Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The city is considering an initiative that will open up empty lots to those who sleep in their vehicles.
At night, many of Los Angeles’s parking lots sit empty, while the estimated 9,500 homeless people who live out of their vehicles rove city streets looking for a place where they can legally park and get some sleep.
What they generally find, however, are various restrictions on overnight parking or on oversized vehicles.
But relief may finally be coming as the city considers a “safe parking” initiative as part of its $2 billion plan to end homelessness in L.A. The initiative would open up certain parking lots—like those in front of churches, city buildings, or nonprofit agencies—at night for those who sleep in their cars, according to The Los Angeles Times.
It’s a program that L.A’s neighbor, Santa Barbara, has implemented for 12 years to help get its homeless population off the streets. Run by Santa Barbara’s New Beginnings Counseling Center in cooperation with local government and nonprofit agencies, churches, and businesses, the program has made 115 monitored parking spaces available. Campers stay there overnight, but must leave by morning.
L.A.’s consideration of such a plan comes on the heels of a report released Wednesday by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority estimating that there are nearly 47,000 people homeless on any given night in Los Angeles County—a 5.7 percent increase from the year before. In the city of L.A., homelessness has increased 11 percent over that period, to 28,464 people.
For those who’ve made homes of their cars because they’ve lost their jobs or can’t afford rents in L.A.—named the least affordable city in the nation in a 2014 UCLA study—the city hasn’t always been on their side.
A few years ago, the city began aggressively enforcing a 1983 ban on sleeping in cars after the wealthier residents of Venice, a economically split neighborhood, pressured police to increase patrols of the homeless. A federal appeals court reversed the ban in 2014, calling it “constitutionally vague,” but as Kevin McManus, a homeless man living in an RV, told the public radio station KPCC, parking restrictions started cropping up wherever vehicle dwellers slept:
In the meantime, McManus said a growing crop of "no oversized vehicle" parking signs seems to trail him wherever he goes.
"They're playing musical signs," he said. "They’re not saying it’s illegal to live in your vehicle, they’re saying it’s illegal to park them here."
As for the safe parking initiative, L.A. isn’t the only city eyeing such a solution to homelessness. In 2013, Central Arizona Shelter Services in Phoenix, Arizona, leased a parking lot big enough to fit 60 cars. Earlier this year, a faith-based group in Vancouver, Washington, started reaching out to churches to open their lots. And in Portland, Oregon, the city’s mayor is looking to use parking garages in the city’s downtown areas as camp sites.
But some cities haven’t seen the success that Santa Barbara has. San Diego’s Vista Church had opened up its parking lots to the homeless in 2012, but a year later, city officials ordered the program to be closed after receiving complaints from nearby residents. Citing safety concerns for both the homeless and the volunteers, the organization that ran the program officially ended it in 2013 despite protests from the church.
And in Seattle, Washington, where the first “safe lot” debuted just this February, the city’s mayor announced that a second one won’t open due to high costs. The program has also sparked concern from nearby residents and complaints from the homeless using the lot about the program’s strict rules—no drugs, no smoking, and no leaving the lot at night.
But just as bans on sleeping in cars have become a trend, according to NextCity, Santa Barbara’s solution to homelessness is catching on. And while it probably won’t solve L.A.’s dire homeless crisis—or the nation’s, for that matter—it’s at least giving some struggling individuals and families a good night’s rest.