In late February, Amanda Mooney’s home was a broken-down 2001 Honda Odyssey. A busted window was covered with cardboard, held up by a mass of duct tape. The tags had been stolen and the transmission was shot. The car could only move at about five miles per hour, so Mooney mostly kept it parked in the Berkeley neighborhood.
She spent her days trying to catch up on sleep after restless nights, watching snow fall in the park, settling her two dogs yapping in the back, trying to figure out how to scrounge up enough money to get the vehicle working so that she could get to a job. Then, maybe, if everything held together for just a little bit, she could stop calling the Odyssey home.
Mooney has been living out of a car for the past six years. Outgoing, lively and articulate, she dyes her hair shades of purple, pink and blue. She cracks jokes easily, and isn’t afraid to tell people off. But she’s also not the kind of person to leave anyone behind or take anything for herself without giving to someone else first.
Originally from Chicago, Mooney came to Colorado with her then-husband to start a new life. But they’d only been here a few months when, in November 2013, they were evicted from their Denver apartment after coming up short on rent. With nowhere else to go, they moved into the Pontiac they’d driven out from Illinois. Mooney’s husband left her soon after; with no permanent address, she never received the court summons issued when he filed for divorce, and didn’t know about the hearing that made the split final. If he had any money to give her, she never got it.
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In the six years since, she’s been stuck in a rotating series of vehicles with chronic mechanical problems. At best, every day is a grind: find food, find gas for the car, find a bathroom, find a place to sleep, get some sleep, don’t bother the neighbors, stay safe. At worst, it’s a series of successive emergencies.
As rents have doubled in metro Denver over the past decade, more people have moved into their cars, occupying a blurred boundary between being housed and unhoused. Well-connected Instagrammers glamorize life in decked-out vans, touting the lifestyle choice that allows them to roam on a budget. Meanwhile, people like Mooney, who live in their cars out of desperation, have been driven deeper into the shadows, ignored or actively harassed by society at large.
While living in a vehicle may offer a few more degrees of safety, privacy and mobility than sleeping on the streets or in shelters, it’s far from the long-term stability of housing. People who are forced into vehicular homelessness, like other unhoused people, are prone to vicious cycles that keep them in poverty, and often they’re more disconnected from the resources that could potentially help lift them out of it. Pushed to the peripheries of communities they live in, they’re usually far away from things like housing navigation programs, health clinics and soup kitchens.
They’re sometimes called the “invisible homeless” or the “hidden homeless.” Because they are hard to find, governments and service providers have a poor understanding of who this population comprises and how large it really is. Diane Howald, community engagement manager for the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, coordinates the annual Point in Time count, a one-day survey of every unhoused person that volunteers can locate. It can be especially hard to identify people living in vehicles. According to Howald, 268 people living in vehicles were identified in the seven-county metro area during the 2018 count; in 2019, that number was 215.
Last August, however, Jefferson County conducted a month-long count of its homeless population and found 200 people living in cars in Jefferson County alone — an indication that the official data doesn’t come close to capturing the real number.
Family Promise of Greater Denver serves families experiencing homelessness or housing instability. Its executive director, Allie Card, says that her organization frequently works with families who move into their vehicles at some point. “For the most part, folks are seeking shelter as a last resort after they exhaust their options,” she says, noting that few Denver shelters accommodate families whose members want to stay together.
There could be another reason why people move into cars rather than shelters, she suggests: “Folks experiencing homelessness for the first time sometimes feel like they are not the ones who should be using the system. It’s a mindset of, ‘I don’t have it quite as bad so I don’t want to use that resource if I don’t have to; I’ll just stay in my car.’ If I was going through that experience, that’s probably one of the first thoughts I would have.”
Some of the invisible homeless are older adults or veterans on fixed incomes that no longer cover the rent. Others are students who have had to choose between paying tuition and housing. Some are women fleeing domestic violence with their children. Many, like Mooney, are working people trying to get their lives back on track, coming up against constant barriers. And their numbers could grow in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
While Mooney has been trying to find housing for as long as she’s been homeless, she’s had to focus most of her energy on day-to-day survival, which includes maintaining a semi-operational vehicle — the only thing keeping her from an even harder life on the streets. She hasn’t been able to save money, despite the fact that she’s been working for most of the time she’s been homeless. She’s taken night shifts at gas stations and sat through 9-to-5 office jobs after sleepless nights. She estimates that she’s worked for fourteen different 7-Elevens. She’s taken gigs delivering for Postmates and, when absolutely necessary, she’s panhandled. Most recently, she’s worked at King Soopers and Walmart, assembling grocery delivery packages in the hot spots of the pandemic.
Making matters more difficult, Mooney has severe Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition with no clear cause and no cure. After being diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2014, she’s gone through multiple surgeries and tried various medications (including immunosuppressants, putting her at even higher risk for COVID-19), but still wakes up nauseous most mornings and has flare-ups that leave her unable to move. “It’s a restroom illness, and that’s the one thing I don’t have access to on a regular basis, living in my vehicle,” she says. She depends on public restrooms and gas stations...but most of those are now closed.
“It’s such a double-edged sword,” she says. “I need the housing for my health, and I need my health for the job, but I need the job to have the housing, so I’m like, ‘Which one comes first?’ I can’t fight any one of those single causes to get to the next one, because each one is battling the other.”
She applies for a Section 8 public-housing voucher every year. She’s been entered into the OneHome system that metro Denver service providers use to match the most vulnerable people with affordable-housing opportunities, but says she’s never been offered anything. She’s also looked for housing on the private market, but with an eviction on her record, finding anything close to affordable has been impossible. And Mooney refuses to go to a shelter — most shelters in Denver have strict curfews, she says, limiting opportunities for work. And even before the pandemic, packing hundreds of people together in a room didn’t bode well for sanitation and comfort.
Living in a car is cheap, but it’s not free. Gas is effectively a utility bill, and a steep one, because blasting the heat on intervals is sometimes necessary to stave off cold nights. Mooney estimates that she spends $5 to $10 on gas each day, even if she doesn’t go anywhere. And since she can’t cook in the car, she usually eats fast food, which isn’t that cheap, either.
Every time Mooney saves up almost enough to start getting serious about housing, it seems that there’s some other more immediate need, often related to mechanical repairs on her car. In the last three months, Mooney went through three vehicles: The Odyssey ultimately died, and the Subaru she replaced it with had severe problems, so she exchanged that for a functional but small Saturn that a volatile friend then borrowed indefinitely. “It’s basically just buying a car for under $1,000 every time,” she explains.
And she has others to consider: Jebers, her cuddly rat terrier, and Rocky, an energetic blue heeler. People have repeatedly told her to give up the dogs, but she balks at that. “They’re like family,” she explains. “They are family. The way I look at it is, if I had a two-year-old little boy and a seven-year-old little boy, wouldn’t nobody be telling me to get rid of my kids.”
The dogs keep her company, and are a reason to keep going.
“People who haven’t been homeless...don’t realize that we know what we’re doing out here,” she says. “For the most part, we know how to survive. We’re still alive; there’s a reason that we’re still alive.”
In April 2018, Mooney had hit yet another roadblock.
She was about to return to an old job at a call center, helping low-income people in Maryland get benefits under that state’s health insurance marketplace. She’d loved the job, become extremely familiar with the intricacies of the health-care system, and had scored a 98 on the training exam. “I always tried to go above and beyond for people, because I know little things that some people don’t,” she explains. But there was a problem: She had no choice but to leave the dogs in her car while she was at work, and in the past that had led to visits from animal-control agencies and subsequently losing her job. So this time, she posted about her plight on the Nextdoor page for northwest Denver. In response, people offered to pay for a voucher at a dog daycare or take care of the dogs themselves.
That’s how Mooney met Sunnyside resident Chelsey Baker-Hauck, who was just becoming active in issues surrounding homelessness. “I started to wake up to seeing people experiencing homelessness in my neighborhood, where I really hadn’t before,” she recalls.
Baker-Hauck watched Mooney’s dog Rocky for several months. Since then, she’s helped Mooney out in other ways, too: letting her do laundry at her house, printing documents for her when she needs them, checking in on her when it’s cold, giving her Christmas gifts, even once buying Mooney a car battery.
As they’ve formed a friendship, Baker-Hauck has also learned from Mooney. “Earlier in my life, I would have been like, ‘Give up your dogs, or go to a shelter,’” she says. “I actually probably suggested some of those things to her early on. She would explain to me why that was a bad suggestion, or why it wouldn’t work for her.”
While getting to know Mooney, Baker-Hauck realized that there were very few resources specifically designed for people living in their cars. Instead, shelters are usually posed as the de facto strategy to resolve homelessness. “I don’t want to diminish any of the hard work that people are doing out there...but I also see that it’s not enough, and there are sub-populations of people who are more vulnerable and are going unserved,” Baker-Hauck says.
Rochelle Brogan understands the problems with the shelter approach as well as anyone. In 2006, she found herself facing homelessness after suffering a stroke that left her unable to work, and eventually unable to afford her rent. She spent a year living in a Denver shelter before getting a Section 8 public housing voucher. Later, she worked at several shelters in the area as a peer navigator. But Brogan could see that a shelter wasn’t the way out of homelessness for everyone. In shelters, she says, “you are going to experience trauma, there’s no way around it. You can’t function, your brain gets stuck on high alert, your cognition stops working...because you’re in fight-or-flight mode all the time, and you can’t feel safe.”
Brogan had been searching for alternatives that would serve people more humanely and effectively. While working as a peer resource navigator at the Denver Central Library in late 2018, she found one.
An article in the Los Angeles Times described how West Coast cities were establishing designated safe places where people living in vehicles could stay overnight. The concept has been spreading: New Beginnings Counseling Center has operated a safe parking program in Santa Barbara since 2004, and there are also programs in L.A., San Jose, San Diego, Seattle, the Bay Area and several cities in Oregon.
Brogan had met plenty of people living in cars, but she could find no such program in Denver, so she decided to establish one. When Baker-Hauck heard of Brogan’s efforts, they joined forces.
By the end of 2019, Brogan and Baker-Hauck had founded the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, a grassroots coalition of service providers, nonprofits, faith community leaders, city and county governments, and advocates and allies. Working with a volunteer task force of about forty members, the CSPI is pushing for the creation of safe parking sites around the state; the Barton Institute for Community Action and the University of Denver are providing funding and professional assistance for the organization. The goal is to eventually create a network of trauma-informed safe parking sites, with at least one in each metro county.
The CSPI hopes to see pilot safe-parking programs take off in the next year, with several potential spots in the metro area under consideration. Each would be independently funded and managed. “Rather than one organization trying to run all of it, we’re trying to tap into the existing infrastructure that we have, which is a lot of really wonderful nonprofits and agencies doing this work already and expanding their scope a little bit,” Baker-Hauck explains. A team of researchers from DU’s Graduate School of Social Work, led by professor Daniel Brisson, will evaluate the pilot programs to determine whether they’re meeting their goals of helping participants get into housing and improving well-being.
At minimum, each site would have a restroom or porta-potty with hand-washing facilities, as well as safe drinking water. Beyond that, the program’s amenities would depend on the needs and resources of the particular location; ideally, they’d have trash pickup and be connected with a place to do laundry, maybe a spot to walk pets and charge electronic devices. Most existing safe parking sites have some sort of overnight security; most also require their participants to sign a contract pledging that they won’t use drugs or alcohol on site. Some also require that participants actively look for housing; and some provide mobile job training and other opportunities.
But the most essential aspect of the program might be the one embedded in its name: safety. The proposed sites would all provide a legal, acceptable place to stay.
DU Sturm College of Law professor Nantiya Ruan, who has done extensive research on the criminalization of homelessness in Colorado, is heading up the CSPI’s research on the legality of the sites. In Denver, it’s technically legal to sleep in your vehicle, but people can end up in trouble if they violate other parking laws or stay in one spot too long. “We’ve known multiple families whose vehicles have been towed or taken away from them because they’re parking where they’re not supposed to overnight,” says Family Promise’s Card.
Other metro jurisdictions have ordinances that criminalize living or sleeping in a vehicle. Boulder’s municipal code bars residing permanently in a vehicle on city streets. Fort Collins forbids occupying a vehicle “for living or sleeping purposes.” Greeley and, more recently, Lakewood have both enacted laws specifically prohibiting living in recreational vehicles. Ruan plans to work with local policymakers on removing those bans, or at least getting municipalities to agree to an exemption for safe parking sites.
Even in places where there’s no ban on sleeping in cars, people living in them are often visited by police, sometimes late at night. “What would happen is that a homeowner would call [police] and say, ‘There’s this person sleeping on the street in front of my house and I don’t like it,’ and the police would come and ask them to move,” Ruan says. “They’re not citing an ordinance.”
That can make just finding a place to park exhausting. Some people who live in their vehicles stick to hidden pull-offs or industrial zones, where they worry less about people complaining. But those areas may be prone to actual crime, including theft and violence. Others opt for Walmart or other big-box parking lots, some of which are lenient about allowing overnight car camping.
Mooney tends to stay in residential areas. On a typical night, she says, “we’ll hit the gas station really quick, grab a soda, maybe something to eat, and try to park at like midnight, when most people are already asleep.”
Still, neighbors have called the cops. “They’ll say you’re in your car using drugs, or they will say that they want a welfare check done because they think you’re dead,” Mooney explains. “Nobody just comes up and just says, ‘Hey, how are you doing, are you okay?’ No, they always call the police department.”
So Mooney moves frequently, and tries to park in areas where she won’t attract attention. Empty construction sites in residential neighborhoods are ideal, because there’s usually a porta-potty. With all of its construction, the Berkeley area has been good, though “you’re still at risk every single day,” she says.
While they see the safe parking sites as emergency stopgaps, Brogan and Baker-Hauck also want them to help people find long-term solutions. They envision all program participants entering into the OneHome system and getting on the pathway to permanent housing. A wide range of other services might also be available: Potential employers could provide job training, health departments could set up mobile clinics, animal welfare organizations could vaccinate pets or distribute dog food. In the event of an emergency or extreme weather, jurisdictions in which the sites are located could easily issue motel vouchers, because they already know how to reach the people in need.
“You have people right now who are not being served; they’re sort of dispersed out in the community,” Baker-Hauck says. “Safe parking programs bring them together a little bit more in a place where they could sleep safely. They’re not going to get beat up, they’re not going to get robbed. They’re going to be able to sleep through the night. They’re not going to have a policeman tapping on their window waking them up at 3 a.m. because a neighbor called. You’re stabilizing them just by doing that much.”
Raychel Kelly started a safe-parking program in Summit County last July, after she found herself unable to afford rent and forced to live in her car. The program, called LOSPP (Local Overnight Safe Parking Program), specifically serves the working homeless, many of whom were keeping the ski and tourism industries going but couldn’t afford the astronomically high cost of living in mountain resort towns. Kelly was one of those.
Since it began, the Summit County program has served 25 people. All participants must show proof of full-time employment and pay $45 a month, which covers trash services, snow removal, bathroom maintenance and general upkeep. The current host is a church, though the site is temporarily closed because of the pandemic.
While LOSPP serves a niche population, that group has many of the same needs as people living in their cars in metro Denver: a safe and legal place to sleep — with flat ground, low light, distance from residents, proximity to a bus stop, and cell phone service — as well as a bathroom and trash services. Above all, LOSPP helps participants find a community of people with shared experiences. “Our population is now reachable because of this program,” Kelly says. “We’re not just invisible out in the world where you can’t learn about us and gather information and make better decisions. We are here.”
Safe parking sites in the metro area will have to determine whether to have restrictions on entry or be open even to those with criminal records, not to mention minor legal issues such as no up-to-date vehicle registration and insurance. “Philosophically, I think all of us on the task force would say there should be zero barriers to this,” says Baker-Hauck. “Logistically, we know there are going to be a lot of barriers.”
After all, safe parking sites have been controversial — a new lot in Encinitas, California, provoked residents to campaign (unsuccessfully) against what they called “a homeless parking lot in our residential neighborhood.” On the other hand, the safe parking program in L.A. has struggled to expand because it requires too much of service providers on a small budget.
The sites have to adapt to the particular provider running them and the community where they’re located. Broomfield could be the Front Range’s first test site: Don Bird, lead pastor at Broomfield United Methodist Church, says that his congregation is prepared to use its parking lot to accommodate people living in their vehicles that the city has been putting up in hotels during the pandemic.
Farther north, another safe-parking site model is in the works. Joseph Zanovitch leads Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement, a Longmont nonprofit that hopes to have pilot safe sites at two church parking lots this year, each with a capacity for five to seven vehicles. One lot may be reserved for families and women, and HOPE will provide case management that aims to connect program guests with housing. The Longmont City Council now has a task force that’s studying the safe-parking proposal.
Zanovitch says that HOPE already works with plenty of Longmont residents who live in their vehicles, and he’s floated the idea of a safe lot with many of them. “It’s definitely met with a lot of enthusiasm,” he says. “I hear story after story...especially women not feeling safe, being kicked out of Walmart’s parking lot, not knowing where to go — and if they do find a place, they don’t know how long they’ll be able to stay.”
Zanovitch has been working with Colorado State University students to design livable 14-by-8-foot mini-trailers — like tiny homes on wheels. One of these might be used to shelter a staff member at the site overnight, and they could also temporarily “house” people who don’t have vehicles.
“Safe parking isn’t meant as a permanent solution,” Zanovitch explains. “It’s solely meant as a chapter, hopefully to move on to the better.” But in the meantime, people are safe in a supportive environment.
“When people live in vehicles, it’s isolating, there’s generally not a community around them,” he notes. “Part of this model is community. It’s going to really hold folks to hopefully have a better outlook.”
While Mooney tries to stay positive and help others, her generosity sometimes backfires, putting her in compromising and dangerous situations. She says she’s been robbed several times, even raped. She doesn’t mess with drugs besides marijuana, but many of the people around her do, which has gotten her into bad situations. To get away, she’s sought help from strangers, asking people to care for her possessions, her car, even her dogs, sometimes only to see them disappear. She’s lost friends, relationships and connection to her family. “I’ve had pretty much just about every little thing that you can have happen to you that’s bad happen,” she says.
Her experience has led Mooney to trust the homeless, the disenfranchised and the poor more than the rich, the government, service providers and especially the police. She thinks of the residents of Berkeley as “yuppies,” and says they give her anxiety. “I’ve become a lot more fearful of people than I ever have been in my entire life,” she reflects. “And bitter, and hateful toward most of them. People don’t want to use the same bathrooms as us; they don’t want to be seen around us.”
Mooney doesn’t “look homeless,” she says, and “unless you see into my vehicle, you wouldn’t know. People discriminate against me when they see the homelessness, but if I were to be standing in line at Walmart having a conversation, they’d have no clue I lived in my vehicle.”
Metro Denver was already a tough place to find affordable housing. Now it will be even tougher.
Nearly one in ten jobs has disappeared; other have reduced hours or pay. Hundreds of thousands of people have filed for unemployment in Colorado. And while stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits will put some money into some people’s pockets, a few thousand dollars won’t be enough to cover rent for long.
“It seems to me obvious that with the economic implications of this pandemic, there are going to be more people who end up homeless,” Ruan says. “It is up to our government to actually come forward with some legislation and policy that’s going to help people stay in their homes.”
Some activists are pushing for a rent strike, others a mandatory moratorium on evictions and foreclosures called by state officials. “If they don’t act,” Ruan says, “then we’re going to see an explosion of homelessness. There’s no equation by which that’s not true.”
“Homelessness is going to start touching the middle class,” predicts Card.
Both Card and Ruan think that more people will be moving into their cars. At a time when staying clean and socially distant from other people is imperative, a vehicle may look like a safer option than a shelter.
But the pandemic is also making life more difficult for those who live in their cars. While many Coloradans have been shut inside and panicked into stockpiling food, Mooney has been on the front lines as a grocery-store worker. The first week she worked at Walmart, she pulled four sweaty shifts without showering, since the gym she’d gone to had closed.
The challenges aren’t just physical: She thinks that the spread of coronavirus has increased the stigma surrounding homelessness. People seem to feel more entitled about blocking homeless people from entering stores and other public places, she says: “Homeless people are being looked at as the virus.”
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Ironically, though, the pandemic has helped Mooney connect to better possibilities. On April 21, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless was able to get her a hotel room paid for by the city, housing reserved for homeless people particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. According to Derek Woodbury, spokesperson for the Department of Housing Stability, Denver has acquired 325 such rooms, on top of 365 for those who may have the disease.
Still, many people have been left on the streets, or rounded up into the new consolidated shelters at the National Western Center and the Denver Coliseum. And the city won’t keep paying for hotel rooms forever.
Safe parking sites could easily accommodate people who have been living in vehicles for years, as well as those recently thrust into homelessness by the pandemic. “We need this now,” Ruan says.
“This kind of program lifts people out of invisibility,” Baker-Hauck adds. “If they don’t have a voice and they’re not included, then they continue to go without help. These people have a lot of personal wherewithal. Already they’re very resilient, they’re very resourceful. They have a lot going for them, too, and they just need a little help. So we feel like this is an opportunity to help people stabilize before things get worse, before something even more catastrophic happens to them. “It’s just the right thing to do.”