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    overhead view of the tiny houses in the Colorado Village Collaborative

    Building Beloved Community

    By Cole D. Chandler

    January 22, 2020
    • Bob Taylor

      An absolutely wonderful article. Certainly, we have the electoral power to vote people into office who would restore federal housing assistance to the standards which applied before 1980, yet the party which is far likelier to do this, to raise food stamp levels, and to increase the minimum wage is the party which is ardently pro abortion, pro transgender, and increasingly, antiChristian. It's a conundrum, one which I fear will end in stalemate, with everything in general becoming worse, and rapidly so.

    Rhonda begins to stir as the midsummer morning dawns. The Denver forecast calls for yet another ninety-degree day with no chance of rain, but at this hour the sand feels cool against her weathered skin. The sound of the South Platte River flowing north out of town still drowns out the hum of Washington Street traffic, but this won’t be the case much longer as folks from surrounding neighborhoods start their commute to work. Rhonda won’t have to stick around to hear the drum of traffic overpower the river’s gentler sound; she’s got to get moving and head to work herself. It is 2017, and Rhonda has an important job on an unusual construction site just up the hill from her camp. She has a tiny-home village to build.

    Emerging from her tarpaulin, Rhonda stretches her arms toward the sun, then walks to the river to splash its cold snowmelt water on her face and brush her teeth. She takes a breakfast bar from her pack and wets her parched lips with the last water from her bottle. These nights on the ground aren’t easy on her aging body, even though the sand along the river is softer than the concrete of the streets. Nevertheless, she’s thankful to greet the sun, grateful to have survived another night without being hassled by police or the abuser whom she fled when she first landed on the streets.

    the entrance to the Colorado Village Collaborative

    She longs to hold a hot cup of coffee between her hands but knows she’ll find that when she reaches the village. It’s time for work, and she sets off. Hardhat on head, Rhonda is warmly received by a crew of volunteers eager to be part of something new – realtors, landowners, construction professionals, politicians, pastors – working side by side with folks like Rhonda yearning for a place to call home. This isn’t just any jobsite. Rhonda will be driving nails into the walls of her own home, but along the way she’s doing something that may be more important, fashioning the sinews and connective tissue of a new community. Over the next two months, Rhonda repeats this daily routine as she helps build Beloved Community Village, Denver’s first tiny-home village created with and for people with nowhere to live.

    For many on the streets, housing is unobtainable and emergency shelter inaccessible. In the early 1980s, the United States government made drastic cuts to the federal housing budget and that funding has never been replaced. During the last four decades, our lack of investment in public housing has produced the greatest housing crisis since the Great Depression. Nationally we face an affordable-housing deficit of over 7.3 million units. At present, over 550,000 people are homeless in the United States, equivalent to seventeen in every 10,000 Americans.

    Historically, municipalities and local faith communities responded to this problem with as much charity and compassion as they could muster. Churches and local governments opened emergency shelters where people slept on bunks, cots, or floor mats – places they could spend the night while working to get back on their feet. However, in our current housing situation, getting back on one’s feet has become more improbable, if not impossible. Homeless shelters are bursting at the seams, and as housing prices continue to rise, cities across the nation are seeing an increase in the numbers of people living on the streets.

    In response, cities’ charity and compassion seem on the wane as scarcity politics win the day. Over the last decade, many municipalities have adopted regressive policies that functionally criminalize homelessness. In 2012, Denver’s City Council adopted a law called the Unauthorized Camping Ban, making it illegal for people within Denver city limits to “reside or dwell” temporarily with “shelter.” This law defines shelter as “any tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blanket, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing,” and defines residing or dwelling as “conducting such activities as eating, sleeping, or storing personal possessions.” My friends on the street call this camping ban the “survival ban.”

    overhead view of the tiny houses in the Colorado Village Collaborative

    At the root of this problem is our individualistic American mindset. Our increasingly me-first attitude has led us away from the biblical understanding of being our brothers’ keepers. We can avert our eyes and walk past someone who is obviously homeless. Yet, as Jesus teaches in his parable about the good Samaritan, every person is in fact our neighbor. Lacking this sense of connection and responsibility, we have instigated social policy that isolates us from one another and leaves our sisters and brothers literally out in the cold.

    In light of unobtainable housing, inaccessible shelter, the criminalization of homelessness, and the underlying issues of isolation, people on the streets of Denver began taking things into their own hands and imagining a new reality. What if each person had a door to lock and a safe place to store his or her things? What if we could build housing inexpensively? What if we did all this within the context of a supportive community? From such conversations, in the midst of this struggle, the idea was born to create a village of tiny homes. Then the hard work began.

    For the next few years, under the leadership of Denver Homeless Out Loud, people living on the street and their advocates started educating the public, fostering a positive common will and imagination. We built a cross-sector advocacy coalition led by the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado which connected people experiencing homelessness with advocates, business owners, academics, social-service providers, and faith communities to address our housing crisis.

    At the end of 2016, the Urban Land Conservancy offered us a $1 per month lease on a vacant parcel of land between a craft brewery and a light-rail station – and our movement began to flow with the force of a canyon-carving river. In December, a meeting with Denver’s mayor generated the political will to make this crazy idea into real possibility. Over the next six months, we worked on permissions, fundraising, tiny-home design, and coordinating over six thousand hours of volunteer construction service.

    On July 21, 2017, we opened the Beloved Community Village, named in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a world “in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” For Dr. King, creating the Beloved Community had been the ultimate goal of the Civil Rights movement. Dismantling systemic racism and oppression of the poor were necessary steps toward this goal of rebuilding the social order according to God’s blueprint – all of humankind living in peace and harmony with one another, the earth, and the Creator.

    Eleven tiny homes on a previously vacant lot in Denver, Colorado, wouldn’t complete that vision; but they would be a tiny seed of that Beloved Community, free from hunger and homelessness, where racism, bigotry, and oppression would be replaced with a broader definition of family. As we built the Beloved Community Village that summer, we built more than homes – we built community; we built relationship. Ever so slowly, but with great intention, we began to reweave the tears in our social fabric that had led to this housing crisis in the first place. By the very nature of our project, we began to understand and assert that we belong to one another, and have a responsibility to care for each other, across the lines that used to divide us.

    three friends in the Colorado Village Collaborative

    Three months after moving into the village as one of its founders, Rhonda walked into a resident meeting in tears, saying, “I’ve got my own apartment!” When others cheered and asked why she was crying, she said, “I don’t want to leave you all. I don’t want to leave my family.”

    A few days later, one of her fellow residents accompanied Rhonda as she signed her papers and became the first to graduate from the village into stable housing. Rhonda discovered that even after moving out, she remained an integral part of Beloved Community Village, visiting often to help with chores, mentor residents, attend meetings, and advocate for others.

    On September 9, 2019, two years after moving into her own apartment, Rhonda died. When she took her last breath, she was surrounded by members of her birth family and village family – about thirty people who loved her and were filled with gratitude for her life.

    In the Beloved Community Village’s two-plus years, its eleven 8-by-12-foot cabins have housed twenty-one people, in safety and dignity, who previously lived on the streets. Besides Rhonda, six others have graduated from the village. Meanwhile, this peculiar cluster of tiny homes has swept our city into a deeper story about what is possible when we rise above scarcity politics, treat strangers like family, and lean into our connectedness to discover that a more equitable world truly is possible – and, as Dr. King believed, achievable within the scope of history.

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    Contributed By ColeChandler Cole D. Chandler

    Cole D. Chandler is an organizer, activator, and community builder who is Co-Founder and Director of the Colorado Village Collaborative.

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