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Longmont Safe Parking Program Gives 'Hope' To People Living In Their Cars

Samantha Marshall.JPG
Stephanie Daniel
Samantha Marshall lives in her car with her husband and three dogs. They are part of a safe lot program that provides overnight parking in a designated lot.

The coronavirus has led to record unemployment rates across the country and in Colorado. As state and federal benefits begin to run out, and evictions pick up, experts are predicting an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. A new program in Northern Colorado is now providing a safe space for those who don’t have a place to live.

Samantha Marshall stands outside her home in Longmont — a two-door, gray Scion Touring Coupe. Two of her dogs, Jax and Lily, sleep in the back seat.

“I don't know if you can see in there,” she said. “That's his, him and Lily’s spot.”

Samantha Marshall, her husband Brandon Marshall and their third dog Muffin hunker down in the front.

“This is my spot,” she said. “Where they have bucket seats, we have to have pillows in the seats or your butt’s going to hurt.”

The Marshalls work as day laborers. They’ve been living in their car since late February when they moved to Boulder County from Kentucky. At first, they stayed in parking lots or parks, but that quickly became a hassle.

“I was always a nervous wreck thinking, ‘Well is somebody going to mess with this,'” she said. “Because we’ve been woke up in the middle of the night and told to leave.”

"It's our safe spot. It's our home right now."
Samantha Marshall

It’s embarrassing, said Marshall.

“It’s a crazy time. I never thought anything like this would ever happen.”

But things changed about two months ago when the Marshalls were accepted into a program that provides overnight parking from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. in a designated lot.

“It’s our safe spot,” she said. “It’s our home right now.”

The program is called SafeLot and it is one of the first of its kind in Northern Colorado. Created by HOPE, a homeless outreach organization in Longmont, it's designed to fill a gap in the current shelter system which mainly serves individual adults. HOPE’s executive director Joseph Zanovitch said SafeLot welcomes couples and pets, but the program is selective.

“We are very strict on who comes in this program. The first name of the program is safe for a reason,” he said. “We maintain that because we have a strict code of conduct that everyone has to follow.”

Zanovitch fondly calls participants, like the Marshalls, parkers or neighbors or friends. The program prioritizes families, vulnerable adults and those who can work or are working. SafeLot is currently at capacity with eight vehicles and a waiting list. Parkers can stay as long as they need.

“This is purposely meant as a temporary chapter in someone's life,” Zanovitch said. “When they come here everything is designed to get them back on their feet and out of here as quickly as possible.”

The SafeLot program is located at a local church. HOPE has collaborated with churches in the past and currently runs shelters at two of them. Zanovitch, who worked with a former pastor to get the program up and running, said this partnership makes sense.

“I knew I needed to get this program done sooner than later, a church was the way to go,” he said. “Also, from a zoning standpoint, this made it very easy this becomes an outreach program of the church.”

Sara Lloyd is a church elder and a member of the outreach committee. She was familiar with safe parking programs and thought SafeLot would be a great opportunity for the church to serve the community.

“One of the worries I think for organizations that are considering doing this is the idea that, ‘Oh my goodness, there will be, there could be problems, there could be crime, all this other stuff.' And the opposite is true,” she said. “If you have a lot that's empty most of the week because it's a church, then stuff happens. When you have people staying here every night, stuff stops happening.”

The church provides several amenities, including daily breakfast and dinner, a community room, male and female restrooms, and showers. There is also a HOPE case manager on site to help parkers connect to social services, resources and general needs.

“So, they don’t have to worry about looking for that job or maintaining that job, we’re going to cover that more them,” Zanovitch said. “The case management aspect really encompasses from the most basic to really complex, dealing with housing issues.”

The concept behind safe lots has been around for decades. One of the earliest programs is New Beginning Safe Parking Program. It was created in Santa Barbara, California in 2003 as a safe place for RVs to park. Since then it has grown to 26 lots and around 145 parking spots for all vehicles.

The program’s success led New Beginnings to create a manual and training for other communities wanting to follow its model. This includes cities up and down the West Coast like Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and now the Safe Lot in Longmont.

Cassie Roach, manager of the safe parking program, said New Beginnings has sold about 100 manuals. One thing the organization stresses is the importance of having case management.

“While individuals living in vehicles are experiencing homelessness, they are very different in many ways than the like stereotypical individual experiencing homelessness,” she said. “They often don’t quite see themselves as homeless. So, they aren’t as open to or aware of homeless services."

Across the country, a point-in-time count is done on a single night each January to track the number of people experiencing homelessness. Metro Denver, which covers seven counties including Boulder County, recorded over 6,100 people this year. Slightly more than 25%, 1,561 people, were unsheltered and lived on the street, in a tent, a temporary motel room or a vehicle.

Homelessness has been in the rise for years and the coronavirus is exacerbating the issue, said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

“We know people have been sleeping in their cars, that this is not a new phenomenon,” she said. “But it’s certainly increased during this crisis response as people are facing evictions because of lost wages and unemployment benefits running out.”

During the pandemic, about 3,000 people have stayed in auxiliary shelters at the Coliseum and National Western Center in Denver. According to Alderman, more than 1,000 people are thought to be in living in tents in the downtown area.

“Telling people to sleep outside or telling people to sleep in their cars is certainly not a solution. But it might be an emergency need that can be met that way, while we work on a long-term solution."
Cathy Alderman, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

In July, Mayor Michael Hancock announced support for proposed safe outdoor spaces. The campsites would have bathrooms, food and other resources as well as services to help people get back on their feet.

“Telling people to sleep outside or telling people to sleep in their cars is certainly not a
solution,” said Alderman. "But it might be an emergency need that can be met that way, while we work on a long-term solution."

No sites for a safe outdoor space have been selected yet. Meanwhile in Longmont, the demand for safe parking is growing.

“We're actively working on how we can effectively expand and still make sure we can take care of everyone who comes in this program with the same quality and attention they deserve," said Zanovitch.

Samantha Marshall and her husband have gotten used to the SafeLot program. It gives them safety, stability and a community, she said.

“They’ve given us hope, they really have,” she continued.

The program manager is helping her get into cosmetology school and find them permanent housing. The Marshalls are saving money and hope to be living in their new apartment before winter starts.

“I’d be happy with an efficiency or a one-bedroom,” she said. “I mean, we don’t need much obviously. If we can live in a car, we can live anywhere.”

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