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John, who declined to give his last name, demonstrates how he makes his bed each night in the passenger seat of his van on Tuesday, February 25, 2020. He said he prefers sleeping in his van to shelters because it’s safer, but it can be hard to find a parking spot where he won’t be woken in the middle of the night by a police officer knocking on the window. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

LONGMONT – Big, ruddy-faced and homeless, John is happy to work and sleep alone in the age of COVID-19.

John, who asked that his last name not be used, works most days as a flagger for road crews in Boulder County. He is yards from his crew mates and rarely speaks to them — or a boss. “I am mostly by myself and that’s the way I like it and I think it will probably keep me alive,” said the 64-year-old retired Marine.

At night, he beds down in his 2005 Honda minivan, his work clothes neatly stored in plastic bins in the back of the vehicle. His toiletries and personal items, like his discharge papers, are also tucked into twin plastic bins.

His SUV is tidy and sparkling clean. If it weren’t, he says, it would draw the attention of police or someone suspicious of his intentions. “You have to look like a soccer mom, just out getting errands.”

John refuses to eat or sleep in nearby shelters, saying they draw a teeming, often sickly and dangerous population.

John backs the “safe lots” plan being proposed in Longmont, which would allow people living in their vehicles to legally park in a church or community center parking lot for several nights, as long they follow certain rules. 

John stores his clothes and camping gear in the back of his van. He has camped or slept in his van for about six years and keeps it tidy. “As long as you don’t prioritize cigarettes or drugs or alcohol, you can actually do this and keep your dignity.” (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The concept was spawned in southern California nearly 16 years ago and has spread to Seattle and other West Coast cities.

Even though shelters are taking precautions against the COVID-19 spread — including issuing masks and enforcing spacing requirements for overnight clients — John says they are ripe for a COVID-19 outbreak.  

“People there don’t take care of themselves, none have been tested and they are just all on top of each other,” said John, who says he is coronavirus-free. “It’s only a matter of time something big is going to break in those shelters.”

“You will never get me to stay in there,”  he said. “Not one night.”

Safe lots could be a stop-gap solution in a pricey housing market

Joseph Zanovitch, head of Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement Longmont, began studying safe lots last year and says they are a crucial stop-gap measure for people who cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment in Longmont, which now goes for $1,412 a month. The median home value in the city is $414,792.

“Everyone knows this is one of the most expensive places to live in the country,” said Zanovitch, who manages shelters at two Longmont churches. “Most people and families, if they lose a home here, cannot find a way back into the market.”

Safe lots could become essential during the age of COVID-19, because people staying in their cars would be sealed off from the rest of the homeless population, now stuffed into shelters. Safe lot users would also have access to toilets and places to shower, Zanovitch’s proposal says.

“It will make more sense for many people as they will be contained in their vehicles and not in a large room with other people,” Zanovitch said.

The COVID-19 outbreak among the homeless is forcing cities and agencies in metro Denver to expand shelter capacity for the homeless, whose living conditions make them especially vulnerable to the virus, said Cathy Alderman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Alderman said as of late last week, there were more than 80 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among people in Denver who are homeless, and 28 positive cases elsewhere in the state. More are sure to follow.

“Many more are expected to contract the virus due to the complex nature of living without housing, a lack of access to handwashing and sanitation, and congregate living conditions which can cause the virus to spread even more rapidly,” she said.  

No one knows how many of the 10,000 or so Colorado people who are homeless live fulltime in their cars. Most move around a lot and are tough to count, Zanovitch said. In Longmont, where “safe lots” may be piloted, the city estimates 80 RVs and 60 passenger vehicles are now sheltering people in and around the city.

Many were forced into their vehicles or RVs because of a job loss, divorce or other circumstances, Zanovitch said. Their vehicles, because of the price of conventional housing, are their only safe port in an increasingly cruel environment.   

“For a lot of people, it’s their place, their shelter, a last little bit of privacy for them and a way to get ready for another day,” Zanovitch said.

People are sheltering in cars. Neighborhoods are unhappy about it

But overnight stays have become unpopular in many areas. People have been run off from formerly friendly shopping mall parking lots and neighborhoods. Locals complain of the waste being dumped into local streets, yards and creeks.

Residents in Lakewood got police to ticket the owners of RVs parking overnight in their neighborhoods.

Zanovitch said Longmont’s safe lots won’t be a free-for-all for just anybody. He wants them established at two church parking lots, where electricity, bathrooms and a basic level of security would be provided. The two safe lots will have a capacity of five to seven vehicles. 

At least one could be designated for women and families. Those who want to use the safe lots would have to pass a background check and prove they were residents of Boulder County for at least six months.

Security could be provided by a member of the church or a private security firm may be hired to monitor the lot at night, Zanovitch said.

The lots would likely be limited to passenger vehicles. RVs, Zanovitch said, “just take up way too much space. Maybe something could be provided in the future.”

Dartanian Dawson looks up a tax preparer while deciding what to do for the rest of the day in Longmont on Friday, March 6, 2020. He has been living in his car for about a year and is working toward getting an apartment. “Knowing that things are getting better is what motivates me to keep moving forward and trying to achieve that goal.” (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A task force formed by the Longmont City Council said the cost of managing a RV safe lot could run up to $280,000 and installing a restroom facility could cost at least $275,000. Two full-time security guards could cost HOPE Longmont $70,000 a year, at an estimated $15 per hour, the task force report said.

Zanovitch also wants residential neighbors involved to help resolve disputes and misunderstandings. 

He patterns Longmont’s safe lot system after those in Seattle and in several California communities.

Santa Barbara’s New Beginnings program is entering its 16th year of operation and supports people temporarily living in their cars on property owned and controlled by religious institutions. Participants are expected to be actively seeking housing while the program provides access to case management and a safe, consistent place to stay each night, according to a Santa Barbara spokesman.

In Seattle, the city’s budget includes $408,000 for safe overnight parking lots. The money will help expand the pilot city’s pilot program for safe lots with various faith communities, city spokesman Will Lemke said.

“The pilot program creates multiple sites with a modest number of safe spaces at each location for people to park their operating cars, not RVs, overnight,” Lemke said. “People enrolled in the pilot program are provided case management and housing connections.”

Zanovitch said some public funding is used in all the programs he has studied while nonprofits are also involved in nearly every level.

“This is something that can be managed and done where people forced to live in their cars are treated with respect as are those who oversee the program and those in the local neighborhoods,” Zanovitch said.

Church-based shelters struggle to maintain safe distancing  

As fears about COVID-19 have spread, he and staff have instituted rules at the shelters they operate in Longmont. They issue face masks and hand sanitizers to their clients and hand washing is mandatory for anyone who enters a facility.

Once inside, tired and dirty clients are issued floor mats and like overgrown kindergartners, they place the mats close as they can to friends to gossip about the day’s events. Volunteers and staff try to maintain a 3-foot distance between mats, but those spaces tend to evaporate during the night.

Russell Wilson relaxes on a sleeping mat at The Journey on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. The Journey is one of two Longmont churches that provide overnight shelter for people experiencing homelessness. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“I wish we could 6-foot, but our space does not allow it,” Zanovitch said.

As coronavirus-related layoffs continue, Zanovitch has opened a day shelter so the unemployed can shower, eat, get on the internet and just rest. His two shelters, one at Journey Church and the other at FaithPoint Church, see about 30 clients during the day and 35 at night.

So far, his clients have been healthy, but they all are screened at the door. “We try and keep a safe distance, but in most cases that is just impossible,” Zanovitch said.

“It still looks like safe lots could be a smart bet for people living in their cars and hoping for protections from COVID-19,” he said.

Dartanian Dawson unplugs his phone from a portable charger outside the St. Vrain Community Hub in Longmont. He had a job interview, but because it was postponed, he decided to apply for food stamps. Dawson said he didn’t like asking for help, but he’s doing everything he can to save money so he can get an apartment. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Longmont officials regard the safe lots plan with guarded approval. 

“As it is written now, it’s for people who are looking to turn their lives around and I’m for that,” Police Chief Mike Butler said. “There are people now parking in church parking lots in the city and we’ve rarely had a problem with them.”

Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley said the idea needs more study but could be helpful in providing affordable housing for some. “I am for something that provides for the health and safety of our residents.”

One safe lot program was started last summer for homeless workers in Summit County, but  Alderman, from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said she is not aware of any proposed for individuals and families in Colorado. Alderman says the idea could be a good one for people and families trying to regain economic footing.

“But I don’t see this as a long-term solution to an ongoing crisis in Colorado over affordable housing,” she said. “This is a short-term solution at best.”

“At least in my car, I feel a little safer, a little bit like home”

John, the former Marine, still draws on military training as he readies for a night’s rest. He surveys the terrain and weighs his assets before he pulls into a parking lot, usually near a church or garage. 

He parks several spaces away from his homeless brethren. Many don’t have vehicles and they often threaten to beat John and take his Honda. A combat veteran, he keeps enough spacing around him so he can react quickly enough to protect himself should the tough talk turn into an actual attack.

John has been living in cars in and around Longmont for four years. He said he is working to save enough money to buy a piece of land near Ward where he and his daughter can live one day.

John says he walked away from a Boulder apartment he shared with a roommate, but does not explain why.  “I take responsibility for what I did and now I live with that decision,” he says. “Really, not much more I can say about it.”

John has camped or slept in his van for about six years and keeps it tidy. He works as a flagger on Boulder County road crews and says he is saving money to buy property near Ward. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He can’t justify spending so much money for a one-bedroom apartment in Longmont. Nor can he afford Longmont’s cheapest home, a manufactured home priced at $95,000.

“There is no way I can afford anyplace with a roof here (in Longmont). So I do the best I can with what I have.”

Moon-faced Rosie, 68, has been living in and out of cars for six years. She struggles to pay off over $35,000 in debt and finds little security in a shelter.

“There are a lot of drugs here and you never know what you are going to run up against,” Rosie said. On a frigid night in February, Rose stops into the Journey Church in Longmont for a hot meal and another night in her Nissan Altima.

She hunts for jobs and takes classes while staying connected with her two grown daughters. Without her Nissan, Rosie fears she’d have to take her chances at the shelter. 

“It makes me uncomfortable and I think things are different for a woman,” Rosie said. “At least in my car, I feel a little safer, a little bit like home.”

Monte Whaley

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @monteWhaley