Kenny Levan has spent seven winters living on the streets in Arvada. Just over four years ago, he met Rebel Rodriguez, who runs the food pantry at The Rising Church in Olde Town.
“Rebel came down to Snake Park one morning and asked if I wanted to help out,” said Levan, referring to a line of shrubbery that used to be along Vance Street, as he loaded food into the freezer at the church one Thursday morning. “I was here the next day.”
Volunteering at the pantry has given him something to do and connected him with his love of cooking, Levan said. He cooks lunch for the volunteers occasionally and has been enlisted by the church’s pastor to cook for a fundraiser.
“I enjoy it,” Levan said. “It’s just my nature helping others and all. It’s satisfying.”
Now, instead of sleeping in the woods in Arvada, where he did last winter, Levan and seven other homelessmen and women consistently sleep outside on The Rising Church’s property. It is not required to work at the pantry to sleep at the church,but many do.
“It literally came to our doorstep,” Rev. Steve Byers said of the homeless population in Olde Town Arvada.
He hopes his small church — a nondenominational church with baptist roots and a Sunday attendance of about 70 people —can serve as a liaison among the homeless, aid groups and police.
“We spend time getting to know them and getting to know their stories and love them,” Byers said.
A growing issue in the suburbs
The growing population of homeless people in Arvada, particularly in Olde Town, is reflective of a metrowide issue that is seeing more and more homeless navigate to the suburbs following sweeps of homeless camps in Denver, city and police officials say.
The city and Arvada Police Department are seeking help from the community to try to find a solution that would effectively reduce the number of homeless on the streets.
Arvada Police Sgt. Kate Herrlinger, who was the Olde Town liaison and worked directly with the homeless for a year starting in May 2015, said the city has experienced a huge influx of homeless who have moved from Denver over the past six months.
“Every day I go down to Olde Town there’s new people,” she said. “I’ve been talking to people that are homeless living in cars or in Olde Town who said they were in Denver and got booted out. Now they’re here.”
The sweeps of homeless camps by Denver police are one reason people have fled to the suburbs, along with the urge to escape violence and drugs they have experienced in some shelters, Herrlinger said.
The largest homeless population in Arvada live in Olde Town, but Herrlinger said it spreads up to 80th Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard, where many are living in vehicles. There also are homeless camps underneath Interstate 70 near Wadsworth Boulevard, Herrlinger said, which have between eight and 10 people at any given time.
And residents are noticing.
“We’ve gotten a lot of citizen feedback about the homeless population being more visible in Arvada,” Arvada Mayor Marc Williams said.
The library in Olde Town is one of the draws.
“It’s viewed as safe place to go,” Williams said. “So, the existence of the library in Olde Town — which has many positives — has been somewhat of a magnet for the homeless population.”
The Rising Church’s location across the street from the library has drawn a number of homeless — the majority of which are single males — to the church property. This has made the library, The Rising and Town Square a hub for this population.
“They allow these guys to sleep on the church property and no other place in the city allows that,” Herrlinger said. “It’s helping in some ways because it’s giving these people a place to lay their head at night…. The Rising has huge hearts. But it compounds the issue because we have business owners that don’t want them sleeping behind their businesses.”
Families going to the library also have complained about the homeless men hanging around, Herrlinger said.
“It’s hard to address,” she said. “I don’t know where else they’re supposed to go, so it’s nice that the church opens their arms and door to these people. But word spreads and homeless in Denver know Arvada is a good place to go.”
The issue is occurring in all metro communities, said Williams, who has been discussing homelessness with other metro area mayors.
“I am concerned about the G Line,” said Williams, referring to new lightrail line that is expected to open by the end of the year. “No one has firm numbers, but I think to some extent it becomes easy access into the suburbs for the homeless population.”
Herrlinger agreed, saying the police department is expecting another influx in the homeless population once the G line is up and running.
Finding a solution
Rather than just ticketing homeless individuals for minor infractions such as urinating in public, the Arvada Police Department wants to find a solution, Herrlinger said. It researched building a shelter, but voted against it because “that’s the Band-Aid fix.”
“The cure is finding these people homes,” she said. “If they stay in a shelter, then they’re back out on the street in the morning.”
The biggest problem is the lack of affordable housing, Herrlinger said.
Arvada Community Food Bank has a program that provides housing vouchers to those in need, but Herrlinger said there aren’t enough apartment complexes that will take the vouchers.
Adding to the challenge, Herrlinger said, is that some homeless people don’t want help.
“They have lived on the streets so long, they have a fear of change,” she said. “The single men in Olde Town Arvada, they consider that home and they don’t want to go live in an apartment. They’re used to having all their belongings on their back and sleeping outside. There’s a crew that’s been there more than 12 years and that’s their family. They’ve turned down housing vouchers.”
One of the biggest initiatives the police department is working on is creating a severe weather shelter similar to one in South Jeffco that is comprised of a group of churches that provide shelter on cold nights, on a rotating basis.
“We wanted to bring it to Arvada, but we couldn’t get enough churches to open their doors,” Herrlinger said. “Our hope is to have it by 2017.”
The Rising is one church that volunteered to provide severe weather shelter. But until that project comes to fruition, the church is doing what it can to keep the homeless living near and on its property warm this winter.
“I don’t want to go outside and see someone dead of freezing,” Byers said. “We’re a poor little church. We don’t have a lot of money. The main thing we do is humanize them. Love them.”