Denver putting federal COVID money into safe parking model; recreational vehicle living a separate matter, officials say

The city of Denver is ready to put money behind a sanctioned overnight parking site that could accommodate a handful of the untold number of people living in vehicles on the city’s streets.

The need for safe parking areas is substantial, according to Terrell Curtis, the executive director of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, a nonprofit organization that operates nearly a dozen overnight parking sites in the metro area. The city’s willingness to support the model is an encouraging and necessary step forward, Curtis said.

But service providers and officials make a distinction between people living in sedans and SUVs and those living in recreational vehicles and campers.

In the experience of one couple living in an RV on the city’s streets, Denver’s primary approach has been to make people in their situation feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in hopes they will move on outside of city limits.

“They’re just kind of making it impossible for (people) to do anything but leave,” Mike Berglund said of Denver’s approach to homelessness in general.

Berglund, 62, and his wife, Moon Chavez, 50, have been living in RVs since buying one with their tax refund in 2014.

Their pattern has been to manage campgrounds in Colorado or other nearby states during the summer months then rent a storage yard in the offseason where they can park and Berglund could work on his business and passion, building tiny homes and restoring RVs and trailers for other people to live in. On Friday, they left Denver for a campground in Boulder County for the season.

But affordable yard space has been harder to find over the last few years.

“They wanted $900 a month just for a piece of dirt,” Berglund said of the couple’s most recent rented space in the Denver area which they stayed at for a few months in 2021.

The two are experts at hiding their 1986 Pace Arrow in plain sight. They know how to differentiate between a good daytime parking spot and a good nighttime place in the city’s industrial neighborhoods to park their RV. They know they need to move their vehicle at least 100 feet every 72 hours. They move more frequently if necessary to avoid upsetting any businesses they might be parked near in the city’s industrial neighborhoods.

“We don’t want to be that noticeable,” Chavez said.

The couple has seen what has happened as encampments of people living in tents have become more numerous and visible around the city. They have been on the scene when Denver police and other agencies show up to sweep an encampment.

The couple ran into trouble earlier this year. When they were parked alongside Vanderbilt Park in the southwest part of the city in February, a Denver park ranger wrote them and a handful of other people also staying in RVs $100 tickets for illegal parking.

With the help of Boulder-based attorney Darren O’Connor, the couple was able to get the ticket dropped.

Denver Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Cynthia Karvaksi said park rangers are empowered by the Department of Safety to write tickets for vehicles that park adjacent to city parks including for breaking park curfew, which is in effect from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. The ticket issued to Chavez was eventually voided and her appeal fee returned because “there was conflicting signage at the time which has now been remedied,” Karvaski said in an email.

Berglund views the ticket and an “automobile junker” notice also left on their licensed, insured and operational RV earlier this year as part of a broader strategy the city employs when it comes to people who are homeless or otherwise not traditionally housed.

Berglund summarizes it as “Let’s be mean to them until they go away.”

“You just can’t manage to get the right combination to do the right thing,” Berglund said. “They always have something it seems that you violated.”

By supporting safe parking sites, city housing officials are inviting people who often try to remain as hidden as possible to come to a space where they will have access to amenities like bathrooms and possibly showers but also have a chance to be connected to service providers and resources that can get them into stable housing.

It’s in line with the thinking behind the Safe Outdoor Spaces program that offers people living unsheltered on the city’s streets space in sanctioned campsites with services and amenities. The City Council approved a $3.9 contract to expand that program earlier this year with several council members touting it as a successful model. 

The contract being worked on now for a city-sponsored site won’t require a council vote but Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who represents the city at large, is behind the idea.

“It’s absolutely a model worth scaling up,” she said.

The number of people experiencing first-time homelessness in metro Denver nearly doubled from 2020 to 2021, a demonstration of the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Correspondingly, people living in cars, trailers or recreational vehicles has become more prevalent, anecdotal evidence suggests. 

The city is waiting on the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative to release the results of the 2022 point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness for a clearer picture of just how many people are living in vehicles right now. The count, covering the entire metro area, was performed in January. The results are being reviewed at the federal level now and should be released next month, officials say.

Counting people who move around in their cars is difficult. Nationally, “vehicle residency” is viewed as one of the fastest-growing forms of homelessness, Sara Rankin, the director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University, told USA Today last year.

The Colorado Safe Parking Initiative has been offering safe parking sites to unhoused people for roughly 18 months and it has already fielded around 1,700 requests for people looking for a place to park overnight, according to Curtis.

“I know we can look around in Denver, and pretty much all of the other Front Range communities, and see what the need is,” Curtis said. “You drive by a Walmart at 11 o’clock at night and there is likely to be a couple of cars parked there under one of the parking lights.”

Denver’s $150,000 budget for the model is, admittedly, not much; enough to support just one site.

But Britta Fisher, the city’s chief housing officer and head of the Department of Housing Stability, views it as another building block in the city’s multi-pronged effort to address the homelessness and housing affordability crisis. 

I don’t pretend to think that it is going to be huge,” Fisher said last month. “Really, at the end of the day, we want to get more people into housing and we think a safe parking site can help reduce harm, introduce services and get more people connected to housing.” 

The funding is coming from American Rescue Plan Act funds, a pot of federal COVID-19 relief dollars meant to support efforts to build a more resilient and inclusive economy. The city announced it was seeking requests for proposals — essential bids from service providers and property owners they felt they could meet the need — at the end of February. The proposal window closed in March and while city officials have not confirmed any details, Curtis is confident her organization is going to be the operator when contract terms are finalized.  

The Colorado Safe Parking Initiative was established, first and foremost “to make sure people who are unhoused and using what is usually their very last remaining asset to make them feel safe … feel even safer,” Curtis said.

The 11 sites the organization operates today include one in southeast Denver that does not receive financial support from the city. The organization does not release the addresses of its sites to protect privacy, Curtis said. Combined, those lots serve 89 households. Usually, the people who utilize the site are couples that don’t want to go to shelters where people are separated by gender.

Of the people the organization serves, 85% are newly homeless, according to internal data. Roughly 30% of people who use the parking sites move on to more stable housing.

The lots, usually on the property of a religious congregation, are typically small, with between five or 10 spaces. They are only open overnight. Parkers, who go through an interview process, do return night after night, usually over stays of a few months, Curtis said. During the day, they go about their personal business which often includes work.

All the sites have available portable toilets and hand washing stations. Many have available electrical hookups and some even have showers. The organization is still young and growing. Rather than have its own resource navigation staff, it partners with the counties where it operates to connect parkers with case managers and housing services, Curtis said.

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One thing the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative doesn’t offer is room for RVs like the one Berglund and Chavez live in. Beyond different dimensions, the vehicles also have different needs, Curtis said.

“We are beginning to explore spaces for RVs,” Curtis said. “Again, it’s a huge need across the Front Range and the seven-county metro area.”

The organization’s work also focuses on advocacy around updating zoning laws to make it legal for people to live in their vehicles. It’s an uphill battle. In Boulder County, Darren O’Connor, the attorney that fought Berglund and Chavez’s ticket, is fighting against a proposed ordinance that would ban sleeping in cars across all unincorporated areas, building off existing bands in cities including Boulder, Longmont and Denver.

Kniech also draws a distinction between people living in their cars but seeking to find permanent housing and those who chose to live in RVs. While people living in vehicles can blend in, she does hear complaints from Denver residents about RVs.

“For Denver to take on the issues of RVs, it’s more than funding safe parking,” Kniech said. “It will be more complex and we’ll have to do more than just put money into it. We’ll have to reckon with our exclusionary zoning laws. And we, as a city, I don’t think are quite ready for that conversation.”

In the meantime, Berglund, Chavez and others like them will still be attempting to hide in plain sight. Camping season is here and the couple is waiting for word on where they might work for the next few months.

Chavez said that a dedicated site for RVs could be a good thing but a key in her view is letting people live their lives. That means things like allowing guests and not going around conducting breathalyzer tests to prove sobriety.

“I think it’s absolutely doable if they’re going to have realistic expectations for the people who stay there,” Chavez said.

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