More than four decades ago, a Cheesman Park church rallied to house and support neighbors who were struggling.
Today, the church has closed after seeing the number of parishioners dwindle, not unusual in modern America. Meanwhile the number of people experiencing homelessness or finding it hard to stay housed has grown. Warren Church’s legacy of lending a hand is informing new efforts to help.
Myron Waddell, an obstetrician and gynecologist, was a member of Warren Church in the 1960s when he grew concerned about women raising children alone.
“He had started to see situations with his patients where perhaps divorce or the husband left,” recalled his son, Mark Waddell. “Back in those days the husband had the job and the wife raised the kids. Suddenly you are there with three kids and no career plans or education and no ability to get work.”
Myron Waddell believed the key to beating poverty was stable housing, a place where families could be safe while parents got help to decide their next move. He persuaded fellow church members to buy and raze houses on eight plots between Cheesman Park and the church at 14th Avenue and Gilpin Street. That’s where they built Warren Village.
“The whole plan was basically for women with children to be able to get education, to be able to find a job to pay for housing themselves and their family,” Mark Waddell said. “What amazes me, he got the entire congregation to get behind that. Imagine getting everyone to agree to buy all the houses on the block.”
Warren Village opened in 1974 after about a decade of planning and procuring. Myron Waddell died later that year.
Today, almost every adult who comes to the 92-unit Warren Village for help “is homeless or unstably housed or dealing with domestic violence,” said Warren Village President and CEO Ethan Hemming.
Reba came twice to the seven-story complex with views of the mountains and downtown. Her first time was soon after she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, in 2013, the year she moved from New Orleans with her boyfriend, who had gotten a job in Denver. He became abusive. Reba did some research and found Warren Village. Then she decided to give her relationship another try.
Things fell apart again after a second pregnancy. Her son was born in 2016 and Reba took an apartment and an opportunity at Warren Village the next year.
She has earned two associate’s degrees at Warren Village and now is working simultaneously on a bachelor’s and a master’s in organizational leadership and management from Regis University. She envisions a career as a project manager or motivational speaker.
“Every day I wake up I feel empowered,” Reba said. “And it’s humbling every day.”
Most Warren Village families are headed by women. Parents entrust their children to the village’s early childhood education center on the building’s first floor while they pursue their own education or head out to job interviews or to work. The preschool, sponsored by United Airlines, also has spaces for children in the neighborhood who don’t live at Warren Village.
Older neighbors volunteer to babysit and contribute in other ways at Warren Village. Mark Waddell said his mother Margaret looked after Warren Village children after her husband’s death and served on the project’s board. She died in 1992. Mark Waddell, a retired telecommunications executive, has sat on the board for 12 years.
“I very strongly believe in the mission,” Mark Waddell said. “I want people to get housing. The real way is to get them some way to get them out of their situation.”
With HUD funding, Warren Village can keep rents at 30 percent of tenants’ income. Some pay just $25 a month. In addition to paying for their transitional housing, Warren Village residents commit to working to equip themselves to move on to permanent housing. They get financial, family and other counseling.
For the last five years, a Bank of America grant and a partnership with the Community College of Denver has allowed residents to study toward degrees in a classroom set up across the street from the apartments in a house converted into Warren Village administrative offices.
“It’s really low-barrier,” Hemming said. “You have to get across Gilpin.”
Since the CCD program was launched, 74 residents have earned certificates or degrees.
Hemming is working toward replicating Warren Village elsewhere in Denver.
“For me it’s really about the demographics and the need,” Hemming said. “Denver’s doing a great. But not everybody’s doing great.”
Stagnating wages and increasing housing prices are adding to the pressure on low- and moderate-income families. Residents are asked to start looking for permanent homes within a few months of their arrival at Warren Village, and they are faced with long waiting lists for subsidized and income-restricted homes, Hemming said. The average stay at Warren Village is just under two years.
Hemmings hopes to build a new Warren Village with slightly more than the 92 apartments in the current building. But he said finding a plot big enough that is also affordable will be a challenge.
“We might have to do 60 units,” he said. “Land in Denver is insanely expensive.”
He has ruled out selling the existing Warren Village building to raise funds to expand, though he said, “I literally get a call twice a month to buy the property.”
“We’re staying,” he said. “Right now the goal is to add.”
He has a developer partner with expertise in financing affordable housing looking at the possibility of a church donating land or offering it in trust. The Warren Village team also is looking in Denver’s suburbs, where land is cheaper, for a plot.
Hemming said it could be 18 months to a year before he can break ground on a second Warren Village.
The homelessness nonprofit St. Francis Center plans to expand the employment center it’s run in Warren Church next door for a decade. Cheesman Park locals aren’t all on board.
The St. Francis plan is to build boarding-house style rooms inside the church, which was closed as a church by the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2014 after 113 years.
The idea was born a few months ago when the Methodist conference approached St. Francis to see if the organization had any ideas for the church, said Tom Luehrs, the nonprofit’s executive director.
Like Myron Waddell decades ago, Luehrs sees the connection between housing, work and helping people take charge of their lives.
“People will be in the program because they’re really trying to put their lives back together,” Luehrs said of the men he expects to move into 42 rooms at Warren Church in early 2021.
“They have the desire, obviously, or they wouldn’t be trying to work,” he said. “And they need the housing to make it all work.”
The residents will share bathrooms and community spaces.
The plan has raised concerns in Cheesman Park. Mark Waddell, stressing that he was speaking not in his capacity as a Warren Village board member but as someone who lived nearby, said he worried about security.
Luehrs heard such concerns as well as support for the idea at a recent community meeting that drew about 100 people. Luehrs said residents of Warren Church would have case managers, a front desk would be staffed 24-7 and St. Francis officials would always be available to neighbors.
Luehrs does not need to seek new zoning parameters to move ahead with his plans. He is, though, working on a good neighbor agreement to address neighborhood concerns.
Echoing Warren Village’s Hemming, Luehrs said service providers want to expand to meet a growing need. He added new funds earmarked for housing by state legislatures this past session and by Denver city officials in recent years give him hope.
“It certainly is an important time in our community,” he said.