Bridge to somewhere: Aurora homeless program graduates first class into homes, jobs and sobriety

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AURORA | One year ago, the new home of the Bridge House Ready to Work program — a 22,000 square-foot office building at the corner of Peoria Street and Parker Road — was a construction zone without inside walls and flooring.

Today it’s buzzing with people, but some say it hasn’t come without some growing pains. Residents are in and out of the cafeteria during the lunch hour. Some of the program’s participants, which would otherwise be homeless, are mopping floors or preparing dinner, others are back and forth to job sites like the Aurora Municipal Center where they’ve been contracted to string holiday lights.

Five people, who’ve spent at least nine months in the program that helps people who would otherwise be homeless get work experience, graduated last week. It’s the first of many graduating groups the program hopes to see in coming months. The graduates now have full-time jobs, housing and are sober, all requirements of graduating from the program that originated in Boulder in 2012.

“Now that we’re about to hit a year there’s been lessons learned and bumps in the road but from a 10,000 foot level it’s been really smooth,” said Bridge House Executive Director Isabel McDevitt. “We’re already thinking about the next step.”

The goal of the program is to provide the participants, who may or may not have a criminal history, 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.

Participants start out as interns, and if successful move into the program, where they’re required to be sober and take advantage of different services offered at the facility.

The Aurora location can house 50 people, 36 men and 14 women. About 10 percent of beds are reserved for people coming out of prison, McDevitt said.

Jaime Delgado, who’s been in the program since May, started in the kitchen last week. She’s been working with the shower truck, which provides showers and personal hygiene items to people experiencing homelessness throughout Aurora. She smiles when McDevitt asks her if she was able to recruit anybody to the program through the shower truck. There has been three.

Delgado is sober. She has been for 18 months, she says. Her drug addiction led her to “illegal activity,” she said. But now she’s saving money, learning new career skills and even doing art therapy with the help of Ready to Work.

If not for Ready to Work, Delgado said she’s not sure what her life would be like, but she knows she’d likely be homeless.

Placing former inmates has been a contentious point of the program. The organization first wanted to house the program in a former bingo hall near East Colfax Avenue in Ward II. Many nearby residents, including now-mayoral candidate Renie Peterson, cited the possibility of residents having a criminal history as a concern. Peterson eventually led the charge on an ordinance that banned congregate living facilities from operating within 300 feet of a school, which the bingo hall was located near.

Since the beginning, McDevitt and the Ready to Work staff have been candid that the people in the program may have criminal histories. It’ll never be the crux of the program though, she said. The program is meant to start with interns who get a jump-start on work but don’t have a bed at the program. If they make it into the program, they’re there for about a year before moving out on their own.

Philip Berdeaux, who left the program in mid-August after being there for about three months, told the Sentinel he believes the program lacks the proper number of trained staff and parolees in the program make less room for people who are supposed to rise through the ranks as interns to become part of the program.

“I can say with 100 percent certainty once (placed inmates) are in the program, everybody gets the same resources,” McDevitt said, adding that all parolees are screened before being granted a spot.

Berdeaux, who said he’s since found full-time work and has a place to live, considered himself lucky because he didn’t go into the program with a serious drug problem. He’s been sober for over 12 years, but he’d experienced others who weren’t staying clean — even using drugs at the Ready to Work building — and some residents who found it difficult to keep sober because of drugs and alcohol being present.

This month staff conducted a random drug test, McDevitt said. All but four residents passed.

“I hope it’s getting better because there’s good people there,” Berdeaux said. “They’re good people and really, really trying.”

In the first few months of the program McDevitt said it was difficult to get people into the program. Some didn’t want to abide by the set rules. There’s been a few staff turnover, but nothing she sees as seriously different from the Boulder program. Seventeen staff members work at the Aurora program. The building is staffed around the clock.

Berdeaux said he really wants the program to work for people because it’s a completely different model than anything he’s seen anywhere in the country. He was excited about it when he started.

The program’s Boulder location boasts about a 75 percent success rate, according to McDevitt. She sees that pattern continuing with Aurora, although it was difficult to tell in the beginning without a full program.

Ready to Work graduates about five people each month, but celebrates with one ceremony each October.