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When it comes to people who live in their vehicles, it’s hard, if not impossible, to know precisely how many consider those four wheels their home sweet home.

That’s because they’re lumped in with all homeless people categorized as “unsheltered,” which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as “a place not meant for human habitation (e.g., car, abandoned building).” So the unsheltered number could include those living in cars as well as those who camp or find refuge under a bridge.

USA Today reported earlier this year that while it’s hard to track people without permanent housing, it’s even harder to count the tens of thousands of people who live in vehicles, because they’re so mobile. A homeless advocate in Seattle told the newspaper that “vehicle residency” is one of the fastest-growing segments of homelessness. Feeding into that are folks for whom COVID meant going over the edge financially, leaving them with only the car as a roof over their heads.

Locally, the exact number living in cars doesn’t emerge during annual surveys, but there is one way local service agencies get a handle on the issue.

The Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, which conducts an annual survey and is administered by the Community Health Partnership, partners with community homeless service providers to regularly conduct housing needs assessments with the homeless in which they ask, “Where do you sleep most frequently?”

Those partners in the Continuum of Care who conduct that VI-SPDAT (Vulnerability Index — Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool) include Catholic Charities, Family Promise, The Place, Homeward Pikes Peak, emergency shelter providers and Westside Cares, among others.

In one snapshot of data reported during the week of Nov. 3, 2021, there were 105 people who said they slept in their cars, out of 823 households that were questioned by case managers during a 90-day period, says Community Health Partnership Senior Manager of Homeless Initiatives Evan Caster via email.

That same data reported the week of Nov. 4, 2020, shows only 21 were sleeping in their cars. However, Caster notes the “car” answer was only added to the assessment on Oct. 14, 2020, so many more households apparently identified as “outdoors” (377) or “other” (195) during the time frame of the count.

While the numbers might be fuzzy, “The housing needs assessment helps Coordinated Entry match vulnerable households to available housing voucher vacancies in our community every week,” Caster says.

The Jan. 26, 2020, Point in Time survey carried out by the Continuum of Care found that 27 percent, or 358 of the 1,339 homeless persons, were unsheltered, which includes those living outdoors or in their cars.

Another 621 were living in emergency shelters, and 360 were living in transitional housing.

On Jan. 24, 2021, the Continuum of Care’s survey found 1,156 individuals who were sheltered — an increase of 175 people, or an 18 percent increase from 2020.

The 2021 survey did not count those who were unsheltered, which includes those living in cars or outdoors. The count of the unsheltered was suspended this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic over health and safety concerns for volunteers and the unsheltered population in El Paso County, the Continuum of Care says on its website.

HUD allowed this suspension, says Taryn Bailey, director of communications and partnerships with Community Health Partnership, if an unsheltered count had been completed in 2020, which it was.

The 2020 survey showed that most of those unsheltered people were men (249), and most were white (278). It’s worth noting that Black people were overrepresented, comprising 15 percent of the unsheltered homeless people, compared to Black people comprising roughly 7 percent of the local population as a whole.

Moreover, 23 percent of those staying in emergency shelters were termed chronically homeless — those with a disabling condition for 12 consecutive months or were homeless on four separate occasions in the last three years — while 40 percent of unsheltered individuals were considered chronically homeless.

There are no local laws that bar people from living in their vehicles, but there are ordinances that help law enforcement prevent vehicle dwellers from becoming a blight.

Sgt. Olav Chaney has been with the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) for only 18 months, but he’s already pretty much seen it all.

While he ranks people living in their cars low on the scale of problems associated with homeless people, he still deals frequently with people who rely on their vehicles as their homes.

“We get these calls regularly from citizens in neighborhoods and businesses and sometimes from the Parks Department,” he says.

The HOT team is called out several times a week on complaints that someone has set up housekeeping in neighborhoods in and just outside their cars across the city — though the city’s core area and Westside see more issues than other places.

Some homeless people living in cars are desperate to escape their plight, he says, and heed advice the HOT team provides to seek services. But others push back, feel “entitled,” as Chaney puts it, to live however and wherever they wish, even setting up fire pits next to their vehicles, not to mention creating piles of trash. When the HOT team does cause them to move on, they often leave trash behind for the city to clean up, he says.

The city is armed with some rules to help officers prevent squatters on city streets, but at the end of the day, Chaney says, “It’s not illegal to live in your car.”

But officers can cite people living in vehicles with expired tags, for violating a city ordinance that bars a vehicle from being parked on a city street longer than 72 hours without being moved, and for parking violations. The latter include ordinances that prohibit parking within so many feet of a public or private driveway, within a specific distance of an intersection and in front of a fire hydrant. Persons living in their cars who cast off trash also can be cited for littering, he says.

Those violations generally carry a fine of from $50 to $70.

But issuing citations isn’t the goal, he says. “We try to give them every opportunity to move, so we don’t have to write a ticket,” he says, acknowledging that racking up a fistful of violations is the last thing someone living in their car needs.

“We try to make them understand there are resources,” he says. “We always tell them, ‘Here’s the deal. The Rescue Mission has beds available every single night.’”

That’s important, because as long as there are shelter beds available, police can arrest people for illegal camping and other offenses related to homelessness.

After repeated warnings, officers do have the authority to have a vehicle towed and impounded, though they consider that the last resort and do so only a dozen times or less per year.

“At some point,” Chaney says, “we have to do our jobs, so we end up impounding a vehicle. There’s going to come a point where we have to impound vehicles, because we all have to follow the same laws. They have the opportunity to go to the Rescue Mission. There’s food. There’s clothing.”

Addictions to drugs and alcohol often stand in the way of people seeking refuge in a shelter, he says, where substance abusers aren’t always welcomed.

At times, more serious issues arise from people who live in cars when they rely on criminal activity to survive, such as dealing drugs or stealing or burglarizing homes.

For example, in one case he recalls, a resident complained that a person living in a car stole a propane tank — a popular theft item for those living on the streets and in cars — right off her porch. And that crime victim didn’t have the money to replace it, Chaney says.

“Sometimes, they interfere with businesses. It has turned customers away,” he says.

“Could we use something tougher to get these folks to move along and get their lives in order? People in this city would support that, because they’re witnessing the trash and related criminal activity,” Chaney says.

But Chaney doesn’t have a silver bullet or even a sketched-out proposed ordinance that might address the issue. Meantime, he and the other HOT officers respond to complaints from neighbors and businesses and try to coax those whose home sits on wheels to just move on. 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.