By Mark Pattison | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Jesuit-run Regis University in Denver is approaching its first anniversary of providing shelter to people just one step away from permanent housing.
And from all accounts, it has been a success all around.
There are 58 fishing tents that form their own community on the school grounds, with access to electricity and Wi-Fi and currently housing 60 people. But as many as 119 have been in the tents since June 1, 2021, when the initiative “Safe Outdoor Space” started.
The seemingly rapid turnover of numbers is the result of housing authorities in Denver having been able to place so many people into permanent housing, said Jenna Farley, Regis’ director of community relations.
The one big bugaboo when it comes to sheltering people experiencing homelessness is NIMBY-ism, short for Not In My Back Yard.
“That’s been one of our biggest challenges,” said Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which provides food and other services at Regis for those being sheltered there. The collaborative works with five such sheltered communities, each of which they call villages.
“We find that conceptually from a high level, people are very supportive of the idea that people need safe spaces to be,” Chandler told Catholic News Service in a May 23 phone interview. “But when it comes down to trying to locate that in a particular neighborhood or a particular community, that becomes a lot harder.”
Regis had to address that issue as well. When the idea first arose, Jesuit Father John Fitzgibbons, Regis’ president before he retired at the end of 2021, reportedly said, “Let me think about that.” Farley, who lives in the neighborhood adjacent to Regis, was brought in. “I have really good firsthand knowledge of my neighborhood and my community members,” she told CNS.
“When he (Father Fitzgibbons) asked me, ‘What do you think?’, I knew right away that we were going to do this at Regis,” Farley added. “It was the right time.”
“There was some trepidation by some people, not because it was the right thing to do,” she noted, but because of the stereotypes associated with homelessness. “Scary?” she asked. “Or is it just right thing to put our mission into action?”
Farley said, “We went to the neighbors, too. We didn’t asked permission, but we asked, ‘What do you think?’ We hosted several community meetings in collaboration with the CVC (Colorado Village Collaborative) to let them know what was happening, how it’s operated. … We spent a lot of time explaining that to faculty, students, staff.”
She added, “By the time we did open the gates, a few months later, we had an open house” so that neighbors could answer for themselves. “What does this look like?” and “What does this mean for my neighborhood?”
Farley said, “I don’t want to brag,” but the North Denver community adjoining Regis really has opened up to their newest neighbors. The woman who runs a laundromat 100 yards from the shelter site has welcomed them, a yoga studio is coming to the site once weekly to conduct a free yoga class, and an organization that takes books to prisons, hospitals and nursing homes has put the shelter site on its rounds, she added, “so you don’t have 3-year-old copies of People magazine.”
There also is job training onsite; Regis is on a bus line that goes into downtown Denver. Colorado Village Collaborative has eight workers taking shifts around the clock to attend to residents’ needs. They’ve already been prescreened for drugs and alcohol, and there’s a no-visitors policy: “You don’t want people walking around your back yard,” Farley said.
When the Regis partnership opened up, “it was one we were really excited about,” Chandler said. “It’s unique that there’s been a ton of community support from the beginning.”
Chandler said “SOS,” as Safe Outdoor Spaces is colloquially known, is neither new nor unique to Denver. But how to make it work in Denver is up to the Colorado Village Collaborative.
He did not have to look far. “I grew up in the Catholic Worker movement, which is a community-based model of building community and working alongside people,” Chandler said. “That’s the ethos that guides us and drives us. We’re all about community.”
Part of Colorado Village Collaborative’s mission, he added, is “seeing people as human and worthy of dignity and trying to deliver that (message) to people.”
The organization also studies other models, such as the “tiny home” villages found in Portland, Oregon, and in Seattle. “We recognize there’s not enough housing for all of our friends and neighbors on the street,” Chandler said. “Our mission, our charge is to bridge the gap for those folks.”
“Our focus is really people that are unsheltered. The ‘point-in-time’ count” — a federal count of homelessness — in 2020 “showed that for the first time since the history of the count, there were more people counted as being unsheltered rather than living in a shelter,” Chandler said.
“In the United States, there’s over 220,000 people that’s going to be sleeping on the streets tonight. At CVC, we simply think things don’t have to be that way,” he added. “On one hand, 220,000 is an overwhelming amount, but on the other hand, it’s less than 1% of the country, right?”