Summit County homeless advocates readjust after initial COVID-19 response
BRECKENRIDGE — Summit County’s overnight safe parking program is starting to pick up interest again from working homeless individuals in the county after nearly disappearing in the early stages of the COVID-19 shutdown.
Last summer, the Summit Colorado Interfaith Council helped to launch a local overnight parking program at the Church at Agape Outpost, allowing working homeless individuals in the county a safe and reliable space to park their cars and sleep overnight.
Diane Luellen, who oversees the program for the Interfaith Council, said that after a dramatic decrease in usage earlier this year, the program is again coming back to life. The program was reduced to just a single individual early this summer and has gradually increased back to seven users. And more are applying all the time.
“When COVID happened, like many other places, we lost most of our clients because they either lost their jobs or something else happened where they left,” Luellen said. “So we really dwindled in March. But we’re picking back up, and our numbers have really climbed recently. Whether it’s good news or bad news, we’re growing again.”
It was less than a year ago that the program’s organizers gathered inside the county commissioner’s chambers in Breckenridge to ask for support in expanding to new sites. An expansion is still on the group’s list of priorities— particularly finding a spot for people who work at night and sleep during the day — but Luellen said those conversations with the county have been tabled for now as officials continue to work through the economic and public health impacts of COVID-19.
The parking program hasn’t been static during that time, however. Over the past few months, organizers have been working to restructure the program, handing over control of the operation to a new committee attached to the Interfaith Council called Unsheltered in Summit.
The committee already has renamed the program — shifting from the Local Overnight Safe Parking Permit Program to the Summit Safe Parking Program — and is getting to work to make operations more efficient and provide additional services in anticipation of future growth.
“We’re just trying to streamline the management of it,” Luellen said. “As people come into the program, they fill out two questionnaires, and those can now be filled out online or transferred online so that someday if we do have more than one parking lot, all that information would be available to whoever is managing each site. It’s been a learning process, but we’re getting there.”
The group is also in the early stages of developing a new initiative called the Angel’s Program, a fund that would help individuals in the working homeless community by providing small loans for emergency expenses, like car repairs to make sure they can get to work. Luellen said the Angel’s Program also could help to fund additional services in the future, like helping community members with budgeting and legal issues. Luellen noted that the committee hopes to get the program up and running in the next few months.
The Unsheltered in Summit committee is also partnering up with another local group called the Homeless Essentials and Resource Team to create more widespread dialogue and action around supporting the county’s homeless population.
The HEART committee was established by the county’s public health and human services departments at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that individuals who are homeless still would able to find the resources they need during extended business closures.
“When this started, human services and public health really had to be on top of things in regard to COVID and emergency management,” said Joanne Sprouse, the county’s human services director. “Part of that is being charged with taking care of vulnerable populations and access and functional needs. So we really needed to make sure this was up and running and these issues were taken care of. But now we’re looking into the future, and we’re transitioning a bit. There’s a better chance with more people involved we can continue doing great work.”
Today, the HEART committee exists as more of a decentralized community collaborative, composed of representatives with the county, Family & Intercultural Resource Center, the NorthWest Colorado Center for Independence, Unsheltered in Summit, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, local faith groups and more.
Sprouse said that in addition to continuing to meet the expanded needs of the homeless community during the pandemic, the group also has started talks about how to better support the population long term through things like promoting better outreach, social work and access to programs like the Summit Safe Parking Program.
“We figured there were two group’s talking about the same vulnerable population, among others,” Sprouse said. “We thought it was good that Unsheltered had a voice at the table. … And I’m really hoping this gets its own legs and continues, because we’ve done incredible work with COVID. And this group of people that joined the call have done a wonderful job reaching out to this population.”
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