Colorado mountain towns lack affordable housing, car camping sites


SALIDA — Blocked from sleeping in vehicles parked within municipal boundaries, workers in profit-minded Colorado mountain towns now must seek “safe outdoor space” — in Walmart lots, forests or newly designated areas with Wi-Fi and access to bathrooms.

But homeowners oppose these SOS zones in Salida and Breckenridge as “band-aids” encouraging vehicle-based living. And workers who park there are charged $300 a month in Salida and $45 in Breckenridge ($80 if rec center showers are included).

Salida leaders also are purchasing camping trailers, for workers to rent for $650 a month, positioned east of town by the sewage disposal plant next to tiny homes.

A camper beats couch-surfing and saves commuting time from forests, said Annie San Ramon, 18, who lives in one of the first five. She timed out of foster care, wanted to stay in Salida, where she was born and raised, and pedals a bicycle to work that includes volunteer help for restorative justice.

“It’s affordable. It gives you a safe place to be,” San Ramon said.

Annie San Roman, 18, closes the ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Annie San Roman, 18, closes the screen door on her trailer in Salida on Aug. 2, 2022. Across the state, mountain communities are grappling with a lack of affordable housing.

Colorado’s widening kibosh on sleeping in vehicles adds to festering pain beneath the state’s recreation-oriented tourism and house-buying economic fervor. Towns are transformed and celebrated as mountain amusement havens where river rafts and mountain bikes glide. But an intensifying housing squeeze hits workers hardest and now threatens service. These new accommodations have emerged as government-backed efforts to retain workers and also keep parking spaces free for visitors and well-to-do newcomers.

Across mountainous western Colorado, cars as cocoons for sleep and sanity serve as last-resort shelters helping hundreds who provide services stay around. Yet “parking is at a premium,” said Margaret Bowes, director of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, welcoming the creation of new designated overnight lots.

“It’s just a safe place to park where people aren’t going to be bothered by police,” Bowes said. “These are the people keeping our communities running. We need them here.”

Not that vehicle living is easy for workers who, after completing shifts cleaning, cooking and shop-keeping, can face disapproving glances and have to slip strategically into toilets and showers.

Local business manager Scott Link, 45, recalled: “the things that come with this — the depression, the paranoia” — after a three-year stint “trying to keep a really low profile” while living out of a white camper truck with his two pit bulls.

“I was losing my mind. I was close to killing myself,” said Link, who moved back to his native southern California for a change of venue after his grandmother died and then found housing with his girlfriend in Buena Vista, 24 miles north of Salida (pop. 5,752).

The Colorado Sports Recycler shop he manages has become a popular hub where he and colleagues inject humor into hard times by creating bumper stickers.

“One less Sprinter” stickers, poking fun at the high-end Mercedes camper vans roving around the West, quickly sold out.  “Now, it’s like even living out of your car is gentrified,” explained Brendan Gibbs, 37, sitting with Link in the shop one recent evening before heading back to his latest public land parking spot. He earns nearly $30 an hour building towering houses he reckoned he could never afford.

Next bumper sticker in the works: “Salida: where the locals live in motels and tourists stay in houses.”

The squeeze has intensified as the internet enables expanding commercial use of housing for short-term rentals and a COVID-19-era influx of well-to-do people fleeing dense-packed cities drives up prices.

Salida is having a hard time ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Salida, pictured on Aug. 2, 2022, is one of many popular mountain towns whose businesses struggle to find workers as housing costs have risen.

“Security should be a human right” and “it is a shame that, when you are bleeding, you have to fight to get a band-aid,” said Salida activist Corey Riggs, 37, the leader of Bringing Everybody Through the Crisis of Housing (BETCH). Riggs supervises the town’s new SOS lot in Centennial Park by the pool, coordinating Colorado Bureau of Investigation background checks and collecting fees of $100 a week or $300 a month from workers before window-sticker parking permits are issued.

She pointed to friends in Salida who had to leave jobs for lack of housing and lamented a loss of community feelings. She and fellow activists turned to city council and for months endeavored to persuade homeowners to allow an overnight parking zone.

In Breckenridge, activist Raychel Kelly, a fashion industry pattern maker and sample sewer who runs a cleaning service, launched the Good Bridge project using a church parking lot that gives safe space for 14 local workers living out of their vehicles.

“People are trickling further down into different economic existences” including use of cars, beyond transport, as shelter. And workers, to be productive, must have basic needs met — “simple things like good sleep and food,” said Kelly, who is negotiating to designate a second safe zone in Breckenridge and convene “Bridge Group” civic conversations.

“People are doing the best they can and problem-solving within their reach. A van payment sometimes is more cost-effective and more healthy than continuing to rent,” Kelly said. “Our goal with this is to accept people where they are economically so they may still contribute to their lives and the community in a healthy, prosperous way. ….. They don’t just work in these towns. They live in these towns. They add character and culture.  They purchase things just like everybody else. And they even volunteer.”

Yet critics argue SOS zones could become magnets, like soup kitchens, and contend living out of cars shouldn’t be accepted even if the economic system squeezes workers.

“It is a band-aid for sure. It is no way to live,” said Ryan Matthews, 49, a local brewing industry leader who owns a house half a block from the new parking area.

His spouse who works at a nearby public library opposed it. Matthews said he can tolerate the arrangement as a temporary remedy, in part because rules prohibit using tents and cooking.

“It’s not like they’re hanging out with their cooler beer and getting loud,” he said. But he envisioned better, more humane solutions.  “We need affordable housing. Just start making tiny houses.”

Salida’s town administrator Drew Nelson helped establish the SOS zone as a temporary remedy, forced by average house prices topping $700,000 with even the “affordable” options developers are required to provide costing up to $435,000. He’s also expanding city-owned camper rentals.

“We are throwing the kitchen sink at this,” Nelson said.

A sign marks a space at ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

A sign marks a space at Salida’s Centennial Park where workers can live in their vehicles on Aug. 2, 2022. Salida is spearheading a program to help with a shortage of affordable housing and workers to fill lower-wage or service industry jobs. On this night no one was staying at the park.

The designated overnight zone in Centennial Park by Salida’s public pool won’t be a magnet because only workers sponsored by employers can receive window-sticker permits, Nelson said. “This is designed for the workforce, not just whomever is rolling into town.” Similarly, the campers are available only for workers.

Mayor Dan Shore supported these innovations, navigating neighborhood criticism by emphasizing economic imbalances with houses costing more than ten times the annual median income of around $60,000. “These are workers who serve you and your families.”

But longtime resident and logger Kirby Perschbacher, 70, demands better, urging town leaders to focus on broader economic problems rather than settling for a temporary fix. Perschbacher sees newcomers flocking from cities and transforming Salida as the problem.

“They don’t want to work. They want somebody to serve them. They are creating a servant class,” Perschbacher said. “Our workers should be paid enough so that they don’t have to live out of their cars. It might be better not to put a band-aid on it. This is a pretend fix.”

The cost of parking in the designated lot may be an obstacle. Only a handful of workers have used it since it opened at the end of June. Rafting industry workers who currently camp on company property are expected to take advantage after Aug. 15, when artificial releases of water from a federal reservoir to ensure sufficient flows in the Arkansas River end. But the SOS parking ends in October, before snow falls, which would leave rafting workers in a lurch if they need housing to stay and work in Salida.

In Crested Butte, town manager Dara MacDonald said the number of people living out of vehicles “has absolutely increased” and that leaders are considering an overnight parking zone and other support. Town officials created a program where workers can park in driveways and sleep “if you have a willing landowner.”

Toilet and shower access remains a challenge, though a ski resort lodge now offers fitness center passes for a fee so that workers can shower, MacDonald said.

“We need to understand this more. We do have public restrooms. They generally self-lock at night. Do people have no place else to go?”

Businesses are backing the safe space, and calling for more, because they need workers to stay open.

At Amica’s Pizza Microbrew & More in Salida, owner Michael McGovern, 39, a French-trained chef who grew up in the foothills west of Denver, camped with his own family three months on a lot he owns last year to save $10,000 on rent.  The owners now provide housing for 13 of their 60 employees. They also provide yoga and ski passes.

“You have to give your employees benefits,” McGovern said, estimating costs of training a worker at $5,000. He suggested state intervention with Gov. Jared Polis declaring an affordable housing emergency so that federal emergency funding could become available for creating housing for workers living out of vehicles.

“If they can do it for hurricanes,” he said, “why can’t they do it for us?”

Michael McGovern, partner and general manager ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Michael McGovern, partner and general manager of Amicas Pizza, helps fill drinks at the bar in Salida on Aug. 2, 2022. McGovern said employers in town have a hard time finding workers, but Amicas Pizza has had success keeping their employees because they do extra things like buying them ski passes and offer some housing in a seven-room-home that the restaurant bought specifically for employees.

Worker shortages increasingly hit home. At Holiday RV in Poncha Springs where Salida purchases its campers, manager Dara Kort lost an employee who’d been living out of a vehicle even after the company helped provide housing.

“She said she couldn’t handle the stress” of showing up on time each day, said Kort, who added that camper sales have more than doubled over the past 18 years up to 500 annual sales. The prices have increased as high as $120,000, more than what people here used to pay for houses, with solar panels and satellite links. Buyers typically are city folks leaving urban areas, sometimes with children, she said. “They think it’s a simpler life.”

Kort also owns a campground. The fees for camping range from $22 a night to $56 a night at a KOA facility west of Salida. On BLM and U.S. Forest Service land, rangers increasingly enforce 14-day limits on parking and camping in one place, struggling to manage human impact on delicate natural terrain.

Meantime in Salida each night, police patrol streets looking for violators. They can point to a growing number of “No Overnight Camping” signs. They shine lights or knock on windows of vehicles where they suspect occupants are camping.

”It is rough. I always tell people: ‘Salida doesn’t have many resources for the homeless. Walmart is the resource we can give. This city is strict on no overnight camping,’ ” Officer Leo Flores said.

At the Walmart in Salida, parking for the purpose of sleeping in a vehicle is limited to one night.

Some people secure permission from business and home owners to park on private property, but even with that permission there are limits for camping in town, Flores said.

And he said police enforce the prohibition on sleeping in parked vehicles against occupants of  Mercedes Sprinters and other high-end campers — just as they do for listing old Winnebagos and battered sedans with windshields covered to block light. “I’d look for a light inside late at night.”

Two swimmers take an evening dip in the Arkansas River in Salida on Aug. 2, 2022.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Swimmers take an evening dip in the Arkansas River in Salida on Aug. 2, 2022, as patrons dine at a local restaurant.


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