In mid-September, Denver police officers approached a trailer parked in a homeless encampment along South Platte River Drive just north of Englewood to let its occupant know that it was time to leave. When Lisa Masaro emerged through the doorway to talk with the officers, she was told she had 72 hours to vacate the area, since vehicles cannot park longer than that in the same spot in Denver.
In a jovial way, 56-year-old Masaro asked the officers: "So I know you guys don’t have any clue, but you know what I’m going to ask, right?"
One officer guessed, "Where you can go?"
Masaro followed up: "Right."
"I just know it can’t be in the City of Denver," the officer responded in an exchange caught on a body-worn camera. "So, yeah, I honestly don’t know. I’ve never looked into it. Do you know of any?" The officer then looked at another officer and a mental health clinician for guidance.
"Well, we’ll take care of it. I just want to be somewhere safe, you know what I mean?" said Masaro, who was living in the trailer with her service dog, Tarzan.
"Do you know of anywhere they can go?" the officer again asked his colleagues. "I mean, like to re-park."
The clinician handed Masaro a pamphlet and recommended that Masaro visit a shelter and talk with staff there to get connected with services. "I really would like to see if I could get housing before the winter. I mean, this is not...it's horrible, really," Masaro said.
That was the conclusion of the conversation, but not Maraso's hunt for housing.
"I’ve gotten the one pamphlet-type thing from the cops or their advocates or whoever, and it’s kind of a joke to most of the people out here. 'Yeah, yeah, they just hand me a card and walk away. They don't really want to help me or help us,' is what I hear people saying," Masaro explains.
She says she was astonished by the response of the Denver officer, who told her she had to leave but had no suggestions for where she could go. "I’m thinking, wow, you know, guy's got balls, man," Masaro says.
And Masaro still does not have a place to park her trailer. While Denver now has two safe-camping sites for a few dozen of those sheltering outdoors, individuals who live in trailers, RVs and their vehicles don't have an official place where they can park in the city, although other municipalities have introduced safe-parking sites.
Originally from Illinois, Masaro came to Colorado to live with friends back in late 2017. The situation quickly soured when she realized that her friends were deep into drugs, she says. She moved out and met a man who became her partner; he died six months later. A month after that, a drunk driver hit Masaro.
"And ever since then, I’ve been homeless," Masaro says. "I’m on disability now. My life has completely changed. It’ll never be the same. I’m kind of stuck out here."
She bought the trailer eighteen months ago, and moved in. "I was able to buy this trailer with my savings. That’s what I did to just keep a roof over my head," Masaro explains.
On top of her disability, Masaro also has cancer. "I try not to talk to people because of COVID, because my immune system is low," she says. "Physically, I can’t stay out here. It’s really difficult for me."
While Masaro is trying to stay safe, she's far from alone. Many individuals who are homeless are sheltering in vehicles.
"There are hundreds, possibly a thousand people in the metro area who are in that same predicament. And so it’s sad to see," says Chelsey Baker-Hauck, co-founder of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, which is working to set up safe-parking sites at churches across the metro area.
So far, the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative and various partners have opened safe-parking sites in Golden, Arvada and Broomfield; Longmont also has one.
"There are more that are on the drawing board, but the need is great, and it’s going to take some time for all of us collectively to meet 100 percent of that need," adds Baker-Hauck. "We're working hard to bring safe parking to Denver."
They're also working to expand the number of spaces for larger vehicles. "There’s definitely a need for them. It comes up all the time," Baker-Hauck says.
Until there's a safe place to park, Masaro and others stick to out-of-the-way parts of town, including along the South Platte. That area is attracting more and more individuals experiencing homelessness as sweeps accelerate in the downtown area.
"Certainly, during COVID, the number of people experiencing homelessness, the number of people camping, the number of people affected by those camps, have gone up through the roof," says Councilman Jolon Clark, whose district includes the area where Masaro is staying.
But Clark isn't convinced that safe-parking sites or even safe-camping sites are the ultimate answer. "It’s more complicated than we walk into thinking it is," he says. "The communities that we see moving the needle on this are really focused on what is the long-term solution."
Officials with the Denver Department of Housing Stability recognize at least the short-term need for safe-parking sites. The city is just days away from announcing its choices from proposals submitted to create not only safe-camping sites, but also safe-parking sites. These would join the two safe-camping sites in Capitol Hill that were set up by service providers working with churches.
But until these sites are open, people like Masaro are going to be at risk of being swept, a reality that concerns local service providers.
"The problem with saying you can't camp in Denver or can't have your car in Denver is that services are in Denver. Hospitals are in Denver. The grocery stores are in Denver. People need access to all of these critical things. Of course, they want to stay closer to them," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Just a few days after Masaro's encounter with the police, Denver authorities returned to sweep the encampment, where dozens of people were staying in a mix of trailers, RVs and tents. The city justified the sweep by highlighting the fire hazards at the encampment, including propane tanks.
Masaro ended up driving her trailer to the other side of the river, where she and a few other people camping there watched as city authorities and contractors bulldozed the encampment. "We were just kind of gobsmacked," Masaro says.
Some of those who'd been staying there lost belongings. In federal court on December 15, Steve Olsen said that he "lost everything" he had because of the sweep. Olsen's testimony came during an evidentiary hearing in relation to a lawsuit over sweeps during the COVID-10 pandemic in the U.S. District Court of Colorado. Like Olsen, Masaro is a plaintiff in that case, and penned a declaration about her experience dealing with the police in the lead-up to the sweep.
(Asked about Masaro's interaction with the officers, Jay Casillas, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department, says that while "vehicles cannot park on Denver’s streets for more than 72 hours at a time, so the officer was not incorrect in replying, 'not in Denver'...the officer could have provided a better explanation of what this individual’s options were." He adds that the mental health clinicians who sometimes respond to calls with DPD "are knowledgeable about resources for those who are unhoused, and it does appear that the one in the video does provide information to the individual.")
For the past three months, Masaro has been "bouncing around" in the South Platte River Drive vicinity, she says, moving her trailer to avoid violating the rules.
"It’s crazy," she concludes. "It’s crazy out here. I’ve never been through anything like this before."
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