Soup With a Smile

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Strapko adds that Denver is opposed to locating most soup kitchens and shelters in any one neighborhood and would prefer to see those facilities scattered around the city. "We don't want concentrations of social service uses in one place," he says.

That's exactly the problem, according to the leader of the neighborhood association that is trying to close the soup kitchen. "This area has been ghettoized by soup kitchens, shelters and facilities for the poor," says Ted Freedman, president of the Enterprise Hill Homeowners Association. "I think it's irresponsible to bring drug addicts and drunks into a residential area."

Freedman says his group has seen an increase in illegal activity in Benedict Fountain Park since the soup kitchen opened nearby. "There's been fighting, drug use, drinking and public urination," he says.

There are already dozens of outfits serving the poor within ten blocks of his home, he adds, like the Denver Rescue Mission, the St. Francis Center, Samaritan House and the Salvation Army. He believes Uptown could have a bright future as a residential neighborhood that's close enough to downtown for people to walk to work. But if new residents are scared away by the street people, the neighborhood renaissance now under way will be crushed.

"The area around downtown is where we should be encouraging residential development. Instead we're concentrating poor people here."

Freedman insists his group does care about the poor, but he says residents are tired of seeing their neighborhood used as a metrowide dumping ground for the homeless. "People know the homeless are a problem, but they want them out of sight, where they don't have to deal with them," he says.

The homeowners' association has been meeting with Shirley Whiteside but has been unable to reach a compromise with the Workers.

"Shirley is a very good-hearted person, but she sees those people an hour or two a day. We deal with them the rest of the day," says Freedman.

Whiteside says the objections to the soup kitchen are all about money and real estate. "I don't think it's really about too many soup kitchens or trash in the park," she says. "I think it's about wanting to create development. It's about property values. What else could it be about?"

For his part, Freedman admits that he'd like to see the former Catholic high school property sold and redeveloped into housing. "I'd like to get the Catholic Church to sell that property," he says. "They could take the money and buy the Catholic Workers a facility. I think it would be a win-win situation."

So far, the Archdiocese hasn't decided what it wants to do with the suddenly valuable site. There has been talk about using the building as a school again, but no decisions have been made.

"We're in the process of determining what the use could be," says Greg Kail, spokesman for the Archdiocese. "We're putting together a task force to look at it."

Kail says the Archdiocese leased the basement of the building to the Workers because "we feel we have a responsibility toward the most vulnerable of our population." He adds that the church made it clear the soup kitchen could only stay there temporarily while it looked for a permanent home. The Catholic Workers have been searching for an affordable location but have been unsuccessful so far.

While the future of the soup kitchen is up in the air, dozens of people still show up every evening, looking for a hot meal and a bit of companionship before heading back onto the streets. Sitting at a table inside the soup kitchen, all this talk of real estate development and zoning seems unreal. Simple survival is the daily special here.

Paul is a good-looking middle-aged man with flecks of grey in his dark hair; he could easily walk down 17th Street and be mistaken for an accountant. But Paul lives in his car. Intelligent and articulate, he worked as a property manager for a large company in Denver in the 1980s, then lost everything in the bust that brought down the company. His wife left him, the bank took back his house, and his life spiraled downhill. Unable to find a job, he sunk into depression. Since then, he's been homeless off and on. He's about to get a job working construction, but on this cold night, he'll be sleeping underneath a pile of blankets and a sleeping bag in his car.

"It's cold, but it's better than the street," Paul says with a shrug.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers