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Migrants find warmth and safety in a widow's failing Denver motel

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Like a lot of cities, Denver is struggling to keep up with tens of thousands of migrants looking for opportunity after crossing the southwestern border. The city has expanded its network of shelters, but it is not enough. Tent colonies have sprung up on streets and parks and public spaces where people try to survive frigid Rocky Mountain winter nights. Recently, a lonely widow opened her door to help, and now about 300 people have found sanctuary. Colorado Public Radio's Kevin Beaty has her story.

(SOUNDBITE OF BREAKFAST SIZZLING)

YONG CHA PRINCE: Pedro (ph), did you eat?

KEVIN BEATY, BYLINE: Yong Cha Prince, aged 73, has been up since dawn, as usual, making breakfast for guests staying in her old motel in north Denver.

PRINCE: I get up 4 o'clock in the morning, make coffee, make egg, bagel, bacon and cheese.

BEATY: Prince has done this for decades. She and her husband bought the Western Motor Inn on Vasquez Boulevard in 2007. He died a few years ago, as did her son after battling cancer. She's been preparing to shut this motel down, go back to her childhood home of South Korea and live as a missionary. Business wasn't very good, and she says she was painfully lonely.

PRINCE: I miss my family, I think.

BEATY: But a few weeks ago, a stranger showed up in the middle of the night. Christina Asuncion, a private investigator and Denver native, was at a nearby convenience store where she'd met six boys from Venezuela. They'd been sleeping outside, so she brought them shivering to the Western Motor Inn.

CHRISTINA ASUNCION: She was so good. She opened her door. I was so afraid that she was gonna say no because I had been sitting at 7/11 for five hours calling people, asking people to help.

BEATY: Prince said they could stay for free. Asuncion took the boys to grab their bags where they'd set up camp and discovered scores more people - men, women and children - hunkered down in the cold. She went back to the motel and asked Prince, what did she have to do to get the rest of these people inside? Prince just said, bring them over.

ASUNCION: I started bringing people and she was like, it's OK. Just, you know, come back and help the next day. Like, I went home and I was like, God, thank you so much for her.

BEATY: Prince's motel was full in a few days, more than 300 people sheltering in her aging rooms. Asuncion tried to help get some into regular shelters, but she was turned away over and over again. More than 30,000 migrants have arrived in town in 2023, adding to the thousands of unhoused locals already clamoring for somewhere to sleep.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEATY: So everyone just stayed. They've been living here together, eating together, celebrating together. Prince makes three meals a day with food that she bought or that was donated by a group of moms organized on Facebook.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Spanish).

BEATY: Dana Miller, a member of that group, helped bring Christmas presents and throw this party for the children living here.

DANA MILLER: It's an act of love. Bringing them food and clothing and all sorts of things, including Christmas, brings a little joy to people who've been through a pretty traumatic journey. So we're honored to be here to help brighten their holiday season.

BEATY: But the motel has attracted some unwelcome attention, too. Inspectors from the health department have been posting violations on Prince's door for months for rooms with broken sinks, toilets and doors. On top of the time and money she's spent to keep these people safe, she's also contending with at least $40,000 in fines.

PRINCE: The city say we got too many people here.

BEATY: You would like the city to help you make this more official?

PRINCE: Yes.

BEATY: Whether her finances become unmanageable or a long-courted developer buys the place, everyone here knows this will not last forever. It'll be a sad day when everyone scatters. The migrants are all looking for permanent housing, but it's likely that more will arrive to take their places. Yong Cha Prince, though, has found renewed purpose and meaning in caring for everyone.

PRINCE: They so happy here. Everybody call me mama. So I need it - I was you lonely two years without my son.

BEATY: Her guests feel the same. Marvin Torrealba is from Venezuela and has been living here since Prince opened her doors.

MARVIN TORREALBA: (Speaking Spanish).

BEATY: "I already feel like this is my home," he says. "And all of us here, we treat each other like family. That's why we have to take advantage of the time that we're here." So while it lasts, this accidental, unusual family is taking comfort in each other's company as the nights get colder and the city's migration crisis continues outside.

PRINCE: Anybody hungry come in.

BEATY: For NPR News, I'm Kevin Beaty in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Beaty