Gaining traction

With an eviction crisis still on the horizon, sanctioned overnight parking lots provide temporary relief

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Samantha and Brandon Marshall were sleeping in their car at Eben G. Fine Park and a Walmart in Longmont before finding out about HOPE’s SafeLot. Since, they’ve been able to access health care, job applications and more.
Emma Athena

Yolanda Crist sits on the curb beside her two-door Hyundai as the sunset gilds nearby treetops. Between drags on a cigarette she says, “I was thinking about this the other day — you know, not caring about yourself — once somebody starts caring about you, you start caring about you.”

She gestures behind her, to Longmont’s Westview Presbyterian Church, which transforms every evening into the headquarters of Boulder County’s inaugural “SafeLot,” a sanctioned parking lot where people living in vehicles can stay overnight. Having access to SafeLot has helped Crist turn her life around. For more than a year, she’s been living in her Hyundai, lowering the seats back at night, snuggling beside a cooler and the steering wheel. In the beginning of her homelessness, Crist would roam the county at dusk, searching for obscure places to park. She routinely experienced the unpredictable “bang, bang, bang” on her windows and wake-up calls from the cops. Though it’s illegal to sleep in vehicles in most places across the seven-county metro-Denver area, there are as many as 1,000 people doing so, according to the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative (CSPI), a local group advocating for more sanctioned overnight lots.

Prior to discovering SafeLot — opened by the nonprofit Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement (HOPE) in June —  Crist spent many nights this spring sleeping in St. Vrain Canyon. “I’m an elderly woman, not real old, but being by myself, I was always aware, not really sleeping at night,” Crist says. But sleeping on and off for three or four hours a night felt preferable to the confines of a shelter, with dozens of other snoring people (she snores plenty, she says). And how could she occupy one of the county’s few shelter beds when other people without cars needed a place to go? At the moment, there are fewer than 200 shelter beds in Boulder County. 

One morning Crist noticed a flyer tucked under her windshield wiper, advertising HOPE’s SafeLot. She applied, was accepted, and started driving to Westview Presbyterian each night, where a crew of volunteers provide hot dinners and breakfasts to look forward to every day. “All of a sudden I found myself feeling better about myself,” she says. “I started to step up, say, ‘Yeah, I can do this. I can finally get a job again.’” 

And she did — three weeks ago she started working at a manufacturing plant in Longmont. 

Crist is one of 10 people served at HOPE’s SafeLot, and her experience is not unique, says HOPE Executive Director Joseph Zanovitch. After enrolling in the SafeLot program, five previously unemployed clients now have jobs and three have enrolled in school or work-education programs. 

Since opening the SafeLot almost three months ago, Zanovitch has fielded dozens of calls and emails from all over the Front Range. “People are like, I used to live in my car. I wish I had this,” he says. Others are asking him how to replicate Longmont’s SafeLot model elsewhere. With interest from churches, nonprofits and individuals across the Denver-metro area, Zanovitch isn’t alone in wanting to help the largely overlooked segment of people experiencing homelessness while dwelling in vehicles. 

Despite the quick successes at HOPE’s SafeLot program, expanding sanctioned parking lots into Boulder and elsewhere has proven difficult, as Housing Solutions for Boulder County (HSBC), the organizational body in charge of the regional homelessness reduction strategy, does not support such services. HSBC’s priority is housing the chronically and most-vulnerable homeless, not servicing those with immediate needs. 

“They made it very clear from the beginning that there was going to be no funding,” Zanovitch says. “This is not going to be considered an official HSBC program, [yet] the unfortunate reality is there’s so much demand from people living in cars that there should be a safe lot probably in every municipality — especially now more than ever.” 

Emma Athena

Vehicle-dwellers are likely “first-time homeless,” explains Gary Painter, director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute (HPRI) at the University of Southern California, which has studied solutions to homelessness for years. “A lot of people who are vehicle-dwellers, they were recently doubled up (staying with friends or family) and/or they recently lost their job. It’s the population that we see that’s the most acutely tied to economic shocks.” 

And for months, COVID-19 has delivered shock after shock to the economy, and the community. While Colorado’s employment rate has slowly risen throughout August, three times as many people were unemployed in July as compared to pre-pandemic February. More than 5,000 Coloradans filed new unemployment claims the last week of August. According to the state’s Department of Labor, that was the lowest number of new claims recorded since March, but it brings the total number of regular unemployment claims Coloradans filed in the last six months to over half a million. 

Yet, the state’s eviction moratorium ended in June, causing more and more people to request housing relief as rent bills continue piling up. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a new temporary agency order preventing evictions for people with annual incomes less than $99,000 who cannot pay rent until December, but both local and national housing advocates have been critical, arguing it’s less comprehensive than earlier eviction moratoriums and will only delay, not prevent, a wave of evictions.)

Living in a car in Boulder County isn’t a novel experience, says longtime homeless advocate Bill Sweeney, a co-founder of CSPI, “but what is new is that it’s more visible now.” 

Recently evicted people commonly consider cars both as shelter and storage — a valuable asset without a home, “It’s a very big backpack, it’s filled with their belongings,” he says.  

Cars can quickly become liabilities, however, as they’re expensive to maintain and prone to breaking down. And living in a car doesn’t necessarily lead to finding stable housing in the future, as Crist will tell you from her experience as a vehicle-dweller in Boulder County.

According to Painter, HPRI’s limited data shows about half of vehicle-dwellers find a way out of homelessness, though the other half eventually end up on the streets if they don’t receive assistance while living in their cars. “In thinking about why we might want to intervene with people living in cars, [it’s helpful] to think about it as a homelessness prevention mechanism,” Painter says. Safe lots are “a promising intervention.” 

Across Los Angeles County, temporary overnight parking lots have opened in recent months, providing more space for people in cars and RVs during the pandemic. Building upon evidence from other programs along the West Coast, Painter says safe lots help strengthen connections between unhoused communities and support systems — providing more robust case management, health care provisions and sanitation supplies, as well as more comfort and a sense of safety. 

More safe parking possibilities in Boulder County, however, aren’t part of HSBC’s agenda. 

In July, HSBC presented a homelessness strategy update to Boulder’s City Council (HSBC declined to comment for this article), wherein HSBC agreed safe lots can help the community but asserted such service isn’t compatible with its long-term commitment to end homelessness. Since 2017 HSBC has employed the nationally acclaimed “Housing First” strategy, which aims to eliminate homelessness via highly focused housing-specific solutions. The implementation of this approach has garnered mixed reviews and critiques from local advocates. (See “An incomplete picture,” News, Aug. 27.) 

“As HSBC investment decisions are based on evidence, outcome, and tradeoffs with housing, staff cannot endorse investment in campgrounds or safe parking,” the report states. “Many cities have moved away from these models (campgrounds or safe lots), as they do not reduce homelessness, often discourage participation with systems and interventions, are not aligned with Housing First concepts, encourages migration from other communities, and can be costly to maintain. … In addition, there does not appear to be a documented need from individuals for this service and is not recommended for families.”

Painter, Sweeney, Zanovitch and many other safe lot program leaders on the West Coast, however, assert sanctioned parking lots can work in concert with robust Housing First strategies. 

“Housing First is not meant to be a way of rejecting a lot of people from service. It’s meant to be a way of selecting those who need the most help and ensuring that they get it,” Sweeney says. “There is nothing inconsistent about having a campsite or a parking lot or a shelter, and also offering navigation case management. … In fact, [CSPI] says that’s the only way. [We are] prepared to design a program that includes the work to get people into housing.” 

Many critics of HSBC’s Housing First strategy say it’s resulted in an overarching lack of emergency and short-term services. As planned by HSBC, and despite increased stressors from the pandemic, services have been pared down over the course of the year, and narrowing eligibility requirements for most services makes it difficult for many to access any support. 

“I do want to have the conversation with folks that say, ‘Put the money towards housing,’ but I can’t ignore what’s happening now,” Zanovitch says. HOPE’s SafeLot is proving to be a reliable and efficient stop-gap solution for people who don’t “fit into a system’s mold,” he says.

From Kentucky, Samantha and Brandon Marshall and their three dogs moved to Boulder to restart life “right before the lockdown happened,” Sam recalls. The timing meant it took weeks to find work, and when they did, it was through a day laborer service, which often was insufficient and unreliable. The couple stayed in a motel (ineligible for shelter beds for a variety of reasons, including their dogs and recent relocation to Boulder, plus they’d be separated as a couple even if placed at the same shelter). When their savings ran dry, they decided to move into the car. There was nowhere else to go.

Shuttling between Longmont’s Walmart parking lot and Boulder’s Eben G. Fine Park, weeks passed before they learned about HOPE’s SafeLot. They immediately applied (all participants must pass a background check), and SafeLot Manager Renee Ikemire helped the couple update their car insurance and registration. Later, Ikemire helped them organize other tasks like accessing dental care and job applications. Sam starts cosmetology school next week — a lifelong dream of hers.

“If we hadn’t found [the safe lot], I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” Samantha says. Brandon has been able to find more work too. “This has benefited us tremendously,” he says. With a sanctioned place to park, both Sam and Brandon agree, much of the stress they currently experience in life is relieved. Steadily, they’re working to save enough for rent somewhere in the county.

Crist is also working toward a new place to live. But, she says, “Rent, which is so high today, it’s outrageous. I mean, even if I made 20 bucks an hour, I couldn’t get a one-bedroom apartment by myself.” She shakes her head, “That’s a bad thing.” 

Emma Athena

Painter says it’s common for communities to be wary of unhoused migrants capitalizing off homelessness services. Indeed, between January and April 2020, HSBC reports 83% of people who were screened through the Coordinated Entry program were new to Boulder County, most of whom arrived from Denver.

On a bigger scale, however, “We don’t actually observe that happening at large,” Painter says. “Most research says that the pull of that magnet is incredibly weak — of course, if you were strategic and actually provided sufficient lots to meet the needs across the community, then there wouldn’t be that issue at all.”

As such, Sweeney, Zanovitch and others at CSPI envision building a comprehensive network of safe lot services across metro Denver to help eliminate relocation needs or desires. They also argue there’s a demand. HOPE’s SafeLot waitlist, for one, is now 10 people long, and in the last few months, new safe lots have sprung up around the country as the pandemic exacerbates the need for shelter: Palo Alto, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; and San Antonio, Texas — all of which subscribe to the Housing First methodology — represent but a handful of new safe lot programs. Conversations about safe lots are also ongoing locally in Breckenridge, Denver and Jefferson County.  

In Eugene, Oregon — where a safe lot program that began in the late ’90s has since grown to 65 lots scattered in various discrete locations around the city — “The demand certainly is there and currently outweighs the capacity of the program,” says Regan Watjus, a policy analyst in Eugene’s city manager’s office. “One of the real benefits around programs like this is they provide that basic stabilizer so that [participants] can think more about their future and their next steps.”

In the first six months of 2020, Eugene’s program helped two individuals into permanent housing and served more than 100 people living in cars with restrooms and garbage services. Next month a new case management system for vehicle-dwellers will supplement the program. 

Cassie Roach, program manager at New Beginnings Counseling Center, which runs Santa Barbara, California’s, 16-year-old Safe Parking program, explains safe lots allow the Center to connect with unhoused people who are routinely overlooked and underserved. “We’re able to provide that side entrance into the homeless services sector,” she says. “Outreach or shelter folks aren’t necessarily able to reach people in vehicles because they’re not being approached by the people in vehicles.” 

Since 2004, the New Beginnings’ program has helped around 10,000 people, and though data collection is sparse for the first years of operation, Roach says at least 560 clients have exited homelessness after program participation. 

Though most have found success, safe lots have closed in some metro areas due to low participation numbers. According to an analysis by the Seattle Times, a 2016 safe lot project in the city, which planned three large lots for personal vehicles and RVs, was only able to open one lot. Two years later, city support effectively ceased and at the beginning of 2020, Seattle’s City Council reauthorized a collection of new, smaller safe parking sites. In 2019, San Jose, California, also closed a family safe parking lot when participation dwindled, though it kept open a lot for single adults.

This summer, Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board (HAB) and Human Relations Commission (HRC) published a collaborative list of joint recommendations for HSBC and Boulder’s City Council to consider in plans for homelessness prevention and intervention strategies. Chief among the guidance is a safe lot pilot program. In late July, City Council declined to take immediate actions, but asked HAB and HRC to continue research into their recommendations.  

While HSBC won’t support safe lots, it won’t restrict others from pursuing such endeavors either — if do-gooders can wade through the tangled web of zoning laws, fundraising efforts, insurance packages, inter-neighborhood communications, legal requirements, safety regulations and more along the way. “The community is free to, with use of private funding, provide camping and safe lot options that meet public health guidelines,” Boulder Councilwoman Mary Young writes in an email to Boulder Weekly.

Which is exactly what Zanovitch has done in Longmont, opening HOPE’s SafeLot after fundraising $95,000 in private donations and collaborating with the Westview Presbyterian congregation. For a full year of operating costs, he estimates they’ll need to reach $150,000, “which allows us to offer housing assistance, auto repairs, two meals a day, porta-potty, facility cleaning, overnight and evening staff and a full-time program manager that offers case management.”

HOPE did not have to secure permission from Longmont’s City Council because of the congregation’s partnership and the ability to operate within its outreach programming. Zanovitch says Longmont’s Council is currently working with a task force to examine the possibility of a sanctioned place for RVs, which aren’t allowed in HOPE’s SafeLot. 

Before opening SafeLot, Zanovitch went door-to-door with a Westview Presbyterian representative to talk with neighbors about the program’s system for vetting participants, debunking concerns about safety. “Once I got past the barrier of explaining … the neighborhood was just like, great. How can we help?” In the three months operating HOPE’s SafeLot, he says they’ve received no neighborhood complaints. 

Such positive support, plus an expanding waitlist and increasing interest from other potential safe lot hosts, drives Zanovitch and others at CSPI to continue their expansion efforts. “At the end of the day, there’s an untold number of people in vehicles that aren’t counted [because] they’re hidden in plain sight,” he says. “I want to see this model replicated. … This is a need.” 

When Crist looks around HOPE’s SafeLot, she can’t help but smile. Last year, when she first moved into her Hyundai, she recalls how tough it was managing life. “I got displaced a little bit from my grandchildren and my daughter,” she says. But with a safe place to park her car overnight, the decreased stress and increased sleep offered traction on her path out of homelessness. “Now that I’m here, [my family is] coming back into my life,” she says. “Step-by-step, you know, day-by-day, things are getting better.”   

Listen to Emma Athena talk more about the story on KGNU. Boulder Weekly is partnering with KGNU to produce a podcast based on the series that will launch at the end of October.

This article continues a multi-part series analyzing how COVID-19 has changed the conversation around homelessness solutions. Reporting for this series was made possible, in part, thanks to the Solutions Journalism Network.