Residents in the Palo Park neighborhood have reported people living out of vehicles near their homes, according to the Boulder County Sheriff. Credit: Harry Fuller

Boulder County officials are considering an ordinance to allow officers to ticket people for living out of their vehicles on county-owned land. 

The number of people sleeping in cars is a symptom of rising homelessness across the county, officials say, and it has drawn the ire of residents concerned about people cooking food with propane tanks and leaving behind trash outside their homes. 

“When you buy a home and have kids in the yard and a really run-down, unsightly motorhome pulls up in front of your house and people camp out, community members get very upset,” said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle

Pelle said his office requested the county draft the ordinance in light of recent complaints from residents in Palo Park, Twin Lakes and other areas of unincorporated Boulder County. He said officers have been issuing parking tickets to deal with the complaints. 

“We needed a tool to help move folks along,” Pelle said of the ordinance. “We had no method of doing any kind of enforcement without an ordinance.” 

The proposed ordinance, which was presented to the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, March 29, would impose a $300 fine for a third offense of residing in a vehicle for more than 24 hours over a seven-day period on county land. 

It defines residing as “sleeping, cooking, or otherwise engaging in activities of daily living, including having and storing paraphernalia of daily living such as clothing, personal hygiene items, or cooking equipment, or using shelter including any cover or protection from the elements other than clothing (such as a tent, sleeping bag, vehicle, or other structure or material).”

Sheriff Pelle said county officers have typically received 20 to 30 complaints per year. The number has been rising since the start of the pandemic, he said. 

“I think the majority of them were people experiencing homelessness and this was some kind of inexpensive way to find shelter,” Pelle said of the people sleeping in their vehicles. “It’s a bigger problem than I have an answer for today. We can’t just allow folks to move into neighborhoods and establish a camp.” 

‘Where are they going to go?’ 

Both Boulder and Longmont prohibit sleeping in cars as part of wider — and controversial — policies for dealing with homelessness. Prohibitions on camping in public spaces have prompted protests and civil rights lawsuits in Boulder and across the county. 

The City of Boulder’s camping ban received heightened attention last winter as the city’s largest homeless shelter in North Boulder, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, turned away dozens of people due to limited capacity, according to city data. Meanwhile, eviction court filings continue to inch upward in both the city and county of Boulder, court data shows. 

For those unable to find another home, advocates for homeless residents say more people are turning to their cars for temporary shelter. 

“Some people living in their vehicles are employed and staying in vehicles to accumulate money to pay deposit and first month’s rent,” said Jennifer Livovich, the executive director of Feet Forward, an organization that provides services to people experiencing homelessness. 

“They are choosing to do that as opposed to renting a hotel for $80 to $100 per night and never getting out of it,” she added. “It’s a vicious cycle once you enter a hotel room, it is day-to-day living for many people. They will never be able to accumulate the money necessary to move into what would be considered stable housing.” 

Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement (HOPE), a nonprofit that runs the homeless shelter in Longmont, provides parking spaces where people can sleep in their car legally. Earlier the year, Alice Sueltenfuss, HOPE’s executive director, said its SafeLot program was experiencing rising demand. 

“Lack of affordable housing and the pandemic have added to the problem. Our SafeLot program is seeing more and more people having to walk away from apartments they no longer can afford and staying in their cars,” Sueltenfuss wrote in an email to the Boulder Reporting Lab. 

Such programs are intended in part to help people struggling to keep housing get their financial footing sooner. 

“The opportunity to bring someone like that into a supervised lot — to give them the respite from sheer survival that allows them to get back into a job and back into housing — is enormous,” said Bill Sweeney, who serves on the board of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, an advocacy group working to create more places where people can sleep in their cars. 

Data on the issue is incomplete at best. An oft-cited survey by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative to track homelessness across the Denver metro area does not report recent data on how many people are sleeping in vehicles. But some estimates indicate more than 1,000 people in the region are living out of their cars. Residents in Denver neighborhoods have been complaining about the issue, too. 

“People are being driven out of their homes,” Sweeney said. “Where are they going to go?” 

Supervised parking sites unlikely

The City of Boulder and Boulder County do not have publicly listed supervised parking sites for people experiencing homelessness. 

Sheriff Pelle said such parking spaces should be part of the county’s homelessness solution. But he said the question is where to allow it and how to pay for it. 

County Commissioner Claire Levy said she has heard from people requesting  to open the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont for a supervised parking site. But she said the costs to hook up water and provide sewage and trash disposal should be invested in affordable housing. 

“We’re not supporting that,” Levy said. “Rather than putting resources into getting people a place to park, we think we should put resources into finding housing for people.” 

The county will host a public hearing, likely in May, on the proposed ordinance before deciding whether to adopt it.

John Herrick

I report on housing, climate, health and local government for the Boulder Reporting Lab. I previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. I’m interested in stories about people, power and fairness.