Opinion | Susan Knopf: Homeless in Summit
For the record
Do you know anybody who lives in a car or a van? I was surprised talking to a very savvy local friend that she was not aware this is a thing in Summit County. Numbers are difficult to pin down. In addition to vehicle dwellers, there are forest dwellers, couch surfers and others. Raychel Kelly wants to see the myriad and diverse homeless population counted in the next U.S. Census.
Kelly is one of the working homeless, contributing to our economy, but getting the short end of the stick. She confidently moved to Summit County, following a successful fashion career. She says she figured, “I made it in L.A. for 20 years, I can make it anywhere.” But she didn’t make it. She suffered some setbacks, including a broken wrist. Now her home is her Mazda3. She admits she initially thought it would be for just six months. It’s been two years. For the moment, she’s got a temporary gig, house sitting for some folks at Lord of the Mountains Church, one of a handful of churches providing day services for the homeless.
She’s committed to helping elevate the plight of the homeless here in Summit County. She’s floated ideas past a number of local leaders in hope we can relieve the housing dilemma facing our workers.
Dylan Alberson and Kelly share some of the same challenges. Unlike Kelly, Alberson doesn’t consider himself homeless. Alberson is a vehicle dweller. His first year living on wheels, he and his cousin set up a travel trailer to accommodate three people. They parked it at Tiger Run RV Resort, but with site rental alone running upwards of $1000 per month plus utilities, Alberson said it wasn’t really an ideal option, not to mention the unit really didn’t hold up to the full-time use of three people.
Alberson says he likes the idea of being self-sufficient, self-sustaining. He’s proud of his van, which he intends to renovate for the third time this summer. He says it holds everything he owns. The van supports his lifestyle. Alberson is a seasonal worker. In the winter he is a ski instructor at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. Last summer he moved his van, his home, to accommodate a variety of work he found interesting. He supported his brother’s motorcycle team as they traveled and competed. Alberson did some waterfront work in Longmont with ski season colleagues. Like Kelly, Alberson has challenges finding a place to park his van at night.
Vehicle dwellers complain they get knocks on the windows in the middle of the night, law enforcement officers or security guards tell them to move on. They can move, but what about their night’s sleep lost? They are still going to work in the morning.
Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons says he has to enforce the law, but sees an opportunity for the community to better support these workers. “They are part of our community, why are we treating them differently?” asks FitzSimons. Alberson agrees. “You can’t have a community without people to work it.” The fact is most folks can’t afford housing on what you get paid up here.
Kelly has an idea FitzSimons endorses. Vehicle dwellers, local workforce and visitors alike could register with local law enforcement and display a placard in the car window identifying them. Permit holders can pay for the permit, or as FitzSimons suggests barter, pay for it with community service, as community stake holders. Any number of places could be identified for overnight parking.
One idea that comes up frequently is using the more than 400 White River National Forest campsites, currently closed for the winter. Sites could be supervised by local campsite hosts, just as many public campsites are supervised during the summer. Participants would sign an enforceable “Community Respect Agreement,” ensuring appropriate behavior and maintenance of our recreation areas. Plowing service would be paid for by user fees. It would be an income generator for the Forest Service, not a drag on its budget.
Alberson seemed to think packing out garbage would be normal for those accustomed to living in cars. Kelly recommends port-a-potties stationed at these regulated overnight parking areas. Service of the port-a-potties would be included in the user fees. Alberson says no other services would really be necessary as car dwellers have no real services now; they just want a place to park, where they can get a good night’s sleep without a knock on the window.
Currently Alberson and Kelly use the county recreation centers for showering. Alberson has his own propane heater, stove, water and solar-generated electricity; but car dwellers need more support services, says Kelly. She’d like to see area churches expand their service hours to the homeless. Long term, Kelly has bigger ideas, and Sheriff FitzSimons is a fan.
Kelly proposes a “Basic Needs Transition Community Facility.” Each person gets his or her own small lockable bunk room. Common areas for cooking and bathing are shared. Kelly hopes to keep the rent down to $500 per month, to encourage participants to save money. “I’ve been trying to save money for two years. I haven’t been able to save,” says the 43-year-old.
For the record, few workers in our community make enough money to cover rent and basic expenses. We all benefit from the work produced by restaurant workers, shop clerks, lift operators and ski instructors. There simply isn’t enough space or money to build traditional housing for our seasonal workforce. We must begin to think out of the box and provide immediate creative solutions for a problem that worsens every tourist season. We all enjoy the views and the lifestyle Summit County offers. We must not turn away from those who serve each of us and make this community possible. We must demand our leaders address this problem, now.
See our digital online version of this column for links to source material. Susan Knopf writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News. The Summit County resident has won awards from the Associated Press and United Press International for her news reporting.
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