Opinion: Homeless who live in cars part of distinct culture

David Heitz

Giuseppe Mondi/Unsplash

During the year I spent homeless in Denver, and even today living in housing for the formerly homeless, I have come to know people who live in their cars.

Looking back on my own spiral into homelessness, I kind of wish I had kept my car so I could have safely slept somewhere when the money ran out. Homeless shelters proved violent and dangerous for me.

But people who sleep in their car have their own set of problems. Until now, Denver hasn’t shown much compassion for those who snooze in their Chevy, Ford, or BMW. But the city announced last week it will spend $150,000 with Colorado Safe Parking Initiative to create and maintain two safe parking spots in the city.

‘Hundreds’ of Denverites living out of cars

Officials with the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, which already runs a dozen safe parking lots on the Front Range, estimates ‘hundreds of people in the metro area live out of their cars, according to their website.

One safe parking site is located in Southeast Denver. Exact locations are kept secret. The Colorado Safe Parking Initiative is searching for a second site in Denver which also will be funded by the city.

According to a news release by Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, the two sites will serve an estimated 60 households through the end of 2023. The Colorado Safe Parking Initiative gives priority to those newly homeless. People who stay at the safe parking spaces must first apply and receive a permit. The lots are not open to drop-in vehicles, which is one reason why locations are kept confidential. There is a waiting list of about five weeks for those who qualify, according to their website.

Churches generally host the safe parking spaces, which include restrooms or portable toilets for the parkers. There also are sinks and sometimes showers. Case managers help parkers move on to more stable housing. They also receive referrals for employment, mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

Nick van-den Berg/Unsplash

Car dwellers often tidy, employed

I knew one person who lived out of his BMW SUV. The car looked to be in fine condition. He washed it every day.

Joshua Naidoo/Unsplash

He had been parking the car in the lot where I live at Fusion Studios. But even at properties managed by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, ongoing overnight parking generally is not tolerated. This person eventually moved on.

The area where I live, Central Park/Park Hill near Martin Luther King Park, has several people living out of their cars. But you probably would not recognize most of them unless you walked the same neighborhood every single day.

People who live out of their cars frequently park alongside parks, like Martin Luther King Park. They seldom bother anyone and stay very quiet. Most are reclined in their seats sleeping.

Sometimes people who live out of their cars will pop the hood. The idea is if the hood is up the car looks broken down and you won’t be shooed out of your spot as quickly.

These people, and their cars, frequently look quite tidy. Many of them are working full-time at jobs that never could pay a Denver rent. I knew one guy who worked for Uber Eats, for example, who lived out of his car. Another worked at Subway.

Places to park scarce

But there were plenty of nights this person stayed with a friend inside Fusion. He explained that living out of the car becomes cramped and messy, especially if there are two people. And there’s nowhere to go to the bathroom unless you’re near a park with an outhouse.

Mitchell Hartley/Unsplash

When I experienced homelessness, I stayed at Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter for a while. I ended up getting thrown out for fighting, and simply moved to an encampment across the street. There, many people would roll into the area around Crossroads starting around 4 p.m. and park their cars. They stayed in them all night and seldom interacted with the other encampment dwellers. They never caused any problems.

Living in a Mini Cooper

Lance Anderson/Unsplash

I remember one guy that had a Mini Cooper who lived out of his car. He appeared to be from a family with money based on the visits by his mother. She would come and take him out to eat and try to get him to stop living out of his car, which was almost brand new.

One night this guy was tripping pretty bad. He spray-painted the Mini Cooper with squiggles. I remember the look on his mother’s face when she saw it, like she was not terribly surprised.

This guy would fall asleep in his car after being up for several days. He would be locked inside the car with the windows up, asleep, when it was 100 degrees outside. I remember several of us suspecting he had died inside the car when we did not see him for several days.

This guy had great manners and was well-dressed. But he loved living life without any responsibilities. He admitted to being an intentional junkie.

Another guy who lived in his car at Crossroads also appeared well-mannered. This guy believed in many conspiracy theories. He ended up selling his car and going inside the homeless shelter. He said maintaining, insuring, and putting gas in the car became too expensive.

I don’t know what happened to any of the above-mentioned people who lived in their cars. I know of two people who live in their cars now. When I see them, they look down-trodden and wore out.

According to the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, they received more than 1,700 calls for help between October 2017 and May 2022. The new Denver sites only will serve a fraction of the people who need a place to park at night, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at NewsBreakDave@gmail.com

Denver, CO

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