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Newlyweds Wes Brown and Maritza Wiedel never tire of the view from their bedroom window. They live in Steamboat Springs, where the summits glow pink at sunset and the night sky shows off the Milky Way. And for Brown and Wiedel, nature’s slideshow is always changing: The couple sleep in a van they relocate every couple of days.
They’ve divvied up their white Ford Transit 350 van to approximate rooms in a house. There’s the “garage” in back, where they store their climbing gear and mountain bikes, and the “bedroom” above it, where they’ve positioned a mattress across an elevated platform. The “closet” consists of one van-width wooden rod on which the couple hang clothes, and the “kitchen” includes a three-burner stove, oven, and sink.
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At a glance, Brown, 24, and Wiedel, 23, look just like the #vanlife vagabonds whom wistful desk jockeys can’t stop ogling on Instagram. Indeed, when the couple road-trip to Moab, they easily infiltrate the flock of modern-day nomads that commonly roosts at parking lots with public restrooms. But Brown and Wiedel, who got married in September, have to show up to their jobs in person, every day. Brown is a paraprofessional who supports children with learning disabilities at Soda Creek Elementary School. Wiedel works part time as an emergency medical technician and volunteers on the Steamboat Ski Patrol (to get the free ski pass) while studying occupational therapy through Regis University. Those combined paychecks don’t cover the cost of roof-and-walls housing in Steamboat Springs—at least, not without a gaggle of roommates.
“When we got married,” Brown says, “we wanted to have a place of our own, but even studios cost $1,600 a month.” That’s more than his monthly take-home pay as a paraprofessional. So the couple bought a 2016 van with an insulated roof and a sleeping platform for $50,000; they pay $486 a month on the loan. They then spent their $5,000 nest egg on a multisource heating and electrical system that runs on solar power, propane, and (when it’s available) a plug-in hookup to on-grid electricity. They crossed the tailgate threshold in July 2021, before they’d officially tied the knot, and fell in love with their wheeled abode. The only problem was where to park it.
Like many mountain towns, Steamboat Springs prohibits overnight parking, in part because, in winter, plows need vehicle-free opportunities to clear snow from the streets and lots. Yet Brown and Wiedel are part of a growing number of Colorado workers who have decamped to vehicles because they can’t afford housing. In Steamboat Springs, the average rent for a one-bedroom unit now totals $2,100 per month—a 45 percent increase over last year’s figure. Other resort destinations are seeing similarly high rental rates; consequently, some workers end up sleeping in their cars out of necessity, not choice. Although Denver and other Front Range cities are also experiencing a rise in vehicle-dwellers, the boom is biggest in resort communities, where a subculture of rolling stones prioritizes adventure over housing—and the pools of affordable pads have all but dried up.
All told, this ballooning demographic is taking a toll on public lands and forcing municipalities to reckon with a new type of resident. For decades, wealthy vacation destinations have seen their workers commute from nearby towns because they can’t afford to live amid the mansions. Now, some of those workers are simply sleeping in their cars—parking at trailheads, shopping centers, and public playgrounds with restrooms where they wash up alongside neighborhood toddlers. Such overnight stays are illegal, and some homeowners look askance at those they deem transients. But because these lawbreakers are also the workers who teach local kids and operate cash registers and drive ambulances, communities are starting to reconsider their attitudes toward housing and moving to legitimize the decision to live on wheels.
Ever since the first ski bums arrived with their 200-centimeter Olin skis, Colorado resort communities have included at least a few van-lifers. “I moved here in 1992, and even then, I had friends who camped through the winter because they didn’t want to spend money on housing,” says Sarah Vaine, Summit County’s assistant manager. “They wanted to spend it on skiing and travel.”
Since then, mountain towns’ play-hard-live-peripatetically demographic has only grown, possibly because of the #vanlife phenomenon that’s been playing out across social media for the past decade, or because the proliferation of overlanding gear now makes living in a vehicle more comfortable. Brown and Wiedel, for example, have remote-controlled lighting and an exhaust fan to combat condensation.
Resort towns’ vehicle-dwelling populations have also diversified to include workers who have no romantic ideals about the freewheeling life: They simply hold jobs that don’t pay enough for them to afford housing. That demographic includes many people of color: In Eagle County, where food service represents the largest slice of the job pie (56.6 percent), nonwhite employees make up 32.4 percent of the workforce. “People are working two, three jobs and still can’t afford a place to live,” Vaine says. Diane Luellen, a Dillon resident who founded a faith-based service organization called the Summit County Interfaith Council, refers to this demographic as the working homeless.
Raychel Kelly worked housekeeping and screenprinting jobs in Breckenridge while sleeping in her car, but with city and county ordinances prohibiting overnight parking, she sought a way to create a safe, legal alternative. Through the Family Leadership Training Institute, she developed ideas for a Local Overnight Safe Parking Program that she brought to the Interfaith Council, which partnered with Kelly to launch an experimental solution to give vehicle-dwellers a safe and legal place to sleep. Starting in July 2019, the pilot project allowed as many as 10 vetted applicants to park at the Church at Agape Outpost, located on a secluded parcel of unincorporated county land. After Summit County declared a housing emergency in June 2021, officials achieved a workaround to overnight parking prohibitions by issuing a temporary-use permit for the Agape Outpost lot. That legitimized the initiative (now known as the Summit Safe Parking Program) and paved the way for its expansion: This fall, a second overnight parking site started operating at the Breckenridge Justice Center.
“We have a lengthy set of rules,” Luellen says of the volunteer-managed initiative. Each participant pays a $45 monthly fee that covers trash removal and portable toilets. The program teaches participants how to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning (a potential threat when occupants run their vehicles for heat) and has a no-cooking policy (doing so turns their parking into “camping,” which runs afoul of even more ordinances, so program enrollees eat at restaurants, buy grocery-store takeaway, and fuel up at free community meals). In return, residents are assured a safe, consistent place to take their rest.
“If you’re working as a fry cook or a liftie, you have to have a good night’s sleep or you can’t do your job. All kinds of accidents can happen,” Luellen says. Kelly not only slept better, but also felt more accepted as a member of the community. “People seeking this type of support [for sleeping in vehicles] sometimes end up feeling like rebels, outcasts, unwanted, misunderstood,” she says. That’s particularly true in resort communities with reputations for being paradisial. One expects to glimpse poverty and homelessness in a mega-metropolis, not in idyllic mountain towns where wealthy residents and vacationers appear to be living their best lives.
In truth, Luellen says, resort communities contain both ends of the economic spectrum, and legitimizing the option to sleep in a vehicle can make the upper crust uncomfortable. “I think sometimes the higher-end folks are not fully aware of what it takes to make this county work,” she says, “and how the lower-income folks do the heavy lifting in our tourist economy.”
The last thing deputies want to do is to criminalize that population, says Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, who likes how the Summit Safe Parking Program decriminalizes the decision to sleep in a vehicle. “As home prices and rental costs have gone up and nightly rentals have taken away worker housing, we’ve pushed more people into homelessness,” he explains, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic only seems to have spiked the number of residents who need safe overnight parking. The Summit Safe Parking Program addresses that need, FitzSimons says, and has resulted in zero public safety issues so far.
That spotless record may embolden officials to approve similar allowances in other towns. In Gypsum, Matt Felser is requesting special permitting licenses that would allow overnight parking on land with commercial zoning. The move is both altruistic and self-serving—and born from experience. Before Felser co-founded vehicle outfitter Dave & Matt Vans in 2019, he built out his own van in the parking lot of Vail Mountain School, where he taught middle school Spanish. After leaving faculty housing, he lived in that van for six months before purchasing property. His business partner, Dave Ramsay, has been living out of a van since 2016, when he left his hedge fund job in New York for mountain life in Eagle County. Both used the money they hadn’t spent on rent to improve their financial standings. And, as employers, they believe allowing people to live in vehicles would help local businesses attract and retain employees.
“Nine of our employees live in vehicles, and they are vibrant, thriving community members who you want to have here,” says Felser, noting a recent survey in which 65 percent of Eagle County businesses identified housing as the biggest impediment to hiring the workers they need. So he’s asking Gypsum (and talking with Eagle County and the town of Eagle) to approve public/private partnerships that would let businesses give workers the option of parking their vehicles on company property. If they don’t already have a van or a similarly livable vehicle, Felser envisions an employer-administered program that would let workers make installment payments to buy or rent vans from Dave & Matt.
“The way things work right now, van residents are, for the most part, freeloaders, because they use facilities [such as parking lots and public bathrooms] but don’t pay their fair share [in the form of property taxes],” Felser says. “We maintain that van residents would pay to have a regular place to park, and the income they’re not spending on lodging would be spent locally at shops and restaurants.” By funneling van occupants to existing parking lots and restrooms (employers would provide portable toilets or let workers use the businesses’ bathrooms), the program would reduce impacts on public lands: Workers boondocking around Eagle and other communities have contributed to landscape degradation. Those locations have also struggled with pollution from human waste.
Gypsum’s leadership has so far expressed tentative interest in Felser’s proposal, in part because of rising need. Municipalities across Colorado report a dramatic increase in the number of people living in vehicles. And the initiative would cost very little, Felser says. “It’s a quick, potentially easy fix [to the housing and worker shortages] that doesn’t involve complicated rezoning or millions of dollars for affordable housing.”
Freed from the burden of a salary-sucking rent check, vehicle-dwellers could parlay their van time into a better life, Felser says. “Few people will see this as a lifetime endeavor, but many more people can use this as a bridge option that gives them a way to build their savings or start a business,” he explains. “We’re talking about a way to help people break out of the cycle of poverty.”
By November 2021, Brown and Wiedel had readied their van for winter by insulating the body with wool and fitting quilted panels over the windows. They’d also lined up a network of about 15 local homeowners who let the couple park in their driveways. Some are part-time residents who exchange parking for snow removal. “They like that when they come for Christmas, they don’t have to tunnel through four feet of snow to get into the house,” Brown says. But the couple don’t typically access homes’ interiors, and each morning, they roll into the Old Town Hot Springs fitness center—where they’re paying members—to use the bathrooms. Wiedel jokes that without a toilet of their own, they’re extra careful about what they eat so as to avoid bouts of nighttime diarrhea.
Still, they love the arrangement—for now. Wiedel might seek job opportunities in other locations once she graduates from Regis, so the couple aren’t looking at the van to slingshot them into the local rental market or home ownership. But they agree that legitimizing vehicle living could help solve mountain towns’ workforce shortages, especially because much of that population includes childless young adults who are in a stage of their lives when van living is more viable.
“People assume that living in a van means you’re taking from society,” Brown says. Yet many of the least-paid workers are also the cogs that keep towns’ gears turning. “We give a lot to this community,” Brown says, and because salaries for teacher aides and medical responders don’t cover housing costs, he’d like to see resort destinations support alternate arrangements for those who want or need them. To reference Chris Farley’s famous Saturday Night Live skit, that might actually include living in a van down by the river.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Raychel Kelly’s involvement in the overnight safe parking program.