Summit County group launches overnight parking pilot program for working homeless

Good Bridge Community founder Raychel Kelly.
Courtesy Raychel Kelly

FRISCO — A new pilot program is hoping to change the culture surrounding the county’s working homeless.

Earlier this week, a new local organization called Good Bridge Community — in cooperation with the Summit Colorado Interfaith Council and partners around the county — launched a local overnight parking pilot program, meant to provide a safer and more supportive environment for individuals living in their cars.

Raychel Kelly, Good Bridge Community’s founder, said the idea stems from her own experience as a working homeless person in Summit County and a desire to create better living conditions for people trying to work their way back into permanent housing.

“This November will be my third year up here, and basically three years since I moved into my car,” said Kelly, an Ohio native with a college degree in fashion design. Kelly said she moved to Summit County with an agreement to crash with friends for a few months until she was settled, though a series of events — including a death in her friend circle — contributed to her decision to move into her car.

“Long story short, I didn’t really know the challenges of this community,” Kelly said. “I moved into my car. That July, I broke my wrist, and it kept me in my car a lot longer than I thought I would be there. And I’m still there today. … That’s why I started the Good Bridge Community, and it’s in focus of the working homeless and non-working homeless. It’s really focusing on economic struggle on all its levels. We are dealing with that in every community across our nation. It changes from community to community, but the overall struggle is relevant everywhere.

“I had some people show up to some Good Bridge meetings that were in the network with the Interfaith Council. And since I’ve met other people that are interested in this topic, we’re making headway.”

On Monday, following negotiations with Kelly and the Interfaith Council, a local house of worship kicked off the new pilot program, allowing individuals living in their cars to utilize the facility’s parking lot each night. Stakeholders involved in the project asked the Summit Daily News not to print the location of the lot, citing concerns that individuals without permits might show up, potentially jeopardizing the project.

Participants in the pilot are required to follow a strict set of stipulations in order to maintain their permits. Before joining, individuals must fill out a questionnaire, including place of employment and a personal history. Participants also must agree to a set code of conduct, which includes rules preventing fighting, littering, camping and more. There is also a small monthly fee involved.

Individuals chosen to participate are given a permit to hang in their cars and will be allowed to inhabit the parking lot from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily. The facility also will provide a portable restroom and snow plowing during the winter. The group said 10 individuals would be allowed to take part in the pilot. Two permits have been issued, and three to four more will be issued next week.

Aside from providing a better living situation for the county’s working homeless, individuals involved with the pilot hope it can serve as a proof of concept and convince other organizations to open up their parking lots to expand the program.

“It’s designed to be successful and to be an exportable product that we can get other people to do when we know it works,” said Susan Knopf, a representative with the Interfaith Council and contributor to the pilot. “We’ve approached other churches, government agencies — all over — and they all told us no. Maybe if we can show them that it’s clean and orderly, if we show it can work with the right kind of intake, maybe we can find other places for people to park.”

A bigger problem than parking

Along with not having permanent housing, Kelly said there are many additional concerns for people living in their cars that the program could help to address.

One issue is that parking overnight in most areas of the county isn’t legal, meaning that police officers knocking on windows and asking them to move is a common occurrence — another wake-up call in a night full of waking to noises outside, bright lights or the cold.

Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said it’s an issue his deputies deal with often. In lieu of a citation, individuals typically are directed to an area where parking is permitted.

“I would say it’s nightly,” FitzSimons said. “I think the homeless problem in the county is bigger than people want to acknowledge. But I prefer engaging these folks and finding out what their story is. I always want to inform and educate people, but at the same time, I have a duty to enforce the law. We tell them where they can go at that particular time, which isn’t always convenient for them.”

FitzSimons said deputies would drop by the pilot location on occasion to help assure a safe environment.

Kelly said that by allowing individuals living in their cars to stay in one area, it also would allow for a better support system and communication on important issues in the community.

“We need to be able to communicate with people on the ground level,” Kelly said. “We want to develop that support group for the homeless, where you can get a sense of camaraderie, inspiration and motivation, and you don’t feel like you’re alone. … If they’re in one spot, you can help each other out a little, hand out responsibility and accountability.”

The pilot program — and its expansion to other areas of the county, if successful — is a big step in the right direction, Kelly said, but it’s only a short-term solution to bigger issues facing the community. Working homeless often get caught in a loop, where low wages mix with unexpected costs like storing belongings or paying for showers at a recreation center.

Several stakeholders feel there’s a need in the community for a basic needs facility. Kelly pitched an idea where tenants would have their own small room with a bed and closet, and the rest of the building — including any recreation areas and restrooms — would be communal to keep down on square footage and cost.

“We’d be bringing people together economically, but we’d also be able to inspire and motivate each other,” Kelly said. “You’re providing for your community, and you’re coming away with a profit. … We want to be able to afford our life. We don’t care if it’s small; we just want to be able to afford it.”

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