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Safe Parking Program for Homeless Living in Their Vehicles Expands to El Paso County | Homeless

Shane Hood sleeps every night in the front seat of his toy car, leaning over the passenger seat to rest on a nest of blankets and pillows. A sturdy aluminum baseball bat rests on the ground in case it needs protection.

“A friend got stabbed a month or two ago right there,” he says, pointing to the sidewalk from where he’s parked in the Mill Street neighborhood of Colorado Springs.

Like a toilet or a meal, security is not a given in Hood’s homeless world.

But a new program making its way to El Paso County in the coming months aims to help people who live in their vehicles.

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Lakewood-based Benefits in Action, an organization that supports people applying for public assistance such as Medicaid and food stamps, received a grant from the Colorado Community Health Alliance to expand safe parking programs.

The organization will spend about $75,000 to launch one in El Paso County, said Jane Barnes, founder of Benefits in Action and its executive director.

Under this program, faith communities allow people who live in their vehicle to park in their lot overnight and must provide them with access to an indoor bathroom or outdoor portable potties with parking stations. hygiene.

Some churches recruit volunteers to serve a meal or hot drinks and provide hospitality, others do not. Some allow families and motorhomes, others only work with individuals.

But all guests sleep in a safe space where authorities aren’t asking them to move, Barnes said.

The idea, she said, is to stop people living in cars, trucks or RVs from spiraling down and working to improve their situation.

“When people still have a car and can get to work or school, our hope is to prevent them from becoming completely homeless,” Barnes said. “We do intense case management to get them out of their car and into stable housing, and make sure they have a job.”

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Social workers also connect parkers to mental health care, addiction treatment, medical services, pet assistance – since 40% of people living in their car own pets – and to free food, gas and repairs.

“People have to have a usable vehicle to stay in the parking lot,” Barnes said, “so we’ll buy a tire or a battery, or some plastic to protect the windows from the weather, but we’re probably not going to overhaul an engine .”

Participants must apply and be accepted into the program. Those who get accommodation will receive money for a security deposit and the first month’s rent, she said.

Benefits in Action is a major partner of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, which estimates that at least 1,000 people live in their vehicles statewide and, with inflation, expects that number to grow.

“Without secure parking, they park where they can — a store parking lot or a side street — and are frequently asked by law enforcement to move,” said Linda Barringer, program developer for Colorado Safe Parking Initiative.

“We provide safe and hygienic overnight parking where people can get a good night’s sleep and case management comes to the field to help them reorganize their lives and get back to housing,” Barringer said. “Without that, it’s a constant struggle of where am I going to park tonight, how many times will I be asked to move, will I be injured.

The Colorado initiative formed in 2019 to find host sites in the seven-county Denver metropolitan area and is building a statewide network.

The first pilot sites opened in the cities of Broomfield and Longmont, and the idea has spread to 11 sites in Jefferson, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver and Arapahoe counties.

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Those 11 sites have 89 parking spaces, which last year served 140 households, Barringer said. About 35% of the total attendees were able to be relocated, she said.

“Our goal is to have secure parking in as many places as possible across the state because we know every community has people living in their cars,” Barringer said.

Catholic Charities of Central Colorado has spoken to some churches during the pandemic about starting such a program locally, CEO Andy Barton said.

“There wasn’t a lot of interest because of concerns around the image,” he said.

Denver’s First Universalist Church had the same problem initially, said Joan Wise-Skutt, co-chair of the church’s Safe Parking initiative.

“We spent a lot of time dealing with neighbors who were worried, ‘Oh tent city is coming, we’re going to have a horror,'” she said.

“It’s a pretty upscale neighborhood, and we don’t want a horror or a drug playground, and it’s really about educating people about what’s going on and writing documents that reflect the concerns.”

The church reserved eight parking spaces last July on its grounds off Hampden Avenue and Colorado Boulevard and currently has vehicles parked at seven locations, Co-Chair Josephine Hehnke said.

“It’s going very well,” she says, adding that some participants have obtained housing.

Parking spaces are available between 4:30 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.; vehicles must leave during the day. Many parkers have jobs, Hehnke said.

“People who receive help are very grateful,” she said.

They’re also not what some might think are stereotypical, Wise-Skutt said.

“The most important thing we’re trying to do through the program is to educate the general population – they’re not all junkies and criminals and slackers,” she said. “These are people who lived in ordinary accommodation and had a situation that they could not recover from without help.

“When we open the church for activities, they don’t stand out as different from others.”

Hood, who has been homeless since 2015 and shares his car with his girlfriend, Barb Berry, likes the concept and said he thinks it will help Colorado Springs’ homeless population. The hardest thing about making your car your home is the lack of space to stretch out, Hood said. And temperatures in the single digits at night.

“There are quite a few people living in their cars — we’re noticing more and more of that,” Hood said. “They move around a lot because they don’t know where it’s safe and they’re in danger of being towed away.”

Barnes hopes to have host sites established in El Paso County before the summer and plans to expand the program to Teller and Park counties.

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