These Parking Lots Give Homeless People a Safe Place to Sleep for the Night

More than 553,742 people are currently homeless in America. But a large percentage of the country’s homeless population isn’t sleeping in shelters: They’re sleeping in cars.
People who live outside or in unfit sleeping environments, such as cars, streets or abandoned buildings, are referred to as the unsheltered homeless, and they represent a large population of homeless in the U.S. Although these populations are challenging to count, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates about 200,000 people are unsheltered in this country.
Shelters might seem like a better option, but cars can provide a sense of control and privacy, and shelter beds can be in short supply. In Los Angeles, a quarter of the homeless population is living out of cars, vans, campers and recreational vehicles, according to the 2018 L.A. County Homeless Count.
Many residential streets have laws that prevent people from sleeping inside their cars, and those that do so risk theft and vandalization. So the main challenge becomes finding a place to rest for more than just an hour or two.
To combat this, a few California nonprofits have partnered with cities and counties to fund safe parking programs, which are parking lots that grant people and families living out of cars a safe and legal place for an uninterrupted night’s rest. The process is simple: Individuals apply online and submit their vehicle’s registration, their insurance and driver’s license. After doing an interview and getting approved, applicants gain access to a lot. Each evening, the lots open and the individuals sign in, sleep and leave the next morning.
But the goal isn’t just to provide a place to sleep: It’s to provide stability and connect the homeless with resources that will help them get into permanent housing.
One of the first safe parking programs launched in Santa Barbara, California, in 2004. Since then, other cities, like Los Angeles and San Diego have developed similar projects.
In Los Angeles, where more than 15,700 people live out of their vehicles, advocates fought a 10-year battle for safe parking, says Emily Uyeda Kantrim, program director of Safe Parking L.A. And they’re finally winning: Safe Parking L.A. launched in 2016 and opened its first lot in March 2018. The organization now has six parking lots, with four more opening by June.
“We bring people on to the lot at night where they have access to a restroom and a guard, and they exit in the morning. It is literally that stripped down,” says Uyeda Kantrim. “Except that we connect them to other services if they’re not already connected.” These services include an element of case management, similar to what an individual would receive at a shelter.
Every 30 days, Safe Parking L.A. receives about 250 requests for spots. About a hundred of those requests are from people who have never accessed homeless services before. Many are employed and have a stable job, but financial barriers, such as child support payments, student loans and exorbitant rent, leave them living in a car.
These people are not going to be prioritized in the homeless service system because they’re able to advocate for themselves, and they don’t have severe healthcare needs,” Uyeda Kantrim says. “This is a poverty issue.”
Uyeda Kantrim says the average length of stay varies: Families which have the highest priority in homeless services might be at a lot for just a few weeks, while a person under 30 with a job might stay an average of six weeks. The average length of stay is about six months.
Each program has different logistics. Some lots offer restrooms with running water for face-washing and teeth-brushing, while others only provide access to a portable toilet. Most operate during the nighttime hours, while some programs operate 24/7. Most locations have an element of security on site, such as a guard or case manager.
And each cost model is different. At Safe Parking L.A., each lot costs about $12,000 a month, with a majority of that paying for state-mandated security. It was originally funded by private donors but is now funded through a variety of sources, including the city and county.
One key to scaling the L.A. program is keeping the lots small: Currently, each one has five to 25 spaces.
“Having a real neighborhood focus and keeping them really small in concept is the thing that will actually allow it to scale,” she says. Uyeda Kantrim says it’s because they’re more palatable to local residents. A lot with 10 cars doesn’t have as large of an impact compared to a lot with a 100-person capacity. The programs also prioritize people within the area, so it’s directly supporting each community.
In Seattle, where 3,372 people were living out of their cars as of 2018, Karina O’Malley and her church saw a similar need for safe parking after the city passed a Scofflaw Ordinance in 2011, legislation that requires cars to be towed and impounded after receiving four or more parking tickets that have yet to be paid.
For O’Malley and her congregation at the Lake Washington United Methodist Church, the solution was obvious: Open their parking lot. After a little research, finding volunteers and acquiring a porta potty, they launched their own safe parking program. Initially, it was just an asphalt parking lot that served one purpose a place to sleep but O’Malley saw the opportunity to engage more with the local homeless community. So the program opened its lot 24/7, and women and families started attending church sessions and events.
“Everybody heard about homelessness, and everybody gave to [the homeless], but they hadn’t actually met somebody who was,” O’Malley says of her congregation. “Just sitting around a table after church and drinking coffee together, seeing so many similarities and commonalities and building friendships, it really pulled down those stereotypes and made the issue much more immediate.”
The church now provides a bathroom with running water, kitchen, wifi, community support and access to resources. Guests are welcome to park in the lot all day, every day, and they can participate in any of the church gatherings.
“Often women tell me that the first night they’re in the church parking lot is the first night of sleep they’ve had since they’ve become homeless,” O’Malley says.
O’Malley and other safe parking advocates are fighting for a good night’s sleep throughout the country. Uyeda Kantrim is coordinating a Southern California Safe Parking Workshop on May 15 that’s free and open to the public.
Representatives from Santa Barbara, San Diego and L.A. will come together to share best practices, problem-solve, and explain how programs cater to specific cities. The team is also building a toolkit so organizations that can’t attend can gain insight on how to launch a program.
“We’re trying to share literally everything we have,” says Uyeda Kantrim. “We want everyone to do this.”
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