Wherever Elizabeth Shanks goes, her cats go, too.
All five of them.
They traveled with her in the U-Haul from Idaho to Colorado. They moved into the motel room Shanks and her son lived in until their money ran out. Then they settled with the pair in a tent in a friend’s backyard.
And when, after months of bouncing from place to place, the Shanks family found a permanent home in Arvada, Frankie, Charlie, Lucy, Izzy and Josie came, too.
“They were my family,” Shanks said. “And I kept us together.”
The Shanks family made the move from that tent to their home in 2014 — about four months after experiencing homelessness following their move to Lakewood.
The family moved to Colorado, Shanks said, because of “domestic problems” with her son’s father. But when they arrived, the place the family planned to stay at was unsafe, especially for Shanks’ son, Sam, who was 12 at the time.
So the family, including the five cats, ended up in a motel room. But it was costly, and once funds ran out, Shanks had to rely on help from friends and started selling plasma for cash.
“It was hard,” Shanks said. “But my kid was a trooper. But you feel like the worst mom in the world.”
Luckily, Shanks said, the family was pointed to Family Tree, a nonprofit organization in Wheat Ridge that focuses on homelessness, domestic violence and child abuse.
Family Tree not only helped Shanks find a home, but also a job and a doctor. The organization made sure Sam, who is now 17, had school supplies and clothes. And it got a U-Haul so Shanks could move the families’ things out of storage and into their new home.
Family Tree was created in 1976 to focus on child abuse and domestic violence. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that the organization expanded its services to address homelessness, said Chief Executive Officer Scott Shields.
While the move to address homelessness fit within Family Tree’s mission, it has also become vital as the organization has seen demand for its services increase, Shields said.
He said the demand for the services to address homelessness in the community is “extreme.”
“Our housing market is very challenging right now,” Shields said, adding, “We have people we’re serving at a pretty significant level who are working.”
Others taking advantage of Family Tree’s services are rent-burdened, meaning most of their income is going to rent.
Advocates say a household that pays 30 percent to just under half of its gross income toward housing is “cost-burdened” and people who pay more are “severely cost-burdened.”
A recent study found that almost a quarter of metro Denver renters spend half or more of their monthly income on housing. And that outside of the metro area, in places like Grand Junction and Pueblo, the rent burden affects a larger share of households.
“We believe homelessness can truly happen to anyone,” Shields said.
It did to Shanks and her son. But now, four years after experiencing homelessness, Shanks is a peer specialist at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. And she has a home with her son and three cats (Frankie and Charlie have since passed away).
“Family Tree changed mine and my son’s life,” Shanks said.
Name of charity program: Family Tree Inc.
Address: 3805 Marshall St., Wheat Ridge
Year it started: 1976
Number of employees: 93
Annual budget: About $7 million
Percentage of funds that goes directly to client services: 81 percent went to programs and services last fiscal year
Number served last year: During the last fiscal year, Family Tree provided direct services to more than 8,100 people, and crisis/helpline services to almost 20,700 people.