Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship sues City over locker program restrictions

Julia Trowbridge and Samantha Ye

The outdoor homeless locker program is no longer sustainable for the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship, but the church is fighting for the restoration of their original program. 

The Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship and Steve Ramer, the pastor of the church, are suing the City of Fort Collins for imposing unreasonable, vague and overly burdensome conditions on the church’s locker program, intended to provide people experiencing homelessness a safe storage place for their belongings, accessible 24/7.

Ad

Because of the requirements that the City put on these lockers, the church stated that they would have to shut down the locker program on Nov. 30, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed on Nov. 6, stated “the Mennonite belief in active faith includes a call of service and outreach to the most vulnerable members of the community.” The church practices “radical inclusivity,” aimed towards “ having compassion for, and getting to know people who, as Jesus said, are the ‘least of us’ and are often on the margins of society”

The locker program falls under the religious mission of the church, which also provides other aides, like food and temporary shelters, to those experiencing homelessness in the Fort Collins community. According to the lawsuit, the locker program was a logical addition to the church’s mission.

The battle to get the program functioning had been a long one. 

Advocates for the homeless have long urged the City to provide more storage options, specifically for those who needed locker access outside of the weekday business hours the Murphy Center lockers are restricted to.

In the spring of 2017, City Council directed staff to look at options to install 24/7 accessible lockers. According to City documents, the Fort Collins Mennonite Church offered up space outside of their church to host 20 such lockers.

FCMF asked the City for $10,500 to fund the lockers, awnings and one-year of supervision. In January 2018, City staff recommended City Council not approve any funding for the project which spurred protestors, many of them homeless rights advocates, to show up to Council and ask they reconsider. 

The decision was subsequently delayed until February where City Council rejected funding the lockers

In response, FCMF decided to open a GoFundMe to raise the money themselves. They achieved their goal and intended to begin the program in June but it was delayed after the City told them they needed to receive Planning and Zoning Board approval for a Minor Amendment. 

Ad

The P&Z Board hearing was delayed twice until mid-July. During that time, an email from City Attorney Carrie Daggett telling staff to take “special care” in discussing the church’s locker program mistakenly made its way to the inbox of Steve Ramer, FCMF pastor. 

“Because the approach being taken is not quite the same as our usual process, and because the special discussions amongst staff could be used as a basis for arguing that we are treating the Church less favorably than other applicants based on the Church’s religious practices (ministering to the homeless), we need to take special care in how we communicate about it,” Daggett wrote.

This spurred Ramer to bring in the ACLU who issued a letter to Daggett. The ACLU alleged the City was violating the church’s First Amendment rights through a burdensome program approval process and asked the locker program be swiftly approved or risk facing legal action. 

The program did get the go-ahead at the eventual P&Z Board hearing. However, the decision was appealed within weeks by several residents and business owners in the church neighborhood, many of whom also spoke against the lockers at the hearing. 

FCMF decided to start registering locker guests and moving them in before the appeal hearing, and it has been running since. 

The appeal sent the lockers back to City Council where councilmembers unanimously decided to reject the appeal but place several operating restrictions on the program. 

The lockers were no longer allowed to be accessed outside the hours of 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and during hours of operation, the lockers had to be supervised at all times. 

At the time, church members expressed dismay and concern about how their church of roughly 60 members would be able to meet those guidelines with their limited resources. 

Although the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship can no longer support the locker project, they’re seeking relief from the City’s restrictions in order to keep the locker project going. This is an ongoing story, and updates will be published as soon as they’re available.

Both the plaintiff and the defendant declined to comment as this is an ongoing case. 

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