“And he pitched his tent among us and we saw his glory…”
In Denver, Colorado, you can see God’s glory at work at a Safe Outdoor Spaces (SOS) site, an initiative started in December 2020 by the Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC). CVC was founded in 2017 by a group of young people committed to justice along with members of the Denver homeless community. Together they have developed a model — providing insulated tents, privacy, safety, and services for people experiencing homelessness — that is being considered in cities across the country. Corps Connections (CC) had the opportunity to speak to one of those founding members, Cole Chandler, the Executive Director of CVC, and to Tom McPoil, an IVC service corps member serving at an SOS site.
As a Master of Divinity student at Baylor University, Cole and some of his housemates took to heart Dorothy Day’s philosophy of keeping “a room for Christ,” reserving space in their home for someone experiencing homelessness. After a move to the Catholic Worker house in Denver, this idea blossomed into the CVC. Cole started as the organization’s first employee, “doing pretty much every job that needed to be done.” Four years later, the organization has 20 paid employees with a budget of $4 million, as well as great support from the Denver government and community. Many employees are people who have previously experienced homelessness which helps the growing institution keep its focus on solidarity, making sure the needs of the guests are first and foremost in visioning and planning.
As the pandemic emerged in full force and shelters were forced to scale back and even shut down, the numbers of CVC’s primary clientele — the unsheltered homeless — swelled, so with the help and support of the Denver Mayor’s Office, CVC entered into a partnership to open several Safe Outdoor Spaces for people experiencing homelessness: “These Safe Outdoor Spaces are healthy, secure, staffed, resource and service-rich environments that provide an outdoor, individualized sheltering option for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Denver.”
One of the people who helps “staff” the site at Regis University, (the Jesuit university in Denver), is a retired physical therapist and university professor, Tom McPoil. Tom is beginning his fourth year as an IVC corps member, and although he’s only been on-site with SOS for a short time, he has already experienced some profound spiritual blessings: “By far, this has been the most challenging and thought-provoking placement I have had since joining IVC. To observe firsthand the obstacles facing the homeless, including the loss of family contact, the combined effect of mental health and substance abuse issues brought on by the stress of living on the street, and the absence, at times, of hope from a guest, is heartbreaking. I cannot tell you how many times when my volunteer shift has finished, I sit in my car for several minutes thanking God, of course, for my own blessings, but also for the blessing of being able to be of some help to the staff and guests at the SOS site.”
Two days a week, four to five hours a day, Tom serves as an SOS Assistant doing what needs to be done, which these days involves the word “sanitizing!” “My standard duties include sanitizing/cleaning the site: the food tent, the recreation tent, and other gathering areas, the hand-wash areas, and the portable toilets.” Currently, the site is gearing up for winter, and while he is always busy, Tom is glad when he has the opportunity to get to know the guests, some of whom are eager to share their stories. (Note from IVC’s Denver Regional Director, Erin Benson: “At IVC, we define service in a broad sense — not just goods and services provided, but also caring for the whole person. Showing care by listening and being present is just as important as any tangible outcome. At the heart of all we do is human dignity.”)
When asked about plans for expansion and growth for the CVC, Cole is clear about the current direction for the organization: “On any given night, there are at least 1,000 people sleeping on the streets of Denver. 150 of them are now at our sites, so we still have lots of work to do right here. We’re happy to share our roadmap with other cities, but our vision at this time is to solve this very solvable problem in our own city.” In terms of advice to others looking to solve the problem in their area, Cole is realistic: “If you start tentatively, asking neighborhoods for permission and involvement, you will likely get nowhere. You have to adopt a ‘rip off the bandaid’ approach and just get to work! Governments may be hesitant at first, but in our case, have heartily embraced this as an integral part of the city’s plan to end homelessness. And I have yet to find a marketing or PR strategy that changes the human heart as much as seeing the model in action, working within the community. Once we got things up and running, most of the initial resistance we faced disappeared, and some members of the community joined in to help.”
While Cole is busy moving between the various sites and working out of headquarters, he hears from the staff that Tom has quickly become a valued member of the community at Regis. “My staff says, ‘he shows up to serve,’ and having the presence and wisdom of an older, seasoned professional like an IVC corps member helps both the staff and the guests. There is great value in the interaction and learning that occurs between the young people who typically staff our sites and those who have some experience under their belts. Both benefit from the presence of the other, and the guests benefit from that too.” (CC note: Cole is one of those “young people!” Only 33 and making such a difference already. Blessings on you and your work, Cole!)
Tom concurs: “Yes, as I mentioned, this has been a great learning and thought-provoking experience for me. My time in IVC has had a tremendous influence on my spiritual journey to understand and experience God’s love and friendship. The monthly sessions I have with my spiritual director and the fellowship I experience with my Denver IVC community have been invaluable in guiding me on my journey. As for others considering IVC, I would just emphasize the incredible opportunity IVC provides to those individuals in the later stages of their lives to be able to give back to society, to provide service to our less fortunate brothers and sisters, to be working for God’s glory right here, right now.”