Cops: Increasing number of people living in cars at Aspen park-and-ride lot
November 25, 2016
PITKIN COUNTY — The number of people sleeping in their cars at the Intercept Lot has increased in recent months to the point where it occurs just about every night, sheriff's department officials said this week.
"It's more than what it used to be before," said Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan. "It's becoming common practice for some and it wasn't until somewhat recently."
Pitkin County, however, doesn't have an ordinance prohibiting sleeping in a car by the side of the road or in a parking lot in unincorporated areas of the county. And while that can cause frustration among deputies who have to deal with sometimes thorny situations involving people sleeping in cars, it is unclear whether the problem is widespread enough to merit such an ordinance.
Ryan, for one, doesn't think a new ordinance is the answer.
“At any given time you find someone actually living out there.”Deputy Jesse Steindler
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"There have been a handful of incidents (at the Intercept Lot)," he said. "It's not a catalyst for county-wide action."
Still, Ryan said if the problem becomes worse, sheriff's department officials will figure out ways to deal with it.
"We need to make sure it doesn't become a form of affordable housing and cause impacts across our transportation hub," he said.
People sleeping in cars at the Intercept Lot — a park-and-ride lot at the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 — has been an issue for about a decade, said Deputy Jesse Steindler. However, it used to be mainly temporary workers who lived in places like Grand Junction, Rifle or Silt and would come to Aspen for work during the week and need a place to sleep, he said.
"Now it's becoming more like transients," Steindler said. "At any given time you find someone actually living out there."
Deputy Ryan Turner, a former Aspen police officer, said he'd like the county to implement an ordinance similar to one in effect in the city prohibiting sleeping overnight in public areas. He said he's run into problems, not just at the Intercept Lot but also in other areas of the county where it would have been helpful to have such a law in effect.
"It's frustrating because legally we can't do anything about it," Turner said, noting that one deputy even convinced someone sleeping in a van recently to move by providing gas money out of his own pocket.
As for people sleeping in cars specifically at the Intercept Lot, Turner said "it's definitely been an issue."
"I was out there a few weeks ago and eight to 10 people were sleeping in cars," he said.
One of the main problems is trash, Turner said. He carries trash bags in his sheriff's vehicle and said he's been known to distribute them to those who accumulate garbage around their vehicles.
There are other issues, though. Deputies arrested Justin Schaaf, 34, for assault at the Intercept Lot one night at the end of October after he allegedly used a hatchet to threaten a group of men sleeping in another nearby car.
In an interview with The Aspen Times, Schaaf said he'd been trying to stop the other men from partying at the Intercept Lot when they attacked him and he grabbed the hatchet for self-defense.
"Why I stay there is people usually keep to themselves and go to work," Schaaf said. "It's not really for hanging out and having fun. People just go back and go to sleep."
Schaaf said he's stayed at the Intercept Lot "off and on for the last six years" because he can't afford a place to live in the Aspen area. He said he tries to find an actual place to live most winters, but recently has spent entire winters at the lot.
The reason, he said, is DUI charges. The Intercept Lot provides a place where Schaaf can park his Jeep Cherokee without it being towed and he can use the nearby bus stop to get to court or a job. It also helps to have the bus stop porta-potties available, he said.
"If I didn't stay up there … I would miss court a lot more than I do," he said.
During the past three winters, Schaaf said two or three people, including himself, have lived at the Intercept Lot. At any given night during non-winter months, about five people sleep in their cars at the parking lot, he said.
Most are locals who work in town and can't afford a place to live, or are people who have just moved to the area and are trying to establish themselves, Schaaf said. Many of those people will sleep in their cars in the Buttermilk Ski Area parking lot during the summer, when it isn't used much, and move over to the Intercept Lot about this time of year when winter activities begin, he said.
"I'm not a bad person," Schaaf said. "I'm not trying to take advantage and freeload. I'm just trying to get (these legal issues) behind me."
Turner said the Sheriff's Office has received several complains about Schaaf, including at least one woman who said he cursed at her after she declined to give him money. Turner also said he doesn't necessarily have a problem with a person sleeping in a car at the lot and going to work in the morning. It's the trash and drinking that cause problems, Turner said.
The city of Aspen's Parking Department provides parking enforcement for the Intercept Lot. Blake Fitch, parking operations manager, said parking employees see people sleeping in cars in the lot but haven't noticed any issues they've caused.
The lot allows cars to park for 24 hours before they must move on, he said.
"As long as the vehicles are moving around, they are not in violation," Fitch said, also noting the county's lack of a camping prohibition.
In about two years, area elected officials will spend about $4 million to pave 200 more spaces at the lot as well as add bathroom facilities and other amenities.
Brian Pettet, Pitkin County's public works director, said he'd be for an ordinance prohibiting sleeping in cars in unincorporated Pitkin County if only because it would provide law enforcement with an effective tool to control problems should they arise. The parking lots are not designed to be living spaces, he said.
"We need to change the regulations and how we manage Buttermilk and (the Intercept Lot)," he said. "I think there needs to be a law enforced."