Unhoused: Episode 3 – Safe Lots

“When I came here I started sleeping, which is really nice.” — Yolanda.


Unhoused a 6-part podcast/radio series produced by the Boulder Weekly and KGNU. Read more about the series in the Boulder Weekly.

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Every evening the Westview Presbyterian Church in Longmont transforms into the headquarters of Boulder County’s first-ever “SafeLot” — a sanctioned parking lot where people living in vehicles can stay overnight. The safe lot is organized by the nonprofit Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement.

HOPE’s Executive Director, Joseph Zanovitch spearheaded the program last year and finally got it up and running with room for 8 cars this June.

“What I’m really trying to create here is that sense that your basic needs are met, you can focus on tomorrow and whatever tomorrow looks like, from jobs saving money.”

Yolanda who has been living out of her silver two-door Hyundai for more than a year is one of the folks availing of the Safe Lot. “I was parked out by the St. Vrain river one evening and found a little note on my car saying, (we) got a new program.(I thought) wow, it’d be really great to park someplace at night and not feel like I have to be awake all night. Be aware of everything around me all night long.”

With a safe place to park her car overnight, the decreased stress and increased sleep have offered Yolanda some traction on her path out of homelessness, a journey that’s typically much longer and tougher than the path into homelessness.

Proponents of Safe Lots say they help support people who are living in cars, by providing a sense of safety and security from which unhoused people can build off of. With greater access to supportive services and the safety a sanctioned lot provides, the odds of someone descending into street homelessness from vehicular homelessness go down. Roughly half of people who move into their cars are able to move back into a home without living on the streets.

Most people living in their cars, or those experiencing what researchers call “vehicular homelessness,” are people experiencing homelessness for the first time.

Though it’s illegal to sleep in vehicles in most places across the seven-county metro-Denver area, advocates estimate as many as 1,000 people are doing so. It’s a segment of the homeless population that is routinely overlooked, not just in Colorado but many metro areas around the country.

Within the first three months of opening HOPE’s safe lot program, HOPE’s Executive Director, Joseph Zanovitch, says five people who were previously unemployed now have jobs or have enrolled in school or work-education programs. Crist is one of them. Two weeks before we met, she started working at a manufacturing plant in Longmont and is now able to save money for her next step in life.

Despite the quick successes at HOPE’s SafeLot program, expanding sanctioned parking lots into Boulder and elsewhere has proven difficult. Homeless 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.
Joseph Zanovitch says the bulk of the opposition they’ve faced has come from the agency.

In July, they told Boulder’s City Council and that, yes, safe lots can help the community, but such service isn’t compatible with HSBC’s long-term commitment to end homelessness.

When HSBC met with the city council, they made it clear that where HSBC invests its money is based on evidence, outcomes, and tradeoffs with housing. So staff can’t endorse investments in safe parking lots because it doesn’t directly contribute to housing. And further, safe lots could discourage participation with the Housing First system. They also claimed safe lots will encourage other unhoused people to come here for homelessness services.

Bill Sweeney, co-founder of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, who has been lobbying for the creation of more safe lots in the metro-Denver area says the two concepts are not incompatible.

“There is nothing inconsistent about having a campsite or a parking lot or a shelter, and also offering navigation case management or something of that nature.”

Unhoused is a 6-part radio series and podcast produced by the Boulder Weekly and KGNU. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, communities already struggling to provide services to the unhoused are seeking to end an enduring problem with new solutions: preventing evictions and exploring opportunities for safe lots, urban campgrounds and tiny homes in addition to the national Housing First strategy. Whether you live in Boulder or not, join host Emma Athena as she analyzes how COVID-19 has changed the conversation around homelessness solutions.

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