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It’s hard to believe that just a little more than a month ago, Christian and Angel Trujillo, along with their five children – James, Marcus, Katherine, Nathanael and Gabriel – were …
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It’s hard to believe that just a little more than a month ago, Christian and Angel Trujillo, along with their five children – James, Marcus, Katherine, Nathanael and Gabriel – were living in the family minivan in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
A lot has changed since then.
Angel and Christian married 15 years ago. The couple had five children and were all doing well – that is, until Christian came into his office one day this July and was told his contract wasn’t being renewed.
Christian, who thought of his work as a “forever job,” was shocked. With the sudden loss of the family’s income, they were forced to move out of their home when they could no longer pay the rent.
The family of seven stayed with a friend for a little more than a month, then used up nearly all of their savings on living in hotels for another month.
The entire time, Christian continued to look for work and he also kept up with his business classes through the University of Phoenix. If he ever felt a little down, his oldest son, James, would encourage him to keep going to the library to work on his studies. The two of them would often go to the library and study together, they said.
While her husband studied and looked for jobs, Angel attempted to contact area agencies for help.
She went through the long list of phone numbers she had collected and written down on her yellow notepad. But many of the shelters and organizations couldn’t accommodate the needs of a family, much less a family of seven. Some of the shelters only took women. Some only took men. There was a shelter that would take the rest of the family if Christian and 13-year-old James would sleep in the van. But this was not going to work for the Trujillos.
“My biggest thing was that I wanted to keep my family together,” Angel said.
Then winter hit.
By this time, the family had exhausted all other housing options and were living in their minivan. They ate food they got from Wal-Mart with their food stamps.
“It was getting to the point where we could keep milk out in the van and it was OK because it was so cold,” Christian said.
They used the Wal-Mart restrooms and some in a park in Northglenn to clean up and brush their teeth.
“We would basically wash up out of the sink,” Christian said.
The two oldest boys are in middle school in Thornton and Katherine and Nathanael are enrolled in an elementary school there. The kids went to school “when we had the gas to take them,” Angel said.
A few of the children didn’t have winter coats. A couple of them didn’t have any shoes to wear but sandals. It was cold and cramped in the van.
It got to the point where Angel said she and Christian even began to consider the unthinkable — giving up their children for a time — when it seemed as if there was no way to care for them.
“We wanted our kids to be safe,” she said. “And we wondered if the best way to keep them warm and safe would be to give them up for a little while.
“For a parent to say, ‘I’m going to have to give up my kids,’ is the worst thing in the world,” Angel said. “I wanted my family together. But if there was no way for them to be safe and warm, we were considering the last resort.”
Nov. 10, 2010.
The family remembers the day well. It was the day the spots came open for the Cold Weather Care program.
Angel heard about the program through a school counselor and also through the local help line, 2-1-1. She applied for the program, but up until that time, there hadn’t been enough spots to accommodate her large family.
“The night where we completely ran out of money, where we had no funds at all, they called and said there happened to be seven spots open,” Angel said.
The family was anxious as they walked though the doors of Northern Hills Church in Brighton that Wednesday evening. After stopping by a couple of shelters in the metro area earlier in the month, they weren’t sure what to expect.
“One of the biggest things for me was that I didn’t want to come here,” Christian said. “Maybe it was a man thing. But I just said, ‘We’ll sleep in the van,’ because I knew what to expect and that we would all be together and safe. But it got to be just too cold.
“So we went to the church and we didn’t know what to expect and where they were going to put us,” he continued. “Honestly, we were nervous when we first got here. But right away we were greeted by volunteers. And when we got here, dinner was already made up for us.”
“The atmosphere was really nice,” Angel said. “They treated us like people.”
“Before this, day by day we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Christian said. “And then we finally had that security of knowing we had a safe place to go to.”
The family stayed at the church through the Cold Weather Care program for five nights. During the daylight hours, they went to a day site where Christian could look for work.
When the family came into the church on their first night, 3-year-old Gabriel only had sandals – no shoes – so the church gave him some shoes and a warm coat, hat and gloves. When church volunteers stopped by later to check on the family, Gabriel was still wearing his shoes, coat and new hat.
“He didn’t want to take them off,” Angel said.
Nov. 11 was Christian’s 34th birthday. It was the family’s second night staying at the church, and the volunteers and other families sang for him and surprised him with a birthday dinner.
“They really catered to each family that stayed here and asked us, ‘How can we help you?’” Angel said. “It meant a lot to us. It’s a place that’s safe, warm and comfortable.”
“They were very generous,” Christian said. “They were always telling us, ‘Eat more, eat more.’”
When the family went to a shelter downtown earlier in the month to pick up a hotel voucher, there were people sleeping on the floor. So before going into the ‘shelter’ at the church, Christian had many worries. He worried about drugs, about being forced to leave his kids alone. But at Northern Hills through the Cold Weather Care program, he found no worries. In addition to the meals, access to restrooms and a private place to sleep, the doors were locked and volunteers watched over the families, he said.
“You have a sense of security there like your own home,” he said.
November 15, 2010: A day the Trujillo family won’t soon forget.
It was the day Christian got a new job and the day the family got the three-bedroom apartment in Commerce City they now call home.
“At Thanksgiving, I was just so grateful to be able to cook our Thanksgiving meal,” Angel said. “It’s just those simple things like having clean clothes and your daily routine, brushing your teeth.”
When asked how they feel now that they have a home, 7-year-old Katherine puts it simply.
“Happy,” she says with a huge smile.
Even now, 3-year-old Gabriel still calls the church building his home, Angel said.
“What I feel about this church is that it’s good because they helped us a lot when we didn’t have a home and they help us learn about God,” 12-year-old Marcus said. “And they gave us hats and gloves for when it’s cold and some other things for my brother. That’s what I think is good.”
The family has come back to church at Northern Hills every Sunday since for services.
“It’s a bit of a drive, but it’s worth it,” Christian said. “We are so happy to be here and all of our kids love going to church.”
Even through all of the hardship, Christian stuck with his studies and is now set to receive a degree in business management from the University of Phoenix in April.
The Trujillo family is so grateful for the help given to them through the Cold Weather Care program, they plan to assist with the program themselves and hope to encourage others to get involved as well.
“It’s because of these volunteers that helped us when we were at our lowest point,” Christian said. “There are people out there that care.
“And I hope that other churches will become interested helping and opening their doors for one week because it helps a family stay warm and safe for a week,” he added.
One thing Christian realized through his family’s ordeal is that homelessness can happen to anyone.
“The one thing I tell the people I work with now — I work for a credit card company — is that people often say, ‘Oh, I have a really stable job,’” Christian said. “That’s what I thought, too. I thought that was going to be a forever job and all of a sudden, in that split second, you’ve lost your job and you can’t pay rent.
“It brought a whole new light into everything,” Christian said. “Before this, I would see people who were homeless and think they did something in their life to put them where they were. I had a high and mighty attitude.
“This experience taught me you have to be grateful for what you have,” he said. “Just having my family and a home is what I’m thankful for this Christmas.”
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