Page 4 of 5

At one gathering of homeless service providers, a novel solution emerged: Perhaps one of the three existing shelters could be rezoned. Sacred Heart, the smallest of the trio, seemed the best candidate.

After several days of study, Denver Zoning Administrator Dorothy Nepa determined that Sacred Heart indeed qualified as a boardinghouse rather than a shelter.

The difference, which some opponents see as nonexistent, is that unlike the other area shelters, Sacred Heart doesn't offer on-site services, such as trained social workers or alcohol rehabilitation. And as for the zoning provision that a rooming house be operated "for compensation to permanent guests," Nepa says anyone who stays longer than thirty days can be considered permanent and points out that "compensation doesn't necessarily need to be financial. These people might offer to do work around the house instead."

With Sacred Heart's new designation secure, Judge Naves turned down the request for the injunction, and the Salvation Army was able to obtain a temporary Certificate of Occupancy for the new shelter. It opened November 9, and despite unseasonably warm weather, began operating at capacity almost immediately. Even though neighbors say the disruption is far less than they anticipated, they still intend to ask for another injunction on May 9, the day the shelter's temporary permit expires.

"I do have a problem with the way the city manipulated the law," says Councilwoman Ortega, many of whose District 1 constituents opposed the new shelter. "The zoning administrator classified Sacred Heart as a rooming and boarding house, when, for all this time, as anyone can tell you, it's been a homeless shelter.

"But I don't have a problem with Sacred Heart House itself," she hastens to add.

It would be hard to find anyone who does. Sacred Heart House has lasted in Denver more than fourteen years--longer than the public awareness of the need for shelters for families, longer than the currently accepted homeless tag has been used to describe them.

"It was one of those things that just happened," recalls Catherine Bevanda, who started the shelter in 1980 after she heard that the Archdiocese of Denver had closed the Sacred Heart Convent at 28th and Lawrence, leaving the building empty.

Catherine came to Denver to study at Loretto Heights and says she saved money by living and working first at St. Vincent's orphanage and then at the Marycrest Convent, which was operating a skeletal homeless shelter at the time.

She thought she could expand on that idea in the old convent. The Jesuit in charge of the parish told her she could try her housing concept on a month-to-month basis. It quickly stretched into two years.

"I'm sure I slept in an odd place myself at Sacred Heart," she recalls, "though I don't remember exactly. There was a chapel, and that was our dormitory for men, and there were bunk beds for single women and a large rec room upstairs we used for smoking. I bet they don't allow that anymore."

Some people remember Catherine's shelter as something of a flophouse, with few rules and even less reliable plumbing. "But I treated the people with dignity," she says. "The philosophy was, `You're one of the family, pull your own weight. If you break something, fix it. Respect each other's space.' You have to have compassion for just about everybody. I still believe that."

"Our position is not one of rehabilitation," says Sister Anna Koop, who has lived and worked at the nearby Catholic Worker's House since 1978 and became good friends with Catherine. "We live in an economy where a minimum wage cannot purchase housing, food, transportation and clothing for a family. That's a travesty, and any kind of illusion that we've solved this problem is just that. So our position is one of saying, `We're here.'"

After two years of being there, though, Catherine Bevanda moved on, stopping briefly at a west Denver shelter before returning to California, where she volunteers at a senior center.

In 1982 Sacred Heart House was taken over by Sister Sue Kennedy of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Sister Sue, now director of religious education at St. Stephen's Church in Glenwood Springs, stayed at Sacred Heart for a decade--much of which, she says, was spent learning that the "We're here" philosophy needed a reality check.

"I had not worked with the transient population before," she says. "There was such diversity! They knew much more than I did about life and choice. They were suffering the consequences, after all. They taught me outrageous lessons. In the beginning, I allowed myself to be manipulated."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff