After dark, parking a home is a problem. That was clear in 2010, when advocates for the houseless opened the first overnight safe parking lot. And the need goes on.
“The program was a direct result of the recession and increases in transitional homeless I was seeing,” says Teresa Smith, director of the nonprofit Dreams for Change.
But people keep coming. For the past year they’ve had a wait list for the Safe Parking Program lots — one in Chula Vista and one that recently reopened downtown. The need for a wait list rarely happened before, and the wait period was usually less than two weeks, Smith says.
Where do "these people" come from?
“Since this spring, our wait list has been averaging about 30 to 70 vehicles.” They come largely from central San Diego and East County, with the next biggest wave from Chula Vista or Imperial Beach. At the Chula Vista lot, just over a quarter are families with children. Overall, 16 percent come from other counties or states, and far fewer are from North County. The ratio of women to men using the service is about 50/50, Smith says, which means there are twice as many women in motor homes than there are in the general homeless population.
If a driver can’t stake a safe spot to sleep, they’re likely to spend the night tossing and turning. That makes it harder to find work or keep the job that Smith says more than half of her clients already have.
This year’s point-in-time count found 831 unsheltered San Diegans making their homes in cars, trucks, vans, and RVs. Vehicle dwellers weren’t a defined category on the 2008 survey. Smith suspects they are increasing since her program has grown without any advertising or outreach. The regional homeless count, which is required to obtain federal funding for housing and services, is only a rough snapshot.
“Exact data does not exist,” says Dolores Diaz, executive director of the regional task force on the homeless. However, a statewide survey for last year’s homeless census shows a “dramatic increase” of people living in RVs and motor homes, making them one of the fastest growing homeless populations.
Which cities proactively keep street sleep illegal?
At the same time, cities are adopting laws that prohibit shut-eye in cars.
San Diego has five codes that criminalize sleeping, camping, and lodging in public, including in vehicles. A study of local bans by the National Law Center mentions El Cajon, where about half of homeless people lack access to shelter, yet the city restricts or bans sleeping in vehicles.
In February 2015, Imperial Beach adopted an ordinance that makes it easier to enforce their code barring “habitation” of vehicles on streets between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Even the designated Safe Parking Program lots have been targets.
In 2013, a North County city forced one to close, prompting Smith to write in a press release that Vista had deemed it an illegal activity to “support the working homeless in their only asset, their car, in consenting church parking areas.”
Who works the levers to keep it illegal?
Sleep has to happen, somewhere. That’s one reason for the “right to rest act,” the latest statewide homeless rights bill. And since for the homeless it happens in public, cities and business districts opposed the bill, which is now stalled.
The League of California Cities argued that the key to homelessness is affordable housing, not “special exemptions.” The bill’s backers, who are reviving it, say that until affordable housing and enough shelter beds exist, people should be allowed to sleep in a legally parked vehicle. (According to the San Diego Housing Federation, 127,930 affordable homes are needed for San Diegans earning low incomes).
A letter to the state from the City of Coronado says the bill “perpetuates the culture of homelessness,” letting people camp in public without time limits. The San Diego County Apartment Association objected since the homeless might use rental property parking areas. If the bill excluded public parking lots at multifamily housing, they say they would not oppose it.
Senate expected to spell it out this week
In June, there was a new bill: AB 718, which targets only sleeping in vehicles, is scheduled for a vote in the state senate this week. It bars cities and counties from banning or imposing civil or criminal penalties on sleeping or resting in a lawfully parked vehicle. Advocates say it’s a chance to revisit practical options for safe overnight parking.
But Smith says it’s a right that already exists. Last summer, a Los Angeles court upended the local bans.
“Currently, the 9th Circuit Court has already ruled on vehicular residency, striking down any California laws that prevent this,” she says. That hasn’t stopped cities from trying. But parking rules that ban sleep, like the one passed by Imperial Beach, can be challenged.
After the ruling, the City of Palo Alto overturned their ban, which punished sleeping in a vehicle with a $1000 fine or jail time. And it hasn’t kept homeless drivers from signing up for designated safe parking lot spots. All but the RV dwellers, that is. The program doesn’t accept them due to their size, property zoning rules, and, says Smith, because people in vehicles “are more vulnerable on the streets.”
They may be counted as the “unsheltered homeless” but RV dwellers don’t always see it that way. “They typically are not as willing to look for permanent housing solutions.”