DENVER — The fire that coursed up the stairs of the Catholic Worker House last week, pushing 12 people into the streets, did far less visible damage to the Five Points Neighborhood than the bloated development under construction next door.
The looming Wheatley — an 82 apartment, 14 townhouse, five-story new-Denver mixed-use modernist monstrosity being built by Palisade Partners with “significant neighborhood input,” as the aggressive developer’s website brags — sits on ground once gardened by folks living at the Catholic Worker House. There peace activists have built community with homeless people since 1978.
Months before the fire, the activists’ old house was already being uprooted by the Palisade Partners’ project. The developers’ contractors dug up an old tree. The roots pushed into the foundation of the Catholic Worker House. It shifted. The doors would no longer close.
“We were complaining to the developers about it feeling like not only did we lose our garden, but we’d cross basically losing the structural integrity of our house,” said Marcus Hyde, one of the Workers who had lived there until a few months ago. “The next thing you know, our house was gone.”
Nobody was optimistic the old house that sheltered the homeless would survive Denver’s economic boom. The fire sped up inevitable displacement.
The Catholic Workers had no insurance. Nor did their landlord who had been renting it to them for 1980s prices and couldn’t afford to pay premiums.
Thursday’s fire did some damage to the adjacent development. Hyde worries the developer’s insurance company plans to go after the Catholic Workers’ generous landlord, who is dying of cancer in California.
The house — a hub of anti-gentrification, homeless activism — will no longer serve as a stumbling block to the developer’s rapid takeover of the neighborhood.
Nobody wants to play the blame game about who caused the fire, said Hyde, “But there are definitely people curious how it could have happened — especially because we have been the people at neighborhood meetings saying we don’t want new developments happening if they’re not going to be affordable.”
Like so many mixed-use projects across Denver, the Wheatley will have some affordable housing — but those words are deceptive. Mostly the middle class has enough money to pay for so-called “affordable” homes.
Denver’s affordable housing will not do much for the thousands experiencing homelessness. Of those, 60 percent are people with children, 42 percent are women, and one-third have jobs, according to Denver’s Road Home, the city agency that recently abandoned the 10 year plan to end homelessness.
That plan was launched 11 years ago by now governor, then Mayor John Hickenlooper, as a “housing first” fix. Needless to say, it did not end homelessness, which in recent years has been rising due to skyrocketing rent and housing prices across the metro area.
Hyde and the Catholic Workers have been on the front lines of the struggle against Mayor Michael Hancock, City Council and the developers that have driven up rent and pushed people from their homes.
“We’ve fought a lot of the white middle class people who have moved into the neighborhood in these last ten years. They all want their property values to go up.”
In booming Denver, the wealthy don’t need to commit arson to push out the poor. It’s a daily reality. And as Hyde sees it, it doesn’t matter much how the Catholic Workers were forced to leave Five Points. Either way, poor people lose their homes to rich white folks. It’s the recent history of a neighborhood once dubbed “Harlem of the West.”
The Catholic Worker House was the only place in the city homeless couples — gay or straight, trans- or cis-gender — could take shelter without being split up. The folks who lived there were called guests and workers. Everybody chipped in with chores. There was no real hierarchy.
Many of the major homeless services in Colorado branched off from the Catholic Worker House, said Hyde. Stout Street Clinic, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and the St. Francis Center had their roots there.
But the Catholic Worker was special. The folks who ran it weren’t trained social workers. They were regular people who decided to open their doors to folks who needed shelter. They shared meals. Sometimes they prayed together. Over casseroles and cigarettes, they talked about social justice and the longstanding history of the Catholic Workers, an anarchistic movement led by Catholics but not sponsored directly by the Church.
Anna Koop founded the Denver house along with a group of friends in the wake of a tent city she and others had set up at Park Avenue and Welton Street in the 1970s. She and her housemates organized protests against the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant and decried a string of wars from the 1970s on.
Catholic Workers most recently helped found Denver Homeless Out Loud, a group that has led the fight against the urban camping ban.
In the house’s last weeks, 12 people lived there. There was a family with a little girl, one couple, two single women, two single men, and three workers sleeping there the night of the fire. Smoke inhalation forced one guest to be sent to the hospital.
Some fled in their underwear, lost clothes, medicine and what few personal items they carried with them.
The Red Cross provided some toiletries, clothes, blankets and other essentials to replace those lost in the fire and financial assistance to the guests to help them pay for a few nights lodging at a motel. After that assistance runs dry, the Catholic Workers are unsure about their guests’ futures.
Hyde is hesitant to tell people how they can help out his group. “We always say, if you want to help the Catholic Workers, the first thing you can do is take someone into your own house. That’s our model. We don’t do a lot beyond that. It’s as simple as opening your doors and seeing what happens. None of us are trained professionals or would want to be.”
The group is accepting gift cards and checks for its guests. If it receives enough money, maybe it will open a new home — though Denver’s rental market makes that much harder than it was when the shelter opened 38 years ago.
“If we’re supposed to have another house, it will be provided,” said Hyde.
The Catholic Worker Movement has always lived on the edge of survival, and what activists have needed has generally worked out, he said.
Finding a new and affordable house in Denver’s current market would be something of a miracle.
“It isn’t going to come form the Diocese, of course. They don’t send us checks. It’s probably not going to come from a developer. But the Catholic Worker movement has always been a laypeople movement, and there could be someone out there.”
Correction February 3, 2016: This article originally stated the Red Cross gave the survivors vouchers for motels. The group actually gave them financial assistance for lodging.
Photo credit: Catholic Workers