Thomas Limes says the shed-sized pallet shelter in an Aurora parking lot he now calls home is a godsend.
It’s not far from where Limes, 62, grew up near Del Mark Park, he graduated from Hinkley High School and delivered The Sentinel as a kid. Born in Aurora, he went to college on a scholarship to play golf and then again for a human services degree in his 50s. He’s also a recovering drug addict who now aspires to help people with similar experiences as his own. He’s homeless, and the pallet shelter has provided a path forward.
“It’s a lot better than sleeping in a tent,” he said on a chilly November morning. “You ever slept in a refrigerator? It’s like that.”
Limes has slept in a lot of places since becoming homeless, but the 64 square-foot pallet shelter — one of 30 the city of Aurora purchased earlier this year — has helped him maintain a job and start thinking about what’s next.
“I am grateful,” Limes said this week, stepping off a bus on his way back to the shelter for the night from his day labor job. He’s been in the pallet shelter for about a month now. “The heater just kicks ass, and it gets so hot you have to turn it down.”
Limes is one of a growing number of Aurora residents who have no permanent home. As of June there were an estimated 480 homeless Aurorans in a city with no permanent shelter, though some homelessness advocates believe that to be a significant undercount.
Aurora has struggled to present a clear vision of how to respond to the problem, and in recent months city lawmakers have clashed over even relatively basic issues such as what types of emergency shelter to provide. The issue of how to handle people living on the street or in encampments is particularly charged. Mayor Mike Coffman failed to pass his controversial urban camping ban proposal this summer, but vows to bring it back in the new year with a friendlier city council.
Amid the political deadlock, churches and faith communities have stepped in.
They’re increasingly involved in efforts to help people like Limes. Their goal is to decrease homelessness and increase access to affordable housing. It’s part of a burgeoning national movement referred to by some supporters as “Yes In God’s Backyard” — a play on the “not in my backyard” attitude of groups seeking to block development on new housing.
Churches and other faith communities have long undergirded soup kitchens and other homeless outreach programs. These efforts can make a significant difference, especially in places where faith groups provide some of the only sources of community support. But the new shift points to a desire to halt homelessness at its source — keep people housed or find ways to get them back into housing, quickly.
Throughout the Denver metroplex, faith communities are now participating in or spearheading the creation of transitional housing projects, affordable housing communities, safe parking and other initiatives designed to curb the region’s homelessness crisis.
“The faith-based community has been very open (to these types of options) for sure,” said Jessica Prosser, director of Aurora’s Housing and Community Services Department. “And that is the hope, to connect with a faith-based provider.”
Advocates say that faith communities are natural partners in this work.
“People of all faiths have a calling to care for and protect the most marginalized members of our community,” said Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative. “At this particular moment in our city and our country homelessness is a major issue that’s becoming larger by the day. You see people of faith following their faith practices and rising to meet the occasion.”
Likewise, Cheryl Baker-Hauck, co-founder of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, said that homeless advocates and faith groups have similar missions to help others.
Baker-Hauck founded the initiative in 2019 with Rochelle Brogan and incorporated as a nonprofit in 2020. The initiative works with local organizations — all faith communities so far — to give people who are homeless and living in their cars a safe place to park overnight while it works to connect them to social services and help people find a place to live. (There are no religious requirements for people who park in the lots.)
Churches make particularly good partners because many have parking lots that typically aren’t being used overnight, Bake-Hauck said. There’s also a built-in pool of volunteers.
“That’s a really important part of the program, the community of support that the host provides,” she said.
The initiative receives about a handful of requests for help each day from across the metro area and sometimes further afield, Baker-Hauck said, and the number of people living in their cars increased during the pandemic. Over the past year, about 10% of people who requested assistance were in Aurora.
The CSPI was able to open its first location in Aurora over the summer in partnership with Restoration Christian Fellowship. A permit is required to park in each lot. Applicants must apply through the initiative’s website at colosafeparking.org.
In the time since it’s opened, over half of the people who have stayed in the Aurora lot have left to go into some kind of permanent housing, Baker-Hauck said.
Advocates often say that stable housing is the key to getting people back up on their feet. That was true for Limes, who, through the Salvation Army, was able to get his driver’s licence, social security card, a mailing address and a reliable place to stay allowing him to find temporary work. He’d like to continue on to work with the other people experiencing homelessness, he said.
“I think my path is being laid down in front of me over this last year. I believe in the ‘guy upstairs’ and he and I got a direct line,” Limes said. “And sometimes I get put in weird situations and different avenues, but I see what’s happening with this one.”
Limes, like others, said the need for services is significant in Aurora. He waited weeks for a bed to become open at the Salvation Army in north Aurora.
Baker-Hauck hopes to open more parking lots in Aurora and the surrounding area in the near future. It eventually wants to have safe parking lots in all seven counties in the metro area. The crisis has not come out of nowhere, she said.
“The number one reason people lose their housing and are living in their cars, they tell us, is the cost of housing,” she said. “They just can’t find something affordable.”
The cost of housing in Colorado has ticked steadily upwards, unabated by the pandemic. According to the Colorado Association of Realtors the median sale price of a single family home in the state was $532,800 in November, an 18.5% increase from the same time last year. Apartment List reports that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Aurora has reached a high of $1,556. The squeeze makes it increasingly difficult for low-income residents to make ends meet, even if they’re working full-time (or more than full-time) jobs.
Faith groups are taking note of that fact, too. The safe parking lot is the first step in Restoration Christian Fellowship’s long-term plan to build a so-called affordable housing village on a 12-acre piece of land it owns adjacent to its worship space on East Sixth Avenue.
Serving the homeless was a passion of the church’s founding pastor Felix Gilbert, who died unexpectedly this April at age 61 just weeks before the safe parking lot opened.
Pastor Kotane Gilbert, his wife, told the Sentinel earlier this year that helping the homeless “grabbed hold of his heart” early in the church’s ministry. The church was originally located on Colfax, and homeless people were some of its first congregants.
Throughout the years the couple continually ministered to the homeless and worked with the Denver Rescue Mission, but wished there were services for the homeless within the city of Aurora, especially as the need rose.
“Our desire was always to have something in the city of Aurora,” she said.
The project will be named the Dr. Felix Gilbert Unhoused Residents Village in his honor.
Several miles away, another affordable housing community is taking shape with the help of Mountain View United Church, which has launched an initiative to build a 10-duplex affordable housing community on a plot of land it owns next to the church building in the Havana Heights neighborhood.
The project, dubbed Mountain View Community Homes, is being developed in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver. The duplexes will create 20 homes earmarked for people who earn up to 80% of the area median income, which is about $78,000 for a family of four.
Rev. Wayne Laws, minister of social justice and mission at Mountain View, said that the project got started after the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado conducted a survey that found that faith communities in the Denver metro area collectively owned more than 5,000 acres of vacant land.
The alliance formed the Congregational Land Campaign to work with faith communities to see how to use land to help address the region’s housing crisis. The church became part of the effort in 2018, and after studying what would be the best use of its land decided to create an affordable housing community. It originally had plans to include senior housing, which ultimately didn’t work out.
Laws said the congregation has always looked at that piece of property as “a gift from God.” The church was originally located on Havana Street, and exchanged land with a car dealership in 1970. As part of the sale it received two lots on Evans Avenue. It used one to build the church, but the other sat vacant. Throughout the years the church looked for a way to use it and considered several options, but “nothing really clicked” until it discovered the Congregational Land Campaign, Laws said.
For many projects geared toward low-income Aurorans and the homeless community, timing can be an issue, said Prosser, with Aurora’s Housing and Community Services Department. Location is also a big factor, especially with the need for other social services and public transit lines. In the case of Mountain View and its affordable housing plans, it’s all seemed to mostly align.
The church entered into a partnership with Habitat for Humanity in 2018. In October it received initial approval by a 5-4 vote from the Aurora City Council to go forward with its proposal, which complies with city standards and meets the city’s goal of increasing the supply of affordable homes. It received a final vote of approval from the council in November.
Laws said the church hopes to break ground sometime next year. The units will sell for between $250,000 to $300,000, about half of what single family homes in the surrounding area regularly sell for.
“Aurora — the whole metro area — is in desperate need of affordable homes for working families,” Laws said. “The families who will be moving into these homes are the essential people for our neighborhood: we’re talking teachers, nurses, law enforcement.”
At the initial meeting, many residents of the surrounding area spoke during public comment in opposition of the plan, arguing that the community was not a right fit for the neighborhood.
“I support affordable housing, just not this affordable housing,” one neighborhood resident said.
Laws said that the church was unprepared for the level of opposition it received to the project.
It made what he believes was a good faith effort to reach out to people with concerns, including hosting community meetings, speaking individually with neighbors and creating a website to answer frequently asked questions, but had little success in swaying people.
The church heard “over and over” from people who said they supported the work Habitat for Humanity did — and even donated to it — but didn’t want a housing development in their own neighborhood.
Laws was hesitant to put words in people’s mouths, but said he didn’t think the concerns raised about parking space or other mundane concerns were the main drivers of the pushback.
“The things that they talked about I never thought were the real issues,” he said.
Chandler, the director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, said that faith communities are key to managing the strong neighborhood opposition that housing projects provoke.
“I really appreciate having those fights with faith communities because they are uniquely positioned to be good listeners but they also are very, very committed to the cause,” he said.
The CVC partners with faith communities, people who are homeless, service providers and others to create solutions for homelessness. It currently operates two tiny home villages and four safe outdoor spaces in Denver. It gravitated towards tiny homes because they take much less time and money to build than traditional homes, but still provide people with their own personal space, something that’s absent in a communal shelter.
Chandler praised Mountain View for its commitment.
“I think if you didn’t have a partner like a church on that project they probably would have walked away from it a long time ago,” Chandler said. “If somebody had a for-profit bottom line they would have walked away from the project a long time ago, but because that is an integral part of the church’s mission it was a fight they were going to have.”