Denver, CO

People living in cars can park at church

David Heitz

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Some people fall somewhere in between not having a roof over their head and sleeping on the street.

They’re living out of their car.

If the car runs, chances are it’s tidy and you wouldn’t know the person in it is homeless. Many people who are homeless but have running cars use them to get to a job each day.

Sleeping in your car isn’t easy, according to people who do it. But it’s much safer than lying on the concrete every night.

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The trouble is parked cars aren’t any more welcome in many places in Denver than people experiencing homelessness. Other places are unsafe or illegal to park due to neighborhood violence.

Now a Denver church has agreed to provide a much-needed service for car dwellers – a place to park at night. But there’s a catch. There’s only room for eight spaces, a minute fraction of the need in Denver.

“It is an invisible population who are awakened in their cars and forced to move from one location to another by police officers enforcing city ordinances,” according to a statement by First Universalist Church. “The seven-county Denver metro area may have 1,000 or more individuals living in vehicles. It is possible the COVID crisis will create a wave of evictions and foreclosures this summer with a corresponding wave of newly homeless persons entering the system with their vehicles.”

The lot is located on church property. It is used during the daytime as a parking lot but is available for nighttime use.

Six safe parking sites in Denver

The church has teamed up with the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative to create the safe parking program. Members of its Homeless Task Force have visited other safe parking sites around Denver. “There are currently six safe parking sites in metro Denver, and more are under development,” according to the church. “There are three sites in Longmont. There are two sites in Broomfield including one that allows campers to park. Two other Safe Parking sites can be found in Golden and Arvada.”

The program has proven successful at helping people escape homelessness. By grouping people with similar needs in one area, it is easier to roll out resources for them. Social service organizations can provide case management, job and health referrals.

According to the initiative, the safe parking spaces:

· “Increase safety, security and day-to-day stability

· “Increase employment and/or education opportunities

· “Fosters a community of support among safe parking guests

· “Provides improved rest, which can lead to better outcomes in areas such as physical and mental health and employment

· “Prevents people from falling further into homelessness.

· “Provides a path to housing via housing navigation and coordinated entry.”

Only 8 cars allowed in church lot

Colorado Safe Parking Initiative recommends a maximum of eight vehicles at the church site. Each safe parking “resident” will receive a parking permit to hang on the rear-view mirror. Vehicles will be assigned to a specific spot within the parking lot.

“Experience has shown that the number of cars at each site grows slowly,” according to the church. “All eight cars will not be admitted at the same time. This will give First Universalist time to deal with any issues that occur early in the program. It will also allow a community feeling among the participants to grow slowly as new residents are added.”

Residents will be expected to have a plan for moving to stable housing after about four to six months. The lot is under video surveillance.

Pets will be allowed, and the church is trying to coordinate free vaccinations for its residents’ pets at Dumb Friends League.

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The project still must clear some hurdles with the city.

“Denver currently prohibits overnight parking, even in a church parking lot,” according to the church. “We will apply for a temporary emergency-use permit. CSPI, the University of Denver Law School, and a pro bono attorney will assist with the application. We are meeting with Denver City elected officials and staff to determine the correct process to receive a temporary license. CSPI and University of Denver are also advocating for a permanent approval of safe parking programs.”

My choice to be homeless without a car

When I experienced homelessness in Denver, I did not have a car. But I remember thinking I was going to become homeless when I still had enough money to buy a car.

It did occur to me that it might be a good idea to buy a car in case I had to live out of it. Trouble is, I don’t like to drive. I have had several accidents including one caused by a seizure. I also am a medical cannabis patient and I do not believe in driving impaired.

In retrospect, I should have bought the car. I would have been experiencing homelessness for much less time, I believe, had I been mobile. Most importantly, I would not have been bothered by police.

For many years, people living out of their cars would park across from Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter in Denver on vacant property. That site became overrun with encampments, however, eating up precious parking spaces.

One guy who lived out of his van would sell sodas and candy to everyone. He had other daily specials, too.

Nobody who stayed in the Crossroads lot in their working cars overnight ever caused any problems.

Later, the city bought the Salvation Army property, and the encampments were swept away. It is unclear whether cars still park in that area overnight.

Those who live from their cars generally keep them tidy if the vehicles are running. People who live out of broken-down cars often don’t, however.

Organizations will vet parking lot applicants

Residents of the church’s safe parking spaces will be vetted by the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative and the church. “CSPI has a system for accepting applicants, interviewing them with a set of standard questions, and conducting a background check in Colorado,” according to the church. “CSPI will refer applicants to First Universalist that CSPI believes will fit into our program requirements and for whom our location is close to their work or medical needs. The (church homeless task force) will then interview people and ask our own set of additional questions.”

Visitors will not be allowed at the safe parking location. Perhaps the most important thing to a person living from their car is a place to use the restroom. The church will provide an ADA-accessible portable restroom for those parking in the safe space. Water will be provided from an outdoor faucet and trash pickup will be available.

Residents also will be able to use the church Wi fi, and the church is planning to provide showers. “We are developing a plan for residents to use the church shower during scheduled times after the church reopens. Volunteers will monitor this access. We are also looking into memberships at Planet Fitness to give our residents more regular access to showers.”

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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