DENVER (CBS4) – Dena Lewis has been cooking up a storm in her new kitchen while trying to keep tabs on two toddlers and two teenage daughters. It’s hard to believe only a few days ago she and her family were homeless.
Lewis’ children are part of a disturbing trend. This year alone the homeless population at Denver Public Schools has increased by 30 percent.
Earlier this year, Lewis packed up her family and moved to Denver to escape a domestic violence situation in Memphis, Tenn. After bouncing between shelters and motels, the family most recently lived in Room 112 of the Gateway Motel on Colorado Boulevard. That’s when CBS4 first interviewed them, as the family of five packed into one room with just two beds. One daughter routinely slept on the floor.
The room came equipped with a refrigerator and a microwave, but didn’t have a stove to prepare meals.
“You have no idea how much I want to be able to cook a proper meal for my family,” Lewis told CBS4 during an interview in the room.
The toilet also didn’t work properly, and Lewis couldn’t get management to fix it.
The family was thankful to have a roof over their heads, but the children often asked when they could leave the motel.
“You look at the faces of your children and you see the disappointment on their faces,” she said.
There were times when Lewis said she felt like giving up.
“It made me feel like I was not a good parent for a while.”
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless was eventually able to help Lewis and her family find transitional housing, but in the interim Lewis found support from the Denver Public Schools.
“If I need food, they have food in their office,” Lewis said. “Clothing, jackets, coats; everything that my children have now was basically given to them either by DPS or by the coalition.”
Breaking The Cycle
DPS homeless liaison Anna Theisen says most people are blown away when they hear that 2,000 children in Denver are homeless.
District-wide, one in every 37 students is homeless, averaging roughly one in every classroom.
In her position, Theisen provides lifeline for Lewis and for hundreds of other families who are struggling. At her office at the Education Outreach Program, located at 1330 Fox Street, a steady stream of families stop by.
The children are given a new backpack filled with school supplies. They also receive hygiene kits with soap and toothpaste and enough laundry detergent to wash their clothes. They get to pick out new hats, gloves and coats so they can stay warm while waiting for the school bus.
In recent years, the Educational Outreach Program has started sending children home with backpacks filled with food.
“We know our students are being fed breakfast and lunch in school,” Theisen said. “We really worry about the weekends and other times that they are out of school.”
The philosophy at DPS is that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and homelessness.
“So we need to make sure our kids have everything they need to be successful in our schools,” Theisen said.
Theisen explained that if children are hungry, they can’t concentrate on schoolwork.
Resources for homeless families are reaching capacity. There are 668 shelter beds in Denver that are continuously full, and for the first time families are being forced to sleep in their cars.
“I’ve been here for nine school years,” Theisen said. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
Filling An Apartment, Slowly
For Lewis and her family, the long wait for housing came to an end earlier this month. An apartment came through on the other side of town.
“These are the keys to our new life and I just can’t wait to start it,” she told CBS4 as she shook her keys in excitement after seeing her apartment for the first time.
“I just want to cook up everything.”
Lewis said she is so thankful now to have a place to cook for her children.
“For Christmas I’m going to cook a big meal,” she said.
The family is starting to slowly fill the apartment. They have beds, but very little furniture. The living room is empty except for a plastic Christmas tree.
As Lewis and her four children placed ornaments on the tree they also counted their blessings; their biggest gift this year is a place to call home.
“I didn’t know how much I missed home until I didn’t have one,” Lewis said.
Denver Public Schools is holding a district-wide giving drive to benefit the Educational Outreach Program. Donations can be sent to:
Educational Outreach Program, Denver Public Schools
1330 Fox St, 3rd Floor North
Denver, CO 80204