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Kristin McGrath and Collin Vlass have been living in their 2015 Outback Keystone travel trailer for over two years with their dogs, Ola and Clyde. McGrath has had to move frequently to do clinical work for her degree in nurse anesthesia through Westminster University in Salt Lake City. The couple has lived in New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado and will soon move to Las Cruces in New Mexico. Vlass is a firefighter and wildfire paramedic. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

It’s the ultimate Colorado dream: Pack up the house, rent it out and load up the RV for an extended road trip. 

Drive around in your self-contained world, stop when you want, listen to a river roll by while sipping your coffee. And go with the knowledge that you’re not stuck in any one place or with any group of people. You’re self-sufficient and unfettered, free to explore Colorado. 

But that’s only if you’re one of the thousands of Colorado residents lucky enough to continue recreating in RV parks as the calendar inches toward winter. If you’re not, and you’re living in an RV, camper, bus or van, you might be part of a different demographic.   

Terrell Curtis, executive director of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, which identified and secured safe overnight parking for 190 homeless households living in cars in 2022, said if you’re living in an RV, even out of necessity, you could be out of luck finding a safe place in many Colorado counties. 

McGrath and Vlass moved into an RV park in Manitou Springs not realizing that the parking slabs there are so close together, when the campers in the next spot over are at their picnic table, they’re leaning on the couple’s camper. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

According to census data released this month, 2,995 people in Colorado live in boats, vans, RVs or other similar vehicles that they own and 2,463 rent the vehicles where they live. Members of this group are spread across the state, many living in wheeled vehicles in order to work. Yet when it comes to finding a safe, clean and legal place to pull the parking brake and unfurl the awning — let alone one with access to necessities like electricity, bathroom facilities and clean water — many find themselves with less stability and fewer protections than other groups considered unhoused across the state. 

That could change as some rural towns begin brainstorming, and in some cases implementing, ways to make mobile living more accessible despite current codes and regulations that keep RVs, vans and converted school buses from parking on streets for more than a day. But it’s a task many leaders say they’re not equipped to meet, even though RV dwellers are a component of Colorado’s homelessness and housing crises

“We all find it a tad uncomfortable that we are having to find a place for people to live in a parking lot,” said Vanessa Agee, director of marketing and communications for the Town of Frisco. But there’s a call for it, and at least some communities feel compelled to answer.  

Loud, expensive and crowded

Kristin McGrath and Collin Vlass have gathered plenty of first-hand information about trying to live in an RV while working in Colorado. 

McGrath is a nurse anesthetist student and Vlass fights wildland fires. 

Last year, McGrath learned she would have to move five times to do clinical work for her degree. She and Vlass have two dogs and own a house in Durango, “and seeing housing prices go crazy, rent gouging and having the dogs, we knew it was going to be astronomically expensive to find housing anywhere for a couple of months,” she said. 

So they bought a used RV thinking they’d live in RV parks while they worked. But that plan would turn out to be more difficult than they thought. 

In Manitou Springs’ Pikes Peak RV Park, where they currently reside, the two pay $1,300 a month for a concrete parking slab, water, power, sewer and the use of amenities — coin-operated laundry, bathrooms with showers and access to the Manitou Pool & Fitness Center. It’s the most expensive park they’ve lived on their journey, McGrath said, and “it seems as though they’ve seen the demand and are cramming as many RVs in there as possible.” 

Pikes Peak RV Park is seen Sept. 25, 2023, in Manitou Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The crowding issue sometimes creates problems with renters not knowing which hookup pedestal to use, and McGrath said on the couple of instances when other campers unplugged them from electricity and turned off their water, the managers on site told them “it didn’t happen.”  

When you mix vacationers with long-term renters, “they rarely have situational awareness,” Vlass added. “It’s bad because Kristin is pregnant and has to get up at 4, 5, 6 a.m. to go to school. I’m sorry, but even if it’s like nine people who came from three different spots in Colorado and chose Manitou for their reunion, even though we’re paying a pretty premium cost, there’s no separation between us and them.” 

At least the two have been able to live in RV parks while traveling for work, something not everyone can manage due to aesthetics. 

Many Colorado parks have restrictions around who can and cannot stay. A big one: If your RV is 10 or more years old, forget it, because they’re often rejected for being too worn or weathered, out of a concern they’ll ruin a park’s image.  

Forced to “boondock” due to exorbitant prices

For some experiencing homelessness in Colorado cities, things have started to look up. 

Earlier this week, Denver Mayor Mike Johnston tweeted, “It’s a historic day in Denver — the first time we’ve closed an encampment by moving people into housing,” referring to the city sweep of a tent camp from a square block in Capitol Hill and offering the estimated 70 people who were displaced six to 12 months in a hotel before moving them to permanent housing. 

But for the Coloradoans living in wheeled homes out of necessity, very little assistance has been available. 

Jonathan Damon, a ski coach who lived in Colorado for a time, characterized long-term RV camping here as “a nightmare” and “impossible,” because “there are too many wealthy people who don’t want to see affordable living near their backyard.”  

A situation last year in Grand County highlighted another challenge nonrecreational RV campers face, when a couple renting a site from Sun Outdoors Rocky Mountains resort, in Granby, was forced to leave after miscalculating the price of their site.  

After renting at Sun Outdoors for a short time, camper Aaron Keil realized he couldn’t afford the $2,500-per-month rate. With no other place to legally park his RV, he moved onto Bureau of Land Management land outside of Kremmling. He planned to move campsites every two weeks, to stay in compliance with BLM policy, according to reporting in the Sky-Hi News. But he didn’t see the part of the policy that states each move must be 30 miles — as the crow flies — from the last site. 

Steven Hall, Colorado communications manager for the BLM, said it’s difficult to get an accurate number of people using BLM lands for “residential use,” but “it’s an ongoing challenge for us with law enforcement and recreation staff in field offices like Kremmling.” 

Hall said two of the most popular places for this kind of camping are the outskirts of Grand Junction and Cañon City, and that when BLM finds someone who has violated the two-week restriction, they’ll contact the person, let them know they’re in violation and help them find another campsite “where they would be in compliance.” 

If a camper ignores the warnings long enough, agency law enforcement will “take action, including escorting them off the land and seizing what they’ve left behind,” Hall said. Cleanup can be a big job, because sometimes what’s left behind is the RV.

“BLM is trying to preserve the natural environment, which is hard to do if you have someone living there. People get concerned about ongoing hygiene issues and the watershed. But I worry less about people not using BLM land to help solve the housing crisis and more about the unused land that gets snapped up by market-rate developers,” said Curtis, from the safe parking organization. “We can’t build housing without land, and if you’re an affordable housing provider, you’ve got to have a wing and a prayer to get access to usable land that’s decent, near transit and a grocery store — all things we need to have.”

Why cars can park in city lots but RVs can’t

Curtis said whether it’s from car or RV owners, the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative “gets more calls for help than we can possibly meet.” 

But while the nonprofit welcomes cars, it doesn’t welcome RVs. 

“Denver in May put out a request for proposals for someone to operate parking for RVs, and we started to reply. But just with some of the technical stuff, it’s horrifically expensive between pump stations, sanitation, hauling away and gray water,” Curtis said. “They wanted it to be 24/7, and we couldn’t do that.” 

In cities and urban environments, RVs “scare the pants off the fire department, because for sure there’s potential for propane hookup,” she added. “We’ve had some of our guests hook up to a propane tank to run heat into their cars, and it’s such a safety risk.”

The whole reason Kristin McGrath and Collin Vlass moved into an RV is because “when we started the [nursing] program, we knew we were going have to move at least five times. And with two dogs and rent going crazy, we’re like, there’s no way we’re gonna find places,” McGrath said. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

In mountain towns, where the weather is often more extreme, those challenges can double. 

Bill Almquist, community developer for the city of Salida, said in June 2022, the city purchased five RVs for $100,000 and paid Salida RV Resort monthly rent for people to live there. But as he and the renters soon found out, the RVs were a considerable challenge once winter set in, with “poop tubes” and water lines freezing even on rigs Almquist skirted to add extra insulation. In the end, two of the RVs had to be removed because even with heated coils, the water lines weren’t well-insulated enough and he didn’t want people to freeze, he said.  

Patti Clapper, a county commissioner in Pitkin County, said Aspen and surrounding towns “just don’t have enough available open land to support long-term RV parking. I know it’s happening in other towns and I wish we did.” But she admitted sometimes people would camp at the Brush Creek Intercept park-and-ride lot at the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Colorado 82, “and we’ve sometimes had a blind eye as long as there were no problems,” but asked them to move on when they needed the space there for other uses.  

Estes Park has no place for RV or van campers looking to work during the busy tourist seasons to park, either. But Salida was able to keep three RVs habitable through the winter and into last summer. And a few other rural towns are finding ways to make RV living a viable — if tiny — component of workforce housing. 

Mountain towns supporting vehicle-living 

Mary Arlington said in her past life as owner of an RV park in Colorado, she would occasionally have some railroad workers, highway workers, construction workers and others hook up. They’d stay for the length of their assignment, which might be two nights or 200 nights, she said. And they were always registered as guests, which meant no voting, no mail, no license plates registered at her park.

She can’t recall ever “ousting” any of them, but “they had to re-register and pay again each four weeks, and they never were guaranteed that the site would be available to them for their next four weeks,” she said. 

Then there are the campers who want to be treated as if they are a part of a community, and a few mountain towns like Salida that are starting to welcome them. 

DeLaine Young-Tapson, the former mayor and current head of community services in Telluride, said two years ago, seeing a need for workforce housing, the town council decided to designate a town parking lot for van and RV campers. 

Still going strong, the program provides each tenant with electricity and allows them two domestic pets per site plus parking for the car or truck they used to pull their rig, but there are no water hookups, no sewage dumpage, and they must be self-contained, she said. Young-Tapson wants to make it clear that the sites aren’t given away to just anyone. Residents of the tiny community have to work. 

“That’s the main criteria,” she said. “This is for people who are working and contributing to the functionality of our community.”  

And though there are no plans to create more of this housing option, she said she’s talked to a few colleagues in other places dealing with the same issue, and “everybody’s been trying to think outside the box — the smaller the town, the tighter the rules.”

In 2019, a program called Unsheltered in Summit started doing something similar in Summit County, when it developed a plan to provide a designated, secure location in parking lots for members of the local workforce to sleep in their vehicles, said Agee, from Frisco. The Summit Safe Parking Program lot allows cars, vans and RVs, as long as they can fit in a traditional parking spot. 

“In the town of Frisco, where it’s been incredibly difficult to find a parking lot for people where they have enough privacy and support in terms of basic services, we found a place — the Frisco Marina parking lot, with space for 25 vehicles, where the local workforce can feel cared for and safe,” she said. 

Diane Luellen, chair of the Unsheltered in Summit Committee, said the group has served at least 150 people, including those living in 33 vehicles last winter. There’s already a waiting list for this winter, and the group is working “all the time” to find more places, she said.  

“There are so many people who need this kind of service,” she added. “We’re housing challenged, we’re in a housing crisis. Even if there’s workforce housing available, there’s a segment of our county that can’t afford it. The lowest income workforce housing starts at about just under $2,000 a month. And if you’re a liftie on the hill or a ski patroller, unless you have a lot of roommates you can’t afford that. So, many people want to use their vehicles as their home. We just admitted today a man who is an ER nurse.”  

Agee said the Frisco town council deviated from other town governments by allowing 24-hour parking in the lot. “It just made sense. We have snowmakers, snowplow drivers and police. And the marina spot isn’t busy in the winter, so it lends itself to 24-hour use.” 

RVers will sometimes overnight in the Buttermilk ski area parking lot when they can’t find parking elsewhere in Pitkin County, “and we’re not going to tell anybody,” said Clapper. 

Vlass and McGrath are committed to making RV living work at least for the time being. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

It was tough and expensive to maintain the rigs in Salida last winter, so the city is considering shutting down its RV program in October or November. But it plans to have all five ready for use again in May.

They aren’t planning to let people rent the RVs and take them out on their own because of liability — “imagine the insurance costs on a broken wheel or axle,” Almquist said. But he knows of people with their own setups who are parking in “someone’s yard or property, on ranch lands or national forest, and we have so much going on we’re not necessarily going to proactively try to regulate that.”  

“There are codes on the books, but most of the time, unless we get a business complaint, we’ll let it go,” Almquist added. “Because if you were to kick everyone out who was currently living in an RV we’d be in trouble as a county.”  

Tracy Ross writes about the intersection of people and the natural world, industry, social justice and rural life from the perspective of someone who grew up in rural Idaho, lived in the Alaskan bush, reported in regions from Iran to Ecuador...