When it comes to preventing a growing segment of people from falling into chronic homelessness — women, men and families living in RVs, vans and even cars — you’d expect Los Angeles to be ahead of the curve. 

After all, the number of so-called “vehicular” homeless in LA rose to 8,500, according to last year’s count by LASHA (Los Angeles Services Homeless Authority). And it’s expected to increase even more in this year’s count, soon to be released.

But you would be wrong.

The Los Angeles City Council did approve starting a “safe parking” program in 2016, which went into effect February of last year, but so far less than a handful of places have been designated as safe parking lots here. 

They include a Methodist church in South LA, an Episcopal church in Koreatown and the Veterans Administration complex in West Los Angeles. Two are run by the nonprofit Safe Parking LA, which is supposed to provide outreach and case management in addition to overnight parking.

Los Angeles also has an interim program called “Green Streets,” which offers designated parking spots for homeless living in vehicles. But there are few statistics on how many homeless individuals and families actually make use of these spots, which can only be found on a website. 

Our lawmakers and community leaders, in short, have come late to dealing with this growing homeless segment. And that’s especially true compared to a Central Coast community known not only for its affluence, but also for its sizable homeless population, many of whom live in their vehicles.

Since 2004, Santa Barbara has had an ongoing Safe Parking Program that’s provided safety and stability to hundreds, maybe thousands, of mobile homeless. Want to know more about how this city of 92,000 has been helping these folks who have fallen into this new brand of poverty? 

Just ask 66-year-old Judy, a onetime middle-class mom who now lives in a 1978 Chevy Coachman RV.

“I owned my own home in Goleta, and my adult son pitched in to help,” she told me on a recent Monday afternoon in Santa Barbara. 

Judy, who preferred not to give her last name, retired working for a large defense contractor after 20 years when her then-34-year-old son broke his back.

“That kind of was the downfall of losing our home to foreclosure,” she recalled, “because now there were all these medical bills to pay, and they gave me a date when we had to move out.”


Falling into homelessness

We were sitting on a soft sofa in the sparse headquarters of Santa Barbara’s Safe Parking Program. Judy has been in the program now for almost four years.

“Two days before I was to be evicted, I found this secondhand RV in Canoga Park. I took almost the last money that I had and bought it,” she went on.

But finding a place to park, especially overnight with the city’s then-evening-only ban on RV parking, was indeed a challenge. 

Even when Judy was able to maneuver the RV into a double spot, she could count on being awakened by city police officers knocking on her door, telling her to move on. But she never slept soundly anyway, even for a couple of hours, worried about how somebody not as committed to safety as the cops could easily break into the ancient Chevy Coachman.

Those new living conditions were never in her plans. 

“This is still all new to me,” she stressed. “If you asked me five years ago if I ever thought I’d be living in an RV, I’d tell you ‘Absolutely not!’ But life changes so fast.”

A few years ago, however, a man spotted the old RV in a supermarket parking lot and walked over to tell Judy about the Safe Parking Program, where she could at least park safely overnight. And 3 1/2 years later — after the program expanded to accommodate both day and evening parking for the homeless living in their vehicles — Judy splits her time between two secure lots in Santa Barbara.

“If it weren’t for Safe Parking, I would be in a whole world of trouble,” she said, “because it’s given me a safe place to park at night and now during the day, too. And it also helps, you know, the neighbors not having an old RV parked in front of their home. I understand their concerns. I really do.

“But the Safe Parking lots are like a home base for me,” she continued. “They give me the stability to go out and look for a place to live. Hopefully, a place will come up soon, because I still want to work part-time. I like to work.”


Case management

Stability underpins the Safe Parking Program in Santa Barbara. Judy can not only rest assured she’ll be going to sleep safely every night without being hassled, but can also depend on a regular, secure spot to park her traveling home, despite the recent enactment of a daytime RV ban in the city.

But the goal of the program goes way beyond that. 

Cassie Roach, the program’s coordinator and senior case manager, explained that because many homeless don’t want to go into a shelter or transitional housing, they never learn about the benefits they qualify for. 

That’s where people like Roach step in to connect people like Judy living in vehicles to private and public services.

“We make out a case management individualized plan that’s just for them,” she said. “And then we see them at least once a month when they come in to renew their parking permits. We see what they’re doing to achieve their goals, which is usually finding their own apartment or getting a part-time job: ‘You said you wanted to do this. Have you made any progress in that regard?’

“We’re not giving them the boot if they haven’t made much progress. It’s just us being able to help keep people accountable and trying to be as supportive as we can. Basically, be a support system.”

Many of the Safe Parking Program’s clients are in crisis. Some women and their children are fleeing domestic violence. Single men often are out of alternatives, so they can’t focus because everything seems to be just crashing down on them. 

The case management plan zeros in on these mental health issues by providing sliding scale counseling from the program’s overall agency, New Beginnings Counseling Center, also in Santa Barbara.

“So we provide them the shelter piece so that they have the stability to work from as a base,” explained Roach. “And then we do the case management services, getting them connected to resources, government benefits and on housing waiting lists. Our goal is to get everyone into stable housing.

“We see ourselves as acting as a safety net to catch people often who are newly homeless from falling further into homelessness. So at least they’ll have some form of shelter in their vehicles. At least they’re not under the elements.”


‘I love my life now’

That evening Roach took me on a tour of a dozen of the 24 Safe Parking lots spread across Santa Barbara and nearby Goleta. Most are hidden away in church parking lots, including one Catholic church. Some are just for women, families or single men. 

Halfway through our ride, we pulled into one of these lots. Roach made a quick phone call, asking a Ford minivan dweller if we could drop by for a visit. We drove slowly across the lot to its dark back side. 

A 64-year-old woman missing some teeth was sitting behind the steering wheel, holding a really big white cat in her lap. Sunny, who also declined to give her last name, had her window down.

“First of all, this is my first rodeo living in my vehicle,” she proclaimed before correcting herself: “OK, the first story living in a vehicle was in 2006, but that was 12 years ago. Then I was all over this country. And even back then there was an invisible society of people, millions, living in their vehicles. But now it’s a lot worse.”

Sunny laughed as she remembered her life as a woman who once “had it all.” She was a dancer, model, actress and photographer who traveled the country. 

Or as she tells it, a person “often indicated, never duplicated!”

After she stopped laughing, Sunny talked about the two surgeries performed on her back. After that, she was effectively disabled, having to fight for disability benefits before burning through her savings and losing her job after 12 weeks of medical leave.

“Little by little you end up with what you have to do to survive,” she explained. “And I ended up with just my vehicle, so I started traveling again.”

Her travels brought her to Santa Barbara, where she had heard about the city’s Safe Parking program. This November will mark three years since Sunny first began calling the lots her home.

“The Safe Parking Program is a haven for people,” she said. “There are people here who have jobs, who work, but they can’t afford housing. OK, they can buy a house up in Bakersfield, but there’s no work up there. So they sleep in their car all week down here, go home and see their families on the weekends.

“But I love my life now,” she added, her voice more upbeat now. “You’re in your own space. It’s safe. They’re not gonna come the next day and say, ‘Leave!’ No way. Safe Parking needs to be expanded nationwide.”

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