Unsheltered in Summit partners with Summit County Sheriff’s Office and Breckenridge to find safe parking lots for individuals living out of their cars
Diane Luellen, chair of the Unsheltered in Summit Committee, said demand for safe places to park has risen over the last couple years since the lack of affordable housing has grown worse
Van life has gotten a lot of attention over the last couple years and for good reason. When the pandemic led to worker lay offs or otherwise forced them to work remotely, some individuals were drawn to the lure of life on the road, picking up and leaving at whim and traveling across the country unrestricted by personal time off limits.
As one of the most visited counties in the U.S., Summit County has had its fair share of van life travelers pass through its borders. But those who choose to live out of their vans — and those who are forced to sleep in their cars — are met with widespread restrictions on where they can park at night.
“I’ve been here 17 years and it’s been going on as long as I’ve been here,” said Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons about individuals who sleep in their cars. “The difference is, it used to be a summer thing. We used to really see it in the summers and not so much in the winters, and what happened was technology changed … all kinds of devices now allow people to camp year-round.”
Most trailheads in the county managed by the U.S. Forest Service prohibit overnight parking and many parking lots throughout the county do too. Adam Bianchi, district ranger for the Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest, said this is because these trailheads are not designed for camping. Because a lot of the trailheads in the Dillon Ranger District are often full, Bianchi said this space is reserved for those who are using the trails.
He did note that there are dispersed camping opportunities along designated U.S. Forest Service roads and that these spots can be identified using the organization’s Motor Vehicle Use Maps, which are available free of charge at the Dillon Ranger District office.
With these rules in place, it comes down to FitzSimons, his team and other sheriff departments to tap on windows in the middle of the night and ask people to leave.
“It just becomes highlighted in the winter because of all the plowing, so the cops are constantly moving people around,” FitzSimons said. “Obviously, we try not to cite people for overnight camping, we just try to warn them and move them along.”
Though people choose van life for various reasons, a dominant one is because of housing. Diane Luellen is chair of the Unsheltered in Summit Committee, a group that focuses on providing unsheltered individuals a safe place to sleep at night. For the past two-and-a-half years, the group has coordinated the Summit Safe Parking Program where it has secured the parking lot at The Church at Agape Outpost off of Colorado Highway 9 so that those sleeping in their vehicles have a permitted place to stay.
Since the program started, she said there’s been a steady rise in demand for one of the 10 parking spots.
“There’s always been a need … but the need is compounded when you have a housing crisis like we have right now,” Luellen said.
Former Fairplay resident Alden Scholl said he bought his 1989 Dodge camper van for exactly this reason. As a ski patroller at Breckenridge Ski Resort for the past two seasons, Scholl said he bought his van as a money-saving tool so that he could put more of his paycheck in the bank and spend less on rent. Scholl said if it wasn’t for the Safe Parking Program, his life in Summit County would look a lot different.
“Without (the Summit Safe Parking Program) I don’t think it’d be feasible to live in a ve
hicle in Summit County, at least right now,” Scholl said. “It’s a busy place and especially with holidays and skier traffic, it’s hard to find a place to park let alone park overnight.”
Those wishing to secure a spot at the church must go through an interview process and they must be working for a Summit County-based business. If approved, they pay $45 per month to park their vehicles in the lot, which also has portable toilets and bear-proof trash receptacles provided by Unsheltered in Summit. Each permitted car places a placard in their windshield that shows they are allowed to be there, and they are allowed to stay from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Living in an outfitted van with comfortable sleeping arrangements is a lot different than individuals who are forced to sleep in their cars for lack of stable and affordable housing. Both FitzSimons and Luellen call these individuals the “working homeless.” These people have jobs and are contributing to the local economy but because their wages can’t keep up with expensive rent payments, they live out of their cars instead.
In the summer, the Agape Church is going to have some construction work completed and the lot will have to close. In preparation, Luellen and FitzSimons have worked with the town of Breckenridge, which recently changed its ordinance to allow overnight permitted parking at the Summit County Justice Center lot. The lot is expected to be in use by April. Luellen said she hopes that once the construction work is completed at the Agape Church, the county will have two lots and she’s interested in securing a third.
Moving forward, Luellen said she hopes to work with some of the other towns, and she hopes each might be willing to change its ordinances to allow more of this kind of parking.
“They’re already here and we need to do something about that,” Luellen said. “All people are worthy of basic needs and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to have them.”
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