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Photo: A screenshot from a video at Coloradoan.com of the lockers at Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship. Photo used with permission.
A Mennonite Church USA congregation that has been helping people experiencing homelessness in its neighborhood for several years has gained a renewed opening to continue its ministry.
According to an Aug. 21 article in the Fort Collins Coloradoan, the Fort Collins (Colorado) City Council agreed to allow Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship (FCMF) to provide 20 lockers outside its building for use by people experiencing homelessness to store their possessions.
The agreement, however, came with 10 conditions, and the city agreed to pay the church $60,000, following a lawsuit brought by the church, charging that “the city violated its religious practice of ‘the radical inclusivity of Jesus Christ’ when it imposed burdensome conditions that forced the church to discontinue the locker program,” writes Jacy Marmaduke in the Coloradoan.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in November 2018 on behalf of the church. The payment of $60,000 is to help offset legal expenses, which exceeded $100,000, according to the article.
In an Aug. 29 phone interview, Steve Ramer, pastor of FCMF, said, “We’re glad the City Council agreed to the settlement.” However, he said, it should never have had to go to the courts or mediation.
The Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act, which Congress passed in 2000, gave churches a way to avoid zoning law restrictions on their property use, yet the Fort Collins City Council wanted to place restrictions on Fort Collins Fellowship’s provision of the lockers, which stand outside the church building.
Ramer said he was glad for the help of the ACLU, which took on the case because it was about first amendment rights of religious liberty. The organization coordinated with a law firm in Denver that specializes in zoning and land-use codes, and they took the case pro bono, he said.
The case went to the Federal Court in Denver and landed in mediation, Ramer said. That process led to the compromise that the Fort Collins City Council agreed to by a 6 to 1 vote.
FCMF’s building is located in Old Town, in the downtown area of Fort Collins. Businesses there had complained years ago about people experiencing homelessness in the area, said Ramer. Many people experiencing homelessness have had to move from downtown to residential areas because downtown businesses have been hostile to them. This led to complaints in the church’s neighborhood.
Neighbors urged council members to reject the settlement, deny payment to the church and seek required on-site supervision, writes Marmaduke. “They said an upswell of illegal and inappropriate behavior in the neighborhood has made them feel unsafe in and around their homes.”
Ramer said the church has had many conversations with neighbors, holding public forums for people to address their concerns. Yet the downtown business owners did not come to those meetings.
The church then put up cameras and lighting—but this was as much for the safety of the individuals experiencing homelessness as for the neighbors, said Ramer.
“There’s a stereotype that homeless people are dangerous when really they’re more likely to be victims of crime,” he said.
The church first submitted its proposal for the lockers almost two years ago. The reason for the lockers, said Ramer, is that people experiencing homelessness consistently mention the need for a place to keep their possessions, or at least some of them. With the new agreement with the City Council, the church can now add nine lockers to the 11 they already had.
Ramer said the church interviews each person who uses a locker and has guidelines for their use. He said he sees their response to this need as responding to Jesus’ call to “come all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Among the conditions agreed to, writes Marmaduke, are that “the lockers will be accessible from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., one hour longer than originally approved, [and] a church representative won’t need to be physically present at the site during operating hours. Instead, cellphone numbers for two representatives will be posted at the site, and the representatives must respond to police complaints within a half hour.”
Ramer explained that it’s extremely rare for a person experiencing homelessness to need their locker between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. because they’re usually at a shelter.
The bottom-line question, said Ramer, is, “Do people who are poor have the right to exist in our city?”
Although FCMF is small, with only about 60 active members, they also open the church on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings for meals and showers that often attract 60 or 70 folks. But they have help, as volunteers from the community have provided help. An organization called Family Housing Network also uses FCMF’s facilities.
“We are trying to respond to the people in our neighborhood who are in need,” he said, following Jesus’ teachings. “Churches have buildings, and we need to use them.”
The ministry grew out of the church’s location. People experiencing homelessness “are literally sleeping on our doorstep,” said Ramer.
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