An hour before sunset, a Neapolitan-striped RV lurches into the church parking lot near a wooded area on the Monterey Peninsula. A 65-year-old woman named Irene Evers Elisabeth guides the hulking vehicle into a parking space; her dog Buster rides shotgun. They’ll sleep here tonight, like they have for the past month—the first month in years when Elisabeth hasn’t had to worry about waking in the night to a police officer pounding at her camper door, shining a flashlight in her windows and ordering her to move on.
“I feel like I’m inside the law now, as opposed to looking around, trying to keep a low profile,” says Elisabeth, standing in the entrance to her mobile home with Buster at her side. Across the lot, a port-a-potty with running water is nestled discretely within the pine trees. The last sun rays slant through the forest as several more vehicles straggle in: another motor home, a station wagon pulling a trailer, a small passenger car.
Like in most California cities, it’s illegal to sleep overnight in a vehicle in this quaint Central Coast town. The lot is one of six run by One Starfish Safe Parking and Supportive Services, a program that provides a safe place for homeless people to sleep overnight in their cars, vans and RVs in Monterey County. Modeled after New Beginnings Safe Parking Program in Santa Barbara, the program’s ultimate goal is to help people find permanent housing.
“We are a stepping-stone program,” says Chris Belluomini, a social worker for One Starfish. After a background check and in-depth interview, eligible guests receive a 30-day permit to park in one of the monitored, confidential lots. To renew the permit, each guest meets with Belluomini at least once a month. He helps them find housing, increase their income and access health services. The grant-funded program also helps guests with gas cards and expenses such as cell phone payments and vehicle repairs.
But the crux of the program, says Belluomini, is providing people with a safe place to sleep. “That sense of security and peace at night goes a long way, emotionally and psychologically.”
Monterey is among a growing number of California communities that have launched safe parking programs in response to increasing populations of the mobile homeless—people whose dire economic circumstances have left them with nowhere to live but their car. Of the 2,308 people counted in the 2015 Monterey County Homeless Census, 24 percent were sleeping in cars, vans and RVs.
Though no agency tracks statewide data for how many Californians are living out of their vehicles, the public policy law firm Home Base reports that many communities in California have recorded a marked increase. Los Angeles County, which has the largest homeless population in the state, has seen a 120 percent increase in numbers of people living in vehicles, tents and encampments since 2013. In the 2016 census, 4,643 people were counted living in cars, vans and campers in the City of L.A.
These numbers are likely an underestimate, says Chuck Flacks, executive director for Central Coast Collaboration on Homelessness. As a survival strategy, car-dwellers instinctively park in inconspicuous places, making them difficult to spot. It can also be difficult to see people sleeping inside vehicles—especially during night counts.
Experts blame the high cost of housing and low rental vacancy rates—particularly in coastal California—for the increase in mobile homeless. “A healthy housing market has about a 5 percent vacancy rate,” says Flacks. “Along the coast, you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere with a 5 percent vacancy rate.”
He adds that coastal populations are also living at the mercy of “‘the sunshine tax’: People are willing to live here despite lower wages. So you have this sick combination of high housing cost and lower salary.”
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 34 percent of households in California spend over 50 percent of their incomes on rent. Living so close to the margin of their earnings, a single crisis can set them back enough to lose their home. For many, the next best alternative is their car.
“It could really happen to anyone,” says Amanda Staples, program coordinator of New Beginnings Safe Parking Program, which has been operating as a model program since 2004. Partially funded by the city, partially funded by grants, the program hosts 20 parking lots in Santa Barbara, where 115-140 people sleep each night. Later this summer, New Beginnings will release a Safe Parking Best Practices manual.
“All our participants are high-functioning,” Staples says. “They’ve usually just fallen into catastrophic events, such as a loss of a job, medical costs or death of a spouse.”
Kelli Keane, a graduate of the One Starfish program, became homeless for the first time at age 79. She’d been laid off from her job at a rental car company several years earlier and, though she searched for a new job, she found few options because of her age. The $700 a month she received from social security didn’t cover her rent, so she began to live off the little she’d saved for retirement. But the money soon dwindled to nothing.
“I was still making a $100-a-month car payment. So I went in, refinanced the car, and moved into it,” says Keane, an 83-year-old woman with a flaming-red pixie cut that frames her round blue eyes. She lived in her Toyota Highlander for three years. When One Starfish started in 2014, she slept in the safe lot until she found a studio through the program. “It’s only 200 square feet,” she says, laughing a deep belly laugh, “And I call it my palace!”
Without safe parking programs, it’s a precarious line between living in your vehicle and living on the street, says Staples. Three out of four cities in California ban sleeping in vehicles. As car-dwellers accumulate parking tickets they can’t afford to pay, their vehicle may eventually be towed.
“On top of being in hard times, they lose their vehicle—which is their home. Then they have nothing,” she says. “It’s like kicking people when they’re down.”
“The current situation is intolerable for everyone, and we need to provide alternatives for people who are living in their cars in residential neighborhoods,” writes L.A. Councilmember Mike Bonin in a May 2016 newsletter.
David Graham-Caso, director of communications for the Councilmember, says the district office receives frequent complaints from residents, particularly from Venice and Westchester areas, where people living in RVs have created de facto campgrounds. Over-sized vehicles create safety hazards when they obstruct the views of people pulling out of their driveways, and illegal dumping in neighborhoods creates a public health issue, says Graham-Caso.
In response, the creation of a safe parking program was prioritized in the City of L.A.’s recently approved Comprehensive Homelessness Strategy. The City allocated $770,198 of this year’s budget to pilot two safe parking programs, which the Los Angeles Housing Authority is currently developing. “Now we’re figuring out how to remove the roadblocks,” Graham-Caso says, referring to city ordinances and zoning issues.
Once a safe parking program is in implemented, communities still often struggle with public resistance. When Monterey United Methodist Church attempted to open its parking lot to One Starfish guests, angry residents from the surrounding neighborhood lined up to speak at a Monterey City Council meeting in January of 2016.
One resident stated, “We all feel sorry for them, but I also feel sorry for the people who have worked hard their whole lives to buy a house in Monterey, and allowing the homeless to take priority over their property values and safety isn’t right.”
Tia Sukin, founder of One Starfish, says the program has never had a safety problem. Since opening one of their lots near a preexisting homeless encampment, the neighboring residents have actually reported a decrease in disruptive activity, she says. “The guests sleeping there serve as eyes watching out for the property.”
“This is one aspect of homelessness and it’s not going away,” says Kristine Schwarz, executive director of New Beginnings. “I’d much rather have someone parked in a safe place than parked in front of my house, where the criminally minded are much more likely to prey on her and there is no restroom, no case management and no monitoring. It’s sort of a no-brainer.”