Church files suit against Castle Rock challenging town’s ban on sheltering homeless people in RVs

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“Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.”

That passage from Isaiah 58:7 was invoked by the Rock Church in a lawsuit it filed against Castle Rock last week as part of an attempt to overturn the town’s decision to bar the evangelical church from providing temporary shelter to homeless people in two RVs parked behind the church.

“The Bible specifically directs God’s people to care for the poor and needy, and these Scriptures, and others, state the sincerely held beliefs of the Rock regarding care for the poor and needy,” the lawsuit, filed in Douglas County District Court on Thursday, reads.

The Rock describes its program as “transitional, for a limited period and provided pursuant to Biblical stewardship guidelines.” Those taking shelter must show that they are looking for work and must also agree to “cease destructive behaviors,” the church says.

“Castle Rock does not have the right to tell the Rock which vehicles can be parked in its private parking lot, how long they can be parked there, and whether someone can sit, stand, eat, or sleep in such vehicles,” the suit reads. “A substantial burden on a church’s mission caused by application of a zoning law may violate RLUIPA.”

RLUIPA, or the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act, is a 2000 law that protects “individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws,” as described by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Mike Polhemus, lead pastor of the Rock, said the church “loves its neighbors, community, and town.”

“It’s from that deep love that we feel compelled to action to help individuals experiencing need or lack,” he wrote in an email. “We do that with a variety of services including free food, clothing, counseling, and employment resources. We believe the church should fulfill that role and duty in the community.”

Castle Rock spokeswoman Melissa Hoelting said the town does not comment on pending litigation.

The most recent point-in-time survey of homeless individuals in metro Denver found that 72 people were without a home in Douglas County on Jan. 30, 2023. Three of five respondents were experiencing homelessness for the first time, according to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.

That compares to the more than 9,000 people the survey found to be without a home throughout the entire seven-county metro area. Safe parking programs, where people who live out of their vehicles can park in church parking lots overnight, have sprouted in metro Denver in recent years.

“It is not disputed that there is a problem in Castle Rock for people experiencing temporary homelessness,” the Rock’s lawsuit reads.

According to the complaint, the dispute over the two RVs, referred to in the complaint as “campers,” started more than two years ago when Castle Rock’s zoning manager sent the church a notice of violation, asserting town code does not allow “storage or residency in campers on the property.”

That was followed up a year later with a letter from the town attorney stating that the church, located in the northwest corner of The Meadows neighborhood, remained in violation of zoning code. Last fall, Castle Rock’s director of development services told the church that only a parsonage is an acceptable residential use on the property, the suit says.

The Rock appealed to Castle Rock’s Board of Adjustment, which last month upheld the town’s decision to deny the church use of the campers to temporarily house homeless people. The church says it can’t house people inside its building because of “limited overnight staff.”

“Castle Rock has not alleged that the Rock’s compassionate care program providing such limited overnight temporary shelter for those in need is harming any person or property,” the complaint says.

This isn’t the Rock’s first foray into the world of trying to provide homes to those without one. In 2022, the church in partnership with Douglas County Housing Partnership, proposed standing up around 200 units of affordable family housing, 10 units of transitional housing and 10 units of emergency housing for the homeless on vacant portions of its 54-acre campus at the western terminus of Cherokee Drive.

Polhemus told the Post that the homeless shelters are no longer part of the plan.

Hoelting, with Castle Rock, said the town received a pre-application for the project in November. The church has until this November to submit a formal application.

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