While activists fight the city of Denver for sweeping away homeless encampments during a public health crisis, two Denver churches have set up camps on their property as an alternative.
With local nonprofits, Denver Community Church and First Baptist Church of Denver erected sanctioned safe outdoor spaces in their parking lots for about 70 people. The leases are temporary, but church leaders hope to inspire more creative thinking around homelessness as the current situation increasingly becomes untenable.
A 2020 point-in-time count in the Denver metro area reported 6,104 homeless individuals — sheltered or unsheltered — an increase from 2019. Although Denver set up emergency shelters when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, there are still many unsheltered individuals. Meanwhile, unsanctioned encampments have grown, which the city continues to “sweep.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against sweeps because they increase the potential for COVID-19 to spread.
A class-action lawsuit against Denver and the state of Colorado is currently ongoing. The plaintiffs seek an injunction to stop sweeps during the pandemic. A ruling is expected soon.
In response to the growing public health and economic crises, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and the Colorado Village Collaborative, two local nonprofits, pitched the safe-camping sites idea to the city of Denver in April.
The vision was for each safe outdoor space to have tents, bathrooms, handwashing, electricity, showers, laundry, food access, wellness screenings, other health care services, and outreach workers and case managers. The sites would exist only during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We needed to better figure out how we can provide services that can help people stabilize,” said Kathleen Van Voorhis, director of housing justice for Interfaith Alliance. “One of the biggest things with sweeps and encampment clean-ups is that not only is it dangerous and does it go against CDC guidelines. But it’s just pushing people every week down the road.”
Interfaith Alliance and Colorado Village Collaborative scouted 120 properties as potential locations for the pop-up sites. Most weren’t churches. Eventually, leaders at DCC and First Baptist expressed a keen interest in hosting the safe-camping sites on their properties. Interfaith Alliance and Colorado Village Collaborative were sold, especially because church land is private.
“Had these churches not come forward, we may still not have a site,” Van Voorhis said.
To the churches, the project also made sense. Through a collaboration with other nonprofits, First Baptist already had been providing indoor shelter for women experiencing homelessness a few Friday nights per month. That program halted after COVID-19 hit, though.
“Something needed to be done as we were watching so much evolve over the summer,” said Brian Henderson, First Baptist’s pastor. “Is it an extension of our sense of mission that we have as a downtown faith community? Yes. However, I also see it as a more a more humane thing to do.”
Members at Denver Community Church — which also had been doing homelessness outreach — saw it as a no-brainer. “As a Christian organization that is concerned with the kingdom, that’s not a metaphor for us,” said Pastor Dave Neuhausel.
“As a church, we have the opportunity to participate in the creation of the kingdom, to participate in alternate reality, a better future. In our midst, it’s among us. Something like safe outdoor space, it’s good news for everyone,” Neuhausel added.
Still, other hurdles remained. The City Council needed to pass an emergency ordinance that allowed the churches to bypass zoning restrictions to obtain permits. That happened in September.
The churches also needed buy-in from neighbors. Initially, that was difficult. Neuhausel said they faced some “not in my backyard” sentiment. Henderson said neighbors were confused and thought the safe outdoor spaces would be like unsanctioned encampments. Yet, after neighborhood meetings and “good neighborhood agreements,” community members were more at ease.
“There is something about having a reverend or a pastor or a leader being able to talk about neighbors being neighbors,” Van Voorhis said. “It is received much more as the true faith.”
Also, DCC decided to partner with Colorado Village Collaborative and First Baptist to collaborate with EarthLinks Inc. Colorado Village Collaborative and EarthLinks provided the equipment and they manage each site with trained staff.
Then, in December, First Baptist welcomed 30 women and trans individuals. And another 39 people moved into the DCC site. This has been a positive experience, Neuhausel and Henderson reported. The leases for both sites expire by June without a chance for renewal or extension.
As evidenced by the current lawsuit and a recent media snafu involving the mayor of nearby Aurora, encampments remain controversial in the area. However, Neuhausel and Henderson don’t think it was a bold move to host the sites.
“The safe outdoor spaces like many things, has come along and stretched our blanket of comfortability,” Henderson said. “Often, once your blanket is stretched, you realize, ‘you know, there are different ways of doing what can be done.’”
Liam Adams is a freelance religion writer based in the Denver area.