A right step to support faith based temporary housing

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 12/11/19

As we have witnessed, homelessness reached the Denver suburbs a few years ago and has grown to a level that it was noticeable. Now, local governments have started to take small steps to tackle the …

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A right step to support faith based temporary housing

Posted

As we have witnessed, homelessness reached the Denver suburbs a few years ago and has grown to a level that it was noticeable. Now, local governments have started to take small steps to tackle the problem.

There have been a variety of actions by both county and municipal governments to nibble away at reducing the number of people in such distress. Cities and public housing authorities, like Unison Housing Partners, have either built or incentivized work force apartments which subsidize the rent based on income levels.

Meanwhile, portable showers and laundry facilities have been provided — like in Westminster’s case at the Irving Street Library. Hotel vouchers are given out by law enforcement officers on freezing nights to homeless individuals to get them out of the weather. Non-profit organizations like Growing Home have provided temporary shelter in collaboration with area churches. Some governmental entities have funded “navigators” to assist with disbursing resource information to homeless individuals.

The list goes on reflecting ways homelessness is addressed while the number of homeless individuals and families increase in our area.

A step in the right direction

Last week, the Westminster City Council took a step in the right direction to further pursue another option to assist homeless families. The topic was whether to develop a faith-based sheltering program opportunity in Westminster.

Neighboring suburban city councils have already implemented such an option and the Westminster council unanimously directed city staff to bring back a recommended program with the necessary requirements.

Currently, city law prohibits such housing assistance by faith-based organizations in their facilities. Such temporary housing assistance would not be provided under city auspices and would be offered by our local churches in compliance with the city’s standards and requirements.

However, before you get too excited about this option, please understand that it is not an easy road for faith-based groups to implement such a humanitarian service.

The challenge to provide shelter is real

As reported in a city staff memorandum, the current landscape for sheltering facilities in the north metropolitan area is pretty bleak. I recently wrote about Growing Home’s Canopy Program and reported that they are closing it down at the end of this month. It had provided 14 beds to house three to four families at a time spanning 20 years.

Back in June, 2018, The Action Center in Jefferson County closed its homeless shelter program, which had provided 22 beds, due to the lack of financial sustainability. The Action Center and Red Rocks Community College announced back in September that the shelter would re-open to house those students identified by the college as being homeless.

Another program which has had to cope with financial and logistical issues is the Family Cold Weather Shelter. After a successful 2017-2018 season, Mean Street Ministries, which operates the shelter, ran into fire code problems with West Metro Fire District. They were unable to achieve compliance and could not rely on their shelter.

Motel vouchers provided by a separate non-profit organization enabled Mean Street Ministries to provide warm, safe shelter along with support services but, as of last October, the Family Cold Weather Shelter is still in need of a shelter location.

Another shelter provider, the Severe Weather Shelter Network — which worked with churches in Jefferson County — ran into fire code problems as well. They are seeking fire code amendments on a city-by-city basis to resolve the problem and have temporary shelters.

Hopefully more churches can meet the challenge

I mention these various organizations which are temporary shelter providers for homeless families for a reason: As you can readily tell, offering this service is a significant challenge. Steady funding, adequate facilities, building and fire code requirements, insurance requirements and more are all part of the picture to be able to achieve a viable homeless shelter program.

In Westminster’s case, staff indicated that three churches had expressed interest in pursuing a shelter program for homeless families. Hopefully, city staff can turn this conditional permit program around in a timely fashion so the interested churches can determine if they are able and willing to comply with the municipal requirements.

Society has a responsibility

As we know, there is no single silver bullet which can solve the homeless problem regardless of what part of the Denver metro area you want to discuss. Government agencies and non-profit organizations cannot build their way out of having a homelessness problem.

For example, no matter how many affordable apartment projects are approved by a City Council, there will still be people sleeping along creeks in make-shift tents or under bridges. There will still be homeless individuals coming to the local Safeway Store, Wendy’s or library to get out of the cold or the heat. There will be those who have mental health issues who refuse shelter.

But at the same time we, as a society, owe our fellow humankind as many opportunities as possible to have a warm, dry, safe place to sleep and eat.

We are all in this challenge together

A major option to reduce homelessness is the construction and management of significantly sized shelters like we find in the City and County of Denver. In the north metro area, there are no such facilities. Furthermore, city and county officials are hesitant to mention such facilities, let alone explore how to achieve such construction and operations of this type of facility. A “Not in my backyard” mentality is a key roadblock.

Ultimately, some organization must be motivated and step up to the plate to provide the initial regional leadership for such an endeavor. When I recently mentioned this point to a north area city staff person, I was told that this is not the role of municipalities. Furthermore, the staffer stated that such involvement takes funds away from basic city services i.e. maintaining streets, providing police and fire protection etc.

If I had been asked the question 25 years ago as Westminster’s City Manager about municipal responsibility to help house the homeless, I would have agreed with the staff person’s answer. However, the game has changed dramatically and municipal governments should be a key partner and not simply defer to county social service departments or public housing authorities to carry the burden. Certainly, city governments are providing assistance but there is much more to be done and done collectively. This is a regional problem with no quick fixes.

A regional collective approach is needed

A Westminster citizen had submitted a budget request for consideration as part of the city’s 2020 budget process. It focused on spending city funds if other city and county entities would participate in developing a regional strategy to address homelessness.

It contemplated a multi-prong attack or action strategies to tackle the problem with each participating entity identifying its role. The Westminster City Administration and City Council rejected the request outright saying that both Adams and Jefferson Counties were doing their own strategies. Why not tackle a regional problem using a regional strategy? Anyway, I had to give it a try!

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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