could eventually lead her out of homelessness — choices not every family facing the same struggle sticks with.

The limited programs available to house and help homeless families in Northern Colorado and elsewhere often come with rules, such as no substance abuse, curfews and dedication to making weekly progress.

Catholic Charities, which has four extended-stay program rooms for families, requires participants to meet regularly with a case manager, save 30 percent of their income for housing, attend life skills classes and abstain from drugs and alcohol. Families can stay at Catholic Charities up to 120 days.

Faith Family Hospitality requires families to be willing to move from building to building each week. Families have to interact with volunteers, who provide meals and conversation in the evening. They can’t leave the church once they check in at 6 p.m. unless they have prior permission. Background checks are required, and drug and alcohol use is not allowed.

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The program does not have a time limit on how long a family can remain in the program as long as they are making progress and abiding by the rules.

Though the choice seems obvious to Zacharias, some families aren’t willing to accept the rules in exchange for a roof over their heads. Thirty percent of FFH families eventually opt out of the program, Zacharias said.

“I had one family say, ‘I don’t like your hours,'” she said. “I think that is completely your choice, as much as I’m thinking, ‘You’re sleeping in your car.’ I would choose different. I would choose warm, safe housing with food and support over ‘I don’t like your hours.'”

Some in the Fort Collins community laud FFH as a silver bullet for homeless families. Zacharias is the bearer of bad news.

“I feel like I’m always the bad kid when it comes to rapid rehousing meetings,” she said. “People say ‘They get into your program and everybody succeeds.’ That’s not the case. … Almost 60 percent don’t make it.”

For those who do, hurdles are significant in a city where the median rent for a two-bed, two-bathroom apartment is almost $1,400 and the apartment vacancy hovers at less than 2 percent.

Affordable housing options, such as Neighbor to Neighbor, CARE Housing and Fort Collins Housing Authority, come with wait lists that can stretch months, if not years. Most people, including Martin, sign up for most or all available programs in hopes that just one will come through for them.

“There’s no way around the wait,” said Shyla Letizia, family to family transition facilitator at The Matthews House. Letizia works with families, including Martin and Zayden, who are referred to the program and need extra support in tackling their goals. “But I feel that if you’re conquering other goals, you will just see that housing process move along for you.

Fawn’s future

There’s a notebook displayed on a shelf in Zacharias’ office: “Artwork by Zayden Slone.” Weeks ago, Zayden began collecting the art that will decorate his future home.

Every day, he comes into Zacharias’ office and starts a new masterpiece. When Martin and Zayden get the call that they’ve been accepted into housing, Zacharias will frame Zayden’s creations, colorful drawings and craft projects that show his hope for a better future.

“This is new. I haven’t seen this one,” she said, thumbing through the notebook’s pages. “He’s preparing. He’s just preparing for his permanent home. I think it’s going to be good for them soon.”

Martin’s ultimate goal is to get accepted as a Habitat for Humanity family so she can build a permanent home that she’ll pass onto Zayden.

In the past six months, the precocious little boy has been the single mom’s driving force. She wouldn’t have left a cycle of domestic violence were it not for her love for Zayden, who she hid with in the bathroom in Arizona. They played games with the water running to buy them a brief reprieve from violence.

With her son’s future in mind, Martin was recently accepted into Project Self-Sufficiency, a program that supports single parents. Soon, Zacharias and FFH volunteers will teach her to drive so she can ditch her daily bus commutes.

On May 31, she’ll start GED classes at Front Range. She’s working through an internship with Teaching Tree, where Zayden just graduated preschool, and hopes to find a permanent job. Ultimately, she hopes to help children facing abuse or homelessness, whether through social work or another career.

“For Fawn, nothing’s unachievable, and all of the goals she’s set are dreams she’s had for herself and for Zayden,” Letizia said. “She’s making them a reality.”

Reaching her goals is more than a full-time job. But looking back at what she’s accomplished since freeing herself from abuse brings Martin to tears. She no longer hears, “You’re stupid” every day — and she finally believes she’s not.

“I never thought I would be able to do any of this,” she said. “I’m so determined to make Fort Collins our home. I’m so determined because it’s been everything for us.”

The wait for affordable housing in Fort Collins

CARE Housing

  • Properties: 324 apartments, 287 of which are classified as IRS code tax credit affordable housing for families 
  • People: Households earning between 30 percent and 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), $53,755. A Windsor property serves households at 50 percent AMI and accepts housing vouchers.
  • Wait list: Anywhere from “a couple of months to a couple of years,” according to Resident Services Manager Morgan Krueger. The wait list is 365 households long. 

Fort Collins Housing Authority

  • Properties: 154 public housing units in Fort Collins, 42 in Wellington. The agency’s Villages housing have 703 units with 168 more under development. Fort Collins Housing authority can provide up to 1,169 housing vouchers, which are worth $1,023 for a two-bedroom apartment in the area, at one time.
  • People: Public housing serves families earning up to 80 percent AMI. Villages properties serve people at 30 percent to 60 percent AMI. Housing vouchers are available to households earning less than 50 percent AMI.
  • Wait list: No applications are available for public housing and the wait list is closed. Villages properties don’t have wait lists. About eight  housing vouchers become available each month but are typically restricted for special populations. 

Mercy Housing

  • Properties: 63 units in Fort Collins
  • People: Households earning between 40 percent and 60 percent AMI.
  • Wait list: Varies, typically a few months or more

Neighbor to Neighbor

  • Properties: 126 affordable apartments — 14 in Loveland and 112 in Fort Collins. 
  • People: 94 percent of Neighbor to Neighbor apartments serve households earning less than 50 percent AMI. The rest serve households earning less than 60 percent AMI.
  • Wait list: Up to two years for two-bedroom housing, with 200 families on the wait list, or up to three years for three-bedroom housing, with 69 families on the wait list. 

Follow Sarah Jane Kyle on Twitter @sarahjanekyle or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/reportersarahjane. Keep up with social issues in Northern Colorado by subscribing to the Life Connected newsletter.

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