A man sleeps in his car.
A growing number of unsheltered homeless are turning to their cars for sanctuary. Some West Coast cities have programs to help them get a good night's sleep. Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The number of unsheltered homeless living in their cars is growing. Safe Parking programs from San Diego to King County are here to help them.

Jamie used to wake up most nights with a flashlight in his face. From the backseat bed he’d winnowed into his SUV, he’d look up to see a police officer rapping on his window. Keep driving, they’d tell him. But Jamie didn’t have anywhere to drive. “I asked them repeatedly, ‘Isn’t there somewhere I can go where it’s not going to be a problem with you?’”

For Jamie, who turned 55 last month, the car was his only destination: It’s where he’s slept for most of the past two years, he says, save a 6-month stint he spent “in the bushes.” After the retail music store he’d worked at for eight years went out of business, he got evicted from his apartment in San Diego, and crashed with friends and family until their goodwill ran out. Then he got a new temporary job as a flooring installer, and the job came with a car. When the gig was over, his employer let him keep the vehicle. And then it became his sanctuary.

Jamie is one of thousands of America’s homeless who, instead of turning to shelters or the streets, live in their cars, vans, and RVs. In many cities where housing prices are high, their ranks, too, are growing. Los Angeles, which reported falling homelessness rates this year, still hosts one of the largest populations in the country: Of the 50,000 total homeless residents, the majority are unsheltered, and about a quarter (or 15,700) are based in their cars. In San Diego County, where Jamie still lives, a January 2018 homeless count found that 1,262 residents lived in vehicles there, although the number is likely higher, because it didn’t include people living in RVs. And in the King County area, where Seattle is located, the entire unsheltered population increased by 15 percent between 2017 and 2018. In that same year, the number of those in their cars leapt 46 percent, to reach 3,372.

(Applied Survey Research/All Home)

Lifting people out of unsheltered homelessness is a challenge that each city is tackling differently—building more, and more affordable, housing; increasing the number of shelter beds; strengthening mental health treatment; softening eviction laws.

But a new cadre of “safe parking” programs are cropping up across the West Coast, too, aimed at carving out space and security for the people homeless services haven’t yet reached.

The first official Safe Parking program was launched in Santa Barbara in 2004, when a counseling center partnered with city officials and local faith leaders to open up parking lots each night for homeless families living out of their RVs, and to connect them to social services. Now, the Santa Barbara program runs 23 lots with 134 total spaces, and has expanded to accept other vehicles. Other California counties like Los Angeles and San Diego run their own versions of the program, and churches outside Seattle, like the Lake Washington Methodist Church in Kirkland, have implemented smaller, more local models.

Now, more cities are catching on quick. Last October, San Jose, whose unsheltered homeless population totaled about 3,200 in 2017, approved a 17-space lot. After it quickly filled with users, San Jose’s planning commission approved another ordinance, according to the San Jose Spotlight, which, if passed by the city council, will allow churches, nonprofits, and schools to open their own. And this year, San Francisco Supervisor Vallie Brown introduced an ordinance to create a “triage center” built specifically for San Francisco residents living in their cars—complete with showers and bathrooms, and support staff. It includes a pilot safe-parking program, according to the Chronicle, or what Brown calls a “Vehicular Navigation Center.”

Cars provide crucial mobility for those who commute to work, but the quarters are cramped: To be able to sleep inside the vehicles, people must bend their backs and knees uncomfortably. A carbon monoxide leak could prove deadly. And while vehicles may be relatively closed off from the elements, their roofs can drip in the rain, and mold can sprout on the windows. Karina O’Malley, Lake Washington Methodist Church’s Safe Parking Coordinator, says that in Washington’s rainy season, many people keep pets in the car to increase body heat, and line windshields with towels or fit tarps over the roofs to keep out wetness and chills. Bathroom access on the road is spread out and sparse; showers, almost non-existent. (“Beach showers [were] fine in the summertime, but when it gets to be wintertime…” Jamie trails off. “It’s not exactly North Dakota here, but it’s been getting down into the low 30s.”)

The hardest part, though, Jamie and homeless advocates say, is finding a space to park undisturbed for the night. “Obviously there’s fear of being broken into, especially while you’re asleep; of having things stolen out of your vehicle, your last safe space,” said Emily Uyeda Kantrim, L.A.’s Safe Parking program coordinator. “But the harassment and people continually having to move their vehicle usually comes from residential neighborhoods.”

Seeing cars loitering riles many housed community members, who associate their presence with increased crime, drug use, and litter. Others complain that parking hulking RVs on narrow streets for days on end congest roads. To address these fears, cities have instituted overnight parking bans that regulate when and where cars can be left on the streets, and who can be inside them. The small California city of Point Reyes just approved an overnight ban on one downtown street, citing environmental and health concerns, and blocked coastal access. Santa Barbara has limited the size of vehicles allowed to park on city streets, specifically targeting RV-dwellers. San Francisco, too, has been adding RV parking bans, with the latest approved for the Portola district last week.

Other cities, meanwhile, have begun rolling back regulations. Last week, San Diego repealed a 1983 ordinance that prohibited residents from living in a vehicle within city limits, according to the Times of San Diego. Though it hadn’t been strictly enforced, the reversal signaled an acknowledgement that “living in vehicles is a necessary survival strategy for San Diego’s large and diverse homeless population,” as Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told Courthouse News. And San Francisco Supervisor Brown’s vehicular homelessness ordinance also calls for lowering “fees and fines that vehicle dwellers can accumulate while sleeping in a car,” according to the Chronicle.

Although America has an estimated 2 billion parking spots for the country’s 250 million cars, the space is contested, and highly policed. “We can acknowledge that there are thousands of parking spaces in Los Angeles that go unused at night,” said Kantrim. Indeed, UCLA transportation scholar Donald Shoup estimates that “14 percent of incorporated land in Los Angeles County is devoted to parking” in his book, Parking and the City.

Some see Safe Parking programs as a better way to activate that unused space. Most lots open up at night to let people drive in, and then clear out during the days. Reserving land for a short period of time “in order to stabilize our most vulnerable population who are actually prevented from being in other safe spaces at night—that's reasonable,” Kantrim said.

It’s simple, says Teresa Smith, the CEO of Dreams for Change, which runs San Diego’s safe parking program: “We’re using parking lots to park cars.”

***

Of course, it’s not actually that simple. Each program operates, and is funded, differently. But they all start with the same premise, says Safe Parking L.A.’s Kantrim: “You have a parking lot. You identify people who need to use it. You have a security guard to check people in at night. You have some reasonable place for them to use the restroom—be it a porta-potty or an externally accessible bathroom. And that’s about it. There aren’t a lot of moving pieces.”

But amenities vary by lot. All of Safe Parking L.A’s lots have at least one toilet, while some of Santa Barbara’s lots depend on external public toilets. When the Lake Washington Methodist Church program first started in the King County city of Kirkland in 2011, the church installed one porta-potty, until Karina O’Malley, the church’s Safe Parking coordinator, realized people couldn’t brush your teeth comfortably in one. “They were staying in a McDonalds parking lot or a Safeway, and felt like there had more amenities,” she said. The church now opens its doors for a few hours each evening and morning for people to use the facilities inside, in addition to running three porta-potties for 24/7 use. The church also provides free Wi-Fi access.

Security measures differ, too. Safe Parking L.A. hires security guards to patrol each lot, which helps both patrons of the program and surrounding community members feel comfortable, Kantrim says. Santa Barbara has two “safety monitors” that double as outreach workers, who patrol the lot at night and in the morning. “They also report back to me, so that I’m aware of who is parking and utilizing the space,” said Cassie Roach, the Program Coordinator and Senior Case Manager for Santa Barbara’s program. “They’re available if a battery dies in the middle of the night, they can jump it in the morning. If there’s an unauthorized vehicle, they can let me know.” Lake Washington Methodist Church only accepts women and children in the lot, offering an alternative to another church in the area that only serves single men.

The challenge for each model, though, is scaling such programs up. Safe Parking L.A. has an agreement with faith communities and non-profits to pay $500 a month for a public lot, no matter how big it is or how many spaces it holds. For publicly owned lots, the city charges them nothing. “That’s an acknowledgment that a public resource needs to be used for public benefit in this crisis mode that we're in,” said Kantrim.

But the program only operates within L.A.’s city limits, and its five sites serve 60 vehicles and about 75 people every night. “[It’s] a lot of resources for a few vehicles, that’s primarily limited by the precise configuration of the lots,” says Kantrim.

San Diego’s is similarly sized, with two parking sites in San Diego County, and 70 total spots. Since its genesis in 2010, it’s served an estimated 2,650 people, according to its website, including 350 individuals and families a year. Santa Barbara’s is the biggest, serving 150 clients, and about another 80 or so are on the waiting list. But its biggest lot has space for only 15 cars, says Roach, and its biggest RV-only lot only holds 10. And San Jose’s program, still in its infancy, serves only 17 cars at a time. It cost $250,000 out of the city budget to get off the ground.

Lake Washington Methodist Church’s 100-space program is not city-supported at all, and costs an estimated $15,000-$25,000 each year out of the congregation’s budget. “But we get about that much in donations from [people] inside the congregation who are excited about the safe parking program,” said O’Malley. Women in the program give back, too: They garden, help clean and paint the church, keep an eye out for burglars, and welcome visitors.

Ande, a 61-year-old who has been sleeping in Lake Washington Methodist Church’s lot for four years, agrees. Her story is a complex one: She developed a condition that makes her sensitive to smells and mold, she says, so she finds it difficult to hold down a job. Half a decade ago, five members of her family died in one year, including her mother. In a fog of trauma, she left her apartment to clear out her mother’s house, and has not been able to afford rent since.

“To have this program—just to have 8 to 12 hours with downtime, and no pounding on the window,” she said. “A program like this is priceless.” When Ande spoke with CityLab, it was just after Christmas. She’d made 30 gifts for people at the church, to thank them for welcoming her.

***

For months, Jamie had been working 12 to 14 hours each day, then returning to his car to sleep. He’d bounce between Walmart parking lots, where a police officer “almost broke [his] window with a light stick;” and settled for awhile in a rest-stop parking lot in Oceanside, California, which he found mostly “hassle-free.”

Finding San Diego’s safe parking program was “like a Godsend,” he says.

Jamie applied for the program almost four months ago, and had to wait a few weeks until a spot opened up in a new lot. He’s been there ever since. There’s a microwave, a bathroom, and a place to wash up. He’s made friends in the lot, who share their food, and swap tips on vehicle living. The program provided proof of residence so he could get a Jackie Robinson YMCA membership, where for $10 a month he can take a shower any day of the week.

“They make sure we had a nice hot Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas dinner,” he said. “It’s nice to feel safe.”

Decriminalizing and facilitating vehicular homelessness is one element of the safe parking program credo; supporting those experiencing it is another. But the last step, Kantrim says, is getting people out of it. “It’s not just about putting someone in a parking lot and saying, okay, now just save up money,” she said. “We talk about it as an intervention—a way of preventing someone from falling further into homelessness.”

All safe parking programs include some element of case management, as the shelter system does. To be approved for Santa Barbara’s Safe Parking program, for example, guests do an initial intake interview where they’re assigned case managers, and then are instructed to check in every month to renew their parking permit and meet with staff. Safe Parking L.A. links eligible people with rapid re-housing services, helps fill out paperwork like car insurance forms, and connects people with mental health providers, if needed.

Often, representatives of each safe parking program say, people living in their cars are experiencing homelessness for the first time, and might not have encountered a city’s full breadth of homeless social services yet. “We’re seeing a lot of individuals and families who had a stroke of bad luck, and this is what they’ve been left with,” said Roach. At least a third (and up to 40 percent) of her clients each year are seniors.

“We …  know that a vehicle is not a place meant for human habitation,” says Kantrim, but it’s also true that there aren’t enough shelter beds to go around in Los Angeles, and that there could be resistance to entering the shelter system at all—it’s hard to immediately see it as a reasonable alternative to keeping the space, autonomy, and mobility that a car provides, she says. And by providing this safe environment, says Dreams for Change’s Smith, “we can see a physical change in people.”

Ande’s four-year stay isn’t typical of Lake Washington’s lot, says O’Malley, but each person has used the space differently. For families with children under 18 years old, case managers are often able to connect them with housing within six months; for single women, there are fewer resources.

Safe Parking L.A.’s program has only been in existence since March 2018, but the average stay is six months, says Kantrim, while Santa Barbara’s Roach says their residents often stay between 12 and 18 months. “There are definitely outliers: Some people self-resolve in a couple of weeks or days,” says Roach. “Some, especially our disabled seniors, are just waiting for subsidized housing waitlists to come through, and that can be years.”

For women like Ande, though, who are living on disability checks of about $750 a month, “there is very little hope of them getting housing,” O’Malley said. “They’re on the housing list, but those are seven to 10 years long.” Though many of her peers in the lot have jobs, Ande is focusing on having enough to eat, and paying daily bills. She told CityLab she is not actively pursuing a path towards permanent housing.

When Jamie entered the Safe Parking program late last year, he was between gigs. He had a lead on work at a San Diego naval base, but hiring stalled during the shutdown. To pass the time, he’d spend most days in the local library, reading books, networking, and looking for other jobs. When the lot opened at 6 p.m. he’d return, slowly building a community, and getting mostly uninterrupted sleep.

And finally, his patience has paid off. Monday is his first day of work.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that San Jose’s city council approved a safe parking ordinance. Its planning commission did, but its city council has not yet voted.

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