By Kristin Jones
Every resident of Haven House has a different story to tell about landing here. The transitional housing facility in the Western Slope town of Olathe is no one’s first choice for a home.
For Francis Barrett, it started with a violent crime against his family. The stress of the crime, and of working with law enforcement to prosecute it, tipped Barrett into a spiral of worsening health, culminating in two heart attacks, a series of small strokes, and the loss of his job, he says.
When he first arrived at Haven House with his wife and children, the former automotive business owner wasn’t impressed.
“I thought to myself, ‘Here I am the victim and I feel like I’m in an institution,’” says Barrett.
That has changed. Almost a year into Haven House’s intensive and structured program of educational workshops and family support, Barrett feels like he belongs here. He’s looking forward to the day when he can move his family out into a double-wide trailer of their own, somewhere in this area.
“Everybody has a problem that brought them here,” he says. “Everyone found a way to push past the obstacles.”
Haven House provides housing of up to two years for people—mostly families—who have found themselves in need of a safe, stable place to live. The faith-based organization was established in 2010 as the only local option to house people who were homeless, or in danger of becoming so.
“We wanted to put together a program that provides them with an opportunity to get back into permanent housing, to get back to rebuilding their lives, and give them a chance to put together the pieces that allow them to be successful,” says Larry Fredericksen, who co-founded Haven House.
But just a few months ago, the program itself looked to be in danger of losing its home to the competing housing needs of a seasonal influx of migrant workers. What happened instead was a testament to small-town interdependence and compromise.
Just outside of this agricultural town of 1,800, migrants from Mexico were recently working the onion fields during a hot day in September. Maria Guadalupe Perez, a 24-year veteran of the fields here, and Rosa Contreras, who has worked here 15 years, bent over to pick up the yellow onions three at a time, clip their stalks at the top and bottom, and toss them into buckets. Three large buckets make up a burlap sack. One sack earns $1 to $1.40.
Each farming season, Olathe takes in an influx of migrant workers who need housing. Photo by Kristin Jones
Maria Guadalupe Perez, left, and Rosa Contreras pick onions. Photo by Kristin Jones
“I want people to see how hard we work,” says Perez. She’s aware of negative stereotypes about Mexicans. She wants people to know that they are here every day, in the rain or snow or brutalizing heat.
John Harold, in overalls and a sunburn, runs the farm.
John Harold on his Olathe onion farm. Photo by Kristin Jones
Harold, formerly the mayor of Olathe, built Tuxedo Corn, the company that produces the famous Olathe sweet corn that sells in farmers’ markets and Whole Foods stores for a steep mark-up. Out on the field, you can hear grumbling about the pay. But Harold says more than 90 percent of his workers return every year—a point of pride for him, and one that he says indicates that they’re treated well and fairly paid.
This year, Harold needed more space for his employees. While some workers, including Perez and Contreras, have settled in Olathe and live there year-round, many others are just here for the season. Harold provides them with transportation from Mexico and back home again, as well as housing.
So in the spring, he put a bid on Haven House.
Harold has a history with the Haven House facility. He originally built the structure as dorm-style housing for his workers before a legal determination by the Montrose County Housing Authority related to his employees’ visa status forced him to abandon the building.
Harold agreed to let residents remain in the building while he used the top-floor rooms for his employees, but his bid on the building threw Haven House into turmoil. The organization had the right of first refusal, and scrambled to match Harold’s $345,000 cash bid on the place within 15 days.
“Initially, it was stressful. But we all decided that it was in God’s hands,” says Fredericksen. “That brought a certain amount of peace and tranquility to the campaign. We didn’t feel like we were in a desperate situation, even though we were from other points of view.”
With the help of a local media blitz, Haven House won help from the community, mostly through loans.
“Now we have to pay off these loans,” says Fredericksen. “And that will go a long way to stabilizing Haven House.”
For now, the program was safe. But what about the farm workers?
In line with a venerable small-town tradition, Harold and Fredericksen hatched a compromise. For a fee to Haven House, Harold’s workers would have access to as many as 12 rooms, housing 36 people, during the farming season.
Harold says the solution was an answer to both their prayers.
“You never know if people are praying to the same person,” he says. “It sure worked out the best for me.”
The plan wasn’t perfect. Some Haven House residents had concerns about security risks that the workers might bring. And when they did move in, there was some wrangling over access to the communal kitchen.
For a time in the summer, too, Haven House had to create a waiting list, for the first time turning away qualified people from the only local transitional housing option.
“A lot of people in that period—June, July, August—that have housing challenges are looking to get situated before school starts. And John Harold’s biggest need is in that same period,” says Fredericksen. “We have to see what we can do about that (next year).”
If you ask Haven House resident Barrett, the arrangement has worked out just fine.
On Sundays, the migrant workers join the Haven House participants for barbeque and football. There’s some friendly sparring over the question of football versus fútbol; one of the farm workers used to be a professional soccer player, and love for the Broncos runs strong here.
“We have a blast,” says Barrett.
As the farming season is winding down, the wait list is gone. On a recent Monday afternoon, Harold was carrying boxes of clothes from his truck into three of the rooms downstairs at Haven House. There was a new group of participants coming in: a family of eight. One of them, the mother, is an employee of his farm.
Two of her boys stepped into the front lobby and looked around them, absorbing the lived-in couches, fluorescent-lit walls and Christian posters of their new life.