In Santa Barbara, as in San Luis Obispo, home is where the lot is

sfinucane@thetribunenews.comMarch 24, 2012 

Editor’s note: Over the coming months, Tribune Opinion Editor Stephanie Finucane will report on programs and policies that have a track record of alleviating homelessness in other communities. Today, we profile Santa Barbara’s safe parking program, which has been a model for many other communities starting similar projects. Click here to read our recommendations on the safe parking program »

SANTA BARBARA — “Welcome to my kitchen … my front room … my home,” James Frangella says as he stands in his front yard, which consists of a patch of blacktop where he parks his white Chevy van every night.

Inside the van, everything is regimentally organized. Coffee creamers are lined in a row on the floor; a custom-made, fold-down tray big enough to hold a laptop computer is tucked behind the front passenger seat; and a small, portable generator is nestled on an exterior rack that doubles as a refrigerator — perishable food is stored there at night.

For the past three years, this van has been home to Frangella, who migrated to California from the Midwest after his marriage ended and he lost his job as a painter.

He occupies one of the 112 spaces offered to homeless people registered in Santa Barbara’s safe parking program — a program similar to the one the San Luis Obispo City Council approved Tuesday, on a much smaller, pilot basis.

Arroyo Grande’s City Council on Tuesday will also consider a small version of the program for that city. 10 years of success Santa Barbara started safe parking approximately a decade ago, and it has served as a model for other areas dealing with the same issues San Luis Obispo County faces: Economic conditions are driving a growing number of people to live in their cars and RVs, and that’s leading to conflicts with residents and businesses in areas where RV dwellers have taken up residence.

Safe parking is designed to give people a legal alternative to camping on the street, and put them in touch with services that can help them find permanent housing.

Santa Barbara’s safe parking program, which is run by a nonprofit counseling center, is surprisingly low profile; there are no big lines of vans and RVs crammed onto any one site.

Rather, the program operates at 23 lots spread throughout the city and in neighboring Goleta. Some parking lots are city-or county-owned; others belong to churches and nonprofit organizations. Three are owned by private businesses.

The number of vehicles permitted at any one site depends, in large part, on the property owner. Some lots accommodate just a couple of campers, while the largest number at any single site is 15. That’s the lot at the County Administration Building in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara.

‘Concrete campground’

Frangella, who parks there, refers to the lot as a “concrete campground.” Campground, though, implies a vacation spot — a place where people go to enjoy scenery, relax around a campfire and get to know their fellow campers.

Here, there’s little of that. While there is one oceanfront lot — the three spaces there are reserved for families — the majority are standard parking lots that offer, at most, a portable toilet.

Safe-parking participants aren’t permitted the trappings of a campground — no outdoor tarps or barbecues or beach chairs — and there are rules against drugs and alcohol, loud music, outdoor cooking, noisy pets and the like.

Police say there have been few, if any, problems with the campers.

“Somewhere down the line, we might have gotten a noise complaint,” said police Sgt. Riley Harwood, “but that’s rare for people in the program.”

To be clear, Santa Barbara’s safe parking program isn’t a cure.

Illegal camping still occurs on city streets, according to Harwood, who points out that not everyone qualifies for the parking program. Nor is everyone willing to abide by the rules.

But for those who are, the benefits go far beyond a nighttime parking spot.

Support services

New Beginnings Counseling Center, which operates the program on a $125,000-a-year budget, also offers intensive case management.

There are two full-time outreach counselors who put clients in touch with other services, such as medical care, vocational training programs and job placement.

They make sure clients have enough to eat; they help arrange emergency repairs for broken-down cars and campers. Along with a part-time lot monitor, they also check the lots regularly to make sure clients abide by the rules.

Violations don’t happen often, according to outreach coordinator Nancy Kapp.

“Our clients are our biggest advocates and protectors of the program,” she said. “It’s their home. This parking spot becomes their home.”

The goal of the program is to help people find permanent housing, but given the scarcity of low-cost rental housing in Santa Barbara, it’s a tough challenge. Last fiscal year, for example, 49 out of 812 clients in safe parking found permanent housing.

While some subsidized housing is available in Santa Barbara, the supply is extremely limited, and families and the most ill and disabled have priority. Otherwise, it can be years before someone qualifies for housing.

Long waits

Indeed, some clients have been in the program for as long as five years, according to Roslyn Scheuerman, another outreach coordinator.

She estimates that between one-third and one-half of current clients are working. For example, one has a job at a downtown department store, another drives a produce truck, but neither earns enough to afford an apartment.

Others are in school or vocational training programs. Still others are unable to work due to injury or illness, and while they receive disability payments, they’re not enough for an apartment.

That’s the situation facing Linda Morgan, who’s living in a Chevy Blazer with her husband, Angel, and their pet Chihuahua. They were sharing a $1,250-a-month apartment, but when their roommate passed away and the landlord raised the rent by $200, they could no longer afford it on their disability benefits.

They slept — illegally — on the beach, until someone gave them the Blazer as a gift. Now, they spend their nights at a church parking lot.

While Morgan hopes to find housing soon, she’s grateful to have a car and a place to park it.

“It’s a blessing,” she said of the safe parking program. “We’d all be up a creek without a paddle without it.” Back at the county administration lot, James Frangella echoed that.

“I’m thankful that I’m not in the shelter,” he said, “and I’m thankful that I’m not in the bush.”

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