Safe parking for unhoused coming to Boulder, by way of Longmont

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Friday, Jan. 8, 2020

Safe parking for people experiencing homelessness will soon be coming to Boulder — courtesy of a Longmont nonprofit. Nonprofit provider HOPE established a pilot parking program just this year and is ready to expand to its southern neighbor. Boulder and the regional group overseeing the county’s homelessness have not endorsed the practice, even though experts and providers say it is proving new and sometimes quicker paths into stable housing.

HOPE executive director Joseph Zanovitch said lots should be operational in Boulder this year, hopefully by April. Locations won’t be disclosed for privacy and safety reasons, but the program will be in church parking lots.

The pilot is also growing in Longmont: two more locations are planned there. HOPE (Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement) has fielded requests from Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, but Zanovitch said he prefers to keep the focus local for now.

We plan on encompassing Boulder County,” he said.

No government support

Boulder city council considered safe camping or parking earlier this year at the urging of two boards and commissions, but members voted it down. Instead, the Housing Advisory Board and Human Relations Commission were instructed to research options with the understanding that no city funding would be forthcoming.

It cost $100,000 to start Longmont’s first lot, which serves nine vehicles at one time. Zanovitch said subsequent lots will be cheaper, now that the infrastructure is in place. The biggest expense in personnel: Staff to monitor lots overnight — they’re open from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. — and case managers to connect clients to services. HOPE will soon start hiring additional staff in Longmont and Boulder.

The lots have all been privately funded so far.

“I can’t tell you how many donations we received when the saw the story on the news,” Zanovitch said — the pilot has received ink in the Times-Call, Colorado Sun and Boulder Weekly — “people who say, ‘I used to live in my car.’ This is relatable to a lot of people.”

Boulder’s reasoning for not backing safe parking is a supposed single-minded focus on a housing-first model, a nationally recognized best practice. All available dollars are used to place people in homes, with minimal emergency services and resources to facilitate this transition to housing. Staff, in its June report to council, questioned whether safe parking was successful at moving people out of homelessness.

Safe parking “discourages people from seeking certain services,” they wrote, and does “not offer an exit strategy from homelessness.”

A joint HRC/HAB committee refuted staff’s claims, noting that success rates are as high as 70% from safe parking programs elsewhere, though they vary considerably. Santa Barbara, where safe parking originated in 2004, reported that 5% of its total 8,800 had moved into housing — some 432 people. An additional 250 clients were able to secure jobs. (Staff’s report left out the services offered at safe lots and data on outcomes.)

Longmont’s program is still new, but three of the initial eight clients moved into permanent housing over a period of six months, Zanovitch said.

“We’ve met people who, on their own, it took 2-3 years to get housing,” Zanovitch said. “We’ve proved in a few months, with the right resources, they can get housing.”

Housing plus safety

Safe parking can absolutely be part of a housing-first approach, said Steve Berg, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

A successful program has three elements: “(For) someone who becomes homeless, it binds that person to outreach, tires to keep them safe while they’re homeless, and tries to get them quickly back into housing. The housing-first approach is really about that being that third step, making sure you’re actually doing that third step instead of not doing it. … It’s not inconsistent with doing thighs to keep people safe while” they’re waiting for housing.

There isn’t national data about how quickly people move out of homelessness from shelters versus safe parking or similar programs. Boulder’s homeless services dashboard doesn’t track the average time from screening to placement in a home, but Director of Housing and Human Services Kurt Firnhaber told Boulder Beat in July that it takes “many months … sometimes more than a year” to house someone. They spend that time in the shelter or, sometimes, back on the streets.

Some of them leave the community,” Firnhaber said. “They’ve waited too long or things change. We often struggle to find them” for followup.

Most people living in their cars view their situation as temporary, Zanovitch said. Many “don’t assume they’re homeless.” The situation was often precipitated by a “shock” — a lost job, a dissolved marriage or relationship.

“There’s always something that triggers that.”

Hundreds likely living in cars locally

Many vehicle-dwellers are disconnected from services. Or they don’t fit into the current shelter system, one reason advocates and activists have pushed for alternatives. Families with children are more likely to live in a vehicle; children aren’t accepted at the shelter. Couples who don’t want to be separated in gendered shelters are common, Zanovitch said, as well as people with pets.

People will choose to stay out of the shelter system to be with their pet,” an impulse many housed people can relate to. Emergency response, for example, has evolved during natural disasters to include animals; otherwise, people often refuse to evacuate.

Others simply don’t want to give up a valuable asset — and a necessary one, sometimes, to keep steady employment — in order to be sheltered. There isn’t always a place to store a car.

“One of the things that systems struggle with is they can’t cover everything,” Zanovitch said. “There’s always going to be people who fall through the cracks. Where there’s a need, we should try. Safe lots are just one of the things we can do to meet people where they are.”

Longmont’s safe lot comes with case management, food and access to restrooms and showers. They also offer peace of mind, which can help people stay functional.

It’s very difficult to sleep in a vehicle” when you’re worried about safety or where you’re going to use the bathroom, Zanovitch said. “Especially if they’re working, their job performance suffers.”

How many people are currently living vehicles is difficult to ascertain, but Zanovitch said 200 county-wide would be a conservative guess. The single lot in Longmont has a 25-30 person waiting list.

“A lot of times,” Zanovitch said, “unless you see a vehicle with a lot of stuff in it” you wouldn’t know someone was living there.

‘We’re housing people’

Vehicle living has become more visible in recent years. Van life — the voluntary act of living in a vehicle, often while traveling or recreating — exploded in popularity.

The involuntary kind, the kind safe lots are intended to help, has also made headlines. Diagonal Plaza was cleared two years ago after a request from councilman Bob Yates. Today, with many stores empty and a pandemic in full flow, the area has once again filled with dozens of vehicles.

It’s illegal to live in a vehicle in Boulder. Safe lots, however, are exempt since they are located in church parking lots.

City council will be discussing homeless policies January 19, including HAB/HRC reports on safe parking and tiny homes. Despite success locally and elsewhere, Zanovitch is not holding out hope that the city or county will come around and offer government funding.

“They’ve made their intentions very clear when it comes to safe parking: This is not something they feel is worth their investment,” Zanovitch said. “Theirs is a housing-focused model, and some don’t believe this a true housing-focused model. But yet we’re housing people, so I would argue that it is.

We’ll continue to do this work and get people off the street and into housing.”

Now seeking cooks, cash, car mechanics

Want to help HOPE succeed? Clients at the safe lots will need food. Soup Angels prepare meals for 10-15 people on a monthly or as-needed basis. Learn more.

Safe lots also need mechanics. “There’s a lot of wear and tear when people live in their vehicles,” Zanovitch said.

Money always helps, too. Donate to general operations or earmark your gift specifically for safe parking. Visit hopeforlongmont.org/hope-family/

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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