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Backyard blues

Soup kitchen expansion draws gladness, gloom


Marian Houses clients await their daily bread. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Marian Houses clients await their daily bread.

NIMBY -- "not in my back yard" -- is a phrase used to describe community reaction to proposals for homeless shelters, low-income housing development and similar social service entities decamping a little too close for comfort.

But a proposed expansion of the Marian House Soup Kitchen in downtown's Boulder Crescent neighborhood offers a different paradigm to this oft-divisive squabble because it's hard to cry NIMBY when a facility that feeds over 500 meals a day has been in your back yard for the last 18 years.

It's not just disgruntled neighbors who are weighing in against Marian House's policy of providing a hot meal to all comers, no questions asked, and then not taking responsibility for the destructive behavior of its clientele. Even those working with homeless advocacy organizations see the kitchen as an "enabler" for a small minority of people described as the chronically homeless, or "frequent fliers" who, as Homeward Pikes Peak board member Matt Parkhouse explains, often exist on a continuum between the street, jail, the emergency room and detox.

From 75 to 300

Last month, Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs, the nonprofit that runs Marian House -- across the street from St. Mary's Cathedral -- initiated the pre-approval process for an expansion permit. Their goal is to increase the facility's seating from its current capacity of 75 to 300. In addition, its family dining area and kitchen space will also be revamped.

"The current kitchen was designed to feed about 20 nuns," said Javan Ridge, chief operating officer for Catholic Charities.

A precursor to the move was a $500,000 grant from the El Pomar Foundation. Though it has not yet been awarded, El Pomar's Kae Rader said the funds have been earmarked with the understanding that they'll be used to feed the hungry for the next 10 years.

God is on our side

However, news of the expansion hasn't exactly gladdened the hearts of nearby residents, who claim the soup kitchen has not been a responsible neighbor.

Like most Boulder Crescent residents, David Kennemer is careful to mention that he is not against the soup kitchen, but is put off by its cavalier attitude toward the community.

"We feed the poor and therefore God is on our side," is how he describes Catholic Charities attitude toward neighbors.

As fellow Boulder Crescent resident Anne Collopy explains, "Their mission as Christians is to feed the poor, which is noble and has to be done. However, their blatant refusal to acknowledge an external impact on the community is pigheaded and just downright wrong."

Like many of her neighbors, Lili Meuh believes that a small minority of soup kitchen clients are causing the problems she deals with on a regular basis, like public urination, beer bottles thrown on her lawn, nearby drug dealing, and not-infrequent door-to-door panhandling.

"I don't feel safe having my children in the front yard," said Meuh.

With the proposed expansion, many neighbors fear the problems will only get worse.

"Do the math -- if you can feed more people, more people are going to hear about it," said Kennemer.

Endemic to urban life

For their part, Catholic Charities officials say they understand the community's concerns. However, they disagree that their expansion will draw more clients and see the concerns as problems that are endemic to urban areas.

"Their concerns are more about the park that's next to us (Monument Valley Park) where a lot of undesirables gather, and that seems to be a police matter or a city matter," said Marian House General Manager Frank Crosson.

Catholic Charities' Ridge says that while some of the trouble is being caused by his clients, he believes it unfair to blame the soup kitchen.

"That's kinda like saying that over in Acacia Park the people that sell drugs, or buy drugs, go to Starbucks and Subway, so it must be the Subway and the Starbucks that's attracting that activity," Ridge said.

One bad apple

Bob Holmes, who heads Homeward Pikes Peak, a coordinating agency that works with homeless service providers, says Catholic Charities is doing an excellent job of feeding people. He also sympathizes with members of the community.

"About 85 percent of the people they feed are the working poor, not the homeless," Holmes said. "It's mom and pop from the Acacia Apartment house that come over there to get their free food so they can pay for glasses ... it's the day laborer who has three kids and a wife in a motel on South Nevada."

Holmes says Marian House's problems come with the minority of clients, who are not held accountable for their behavior and are not interested in services that will assist them in getting off the streets.

"The main crux of this philosophical discussion comes when you get the one guy that says, 'I don't want to' What do you do with him?"

The answer, Holmes believes, is to deny them services. "And that's the tough part," he said. "Catholic Charities needs to make the first move to show the downtown area that they're willing to exercise some tough love on this small percentage of individuals."

El Pomar's Rader said the Catholic Charities grant is contingent upon a plan that the organization must submit, outlining a 10-year plan detailing what they want to do with the money. The plan must meet the approval of the Homeward Pikes Peak board of directors.

Steve Tuck, a senior planner for the city, says the pre-approval process for the proposed expansion will include several public meetings before the permit is voted on by the city's planning commission.

Crosson says he's unsure when Marian House plans to file its pre-approval application, but hopes to break ground next fall.

-- John Dicker

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