Fort Collins approves homeless locker program without operating restrictions

Samantha Ye

A portion of the soon-to-be 20 homeless lockers sit outside the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship on E Oak St. (Natalie Dyer | Collegian)

Over a year after the idea’s initial conceptualization, the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship has the go-ahead to begin a self-funded 24/7 locker program for homeless individuals.

The City Planning and Zoning Board approved the church’s Minor Amendment application Thursday, allowing the church to install 20 lockers on the side of their building on the single condition that they also install a security camera to monitor the area.

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The decision was a partial acceptance of City staff’s recommendation to approve the lockers but without the operational requirements of constant supervision and limited locker access hours.

From the start of the meeting, the Board acknowledged the program was a “hot-button” topic, which had become more controversial with the involvement of the American Civil Liberties Union, however they made it clear their considerations pertain exclusively to the land use code.

Board members Jennifer Carpenter and Christine Pardee both excused themselves from item discussion. Member William Whitley disclosed he is a donor to the ACLU but did not believe it would affect his decisions.

For over an hour, dozens of residents from both sides of the issue spoke during public comments.

Those who asked the Board to reject the application mainly centered on the idea that lockers are unsuitable for a residential location due to potential safety issues.

Many speakers came from neighborhoods near Old Town Library; they recounted times they encountered dangerous litter such as needles or broken bottles, had to step over people sleeping on private property and were made to feel uncomfortable walking past homeless individuals around FCMF.

Those in support of the lockers, many of whom donned bright yellow stickers for the occasion, emphasized the need for 24/7 accessible lockers within the homeless community. Several supporters urged neighbors not to reject the homeless community based on the bad actions of a few and argued the small size of the project meant it would have little to no impact on safety.

Although both sides had many speakers, the high turnout in support of lockers made an impression.

“I guess I’ve been convinced tonight that (FCMF) Pastor (Steve) Ramer and his group are very invested in seeing that these succeed,” board member Michael Hobbs said during deliberation, “And, I trust them to run this in a manner and to manage it in a manner that’s going to be self-correcting if there are issues in overnight hours.”

Hobbs said the board should not be sidetracked by concerns people brought up about homeless problems in their neighborhoods.

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“Those problems clearly have been occurring for a long time, and there’s a lot of reasons for them, not just socioeconomic reasons,” Hobbs said. “(It’s) a failure of the City, in my view, to try and disperse this problem (of homelessness) and not be dealing with it, and I don’t know how we solve that problem, but I don’t think these lockers are a part of the problem. I think they’re part of the solution.”

The board noted the program is a small, prototype project by nature. To add more lockers would require another minor amendment application, City planner Clay Frickey said.

“In the greater scheme of things, (the project) may be a Band-Aid but sometimes you need a Band-Aid, and I think it is a positive thing to have the lockers,” Whitley said.

Pastor Steve Ramer of the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship stood before city council on Jan. 16 to testify his support for funding the installation of lockers at his church for homeless use. Council eventually denied the church City funding at the February meeting. (Photo by Olive Ancell | Collegian)

Ramer, the applicant, said the church would vet and interview any potential locker applicants, and loitering would not be permitted near the lockers. Project success, to Ramer, would be if all the lockers are used consistently with few rule violations.

“We’re not trying to run an outdoor party space,” Ramer said. “I have been assured time and time again by people who ask me if they can have a locker that they do not want to jeopardize that opportunity.”

The church was already prepared to adhere to other staff conditions such as additional lighting and having a 24/7 contact for the lockers, said ACLU lawyer Andy Peters, who represented Ramer at the meeting. However, Peters said adhering to the staff’s supervision and time limit conditions would essentially “kill the project.”

Since the board could not find a convincing connection in the land use code to restrict locker operating hours or require constant supervision, those conditions were not included upon approval.

“I really appreciated the comments from the board members and their interpretation of the land use code,” said Lynn Thompson of the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition after the meeting. “It seemed like they really understood the value of the lockers.”

With his application approved, Ramer said he plans to start getting the lockers fully set up and grounded over the next few days. He will also be working with City staff to handle any aesthetic concerns, which member Jeff Hansen emphasized during the meeting.

“(The lockers) will mean something to a number of people,” Ramer said. “The fact that they’ll have a place to put their things that is safe, they won’t have to carry it around–it will make a difference in the lives of some individuals, and that’s what, in the end, matters.”

Collegian reporter Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.