Thursday, August 30, 2007

Finding space for the mobile homeless


You might not notice them as you drive through the streets of Santa Barbara at night, but they are there.
Dozens of people spending the night in their car, van or recreational vehicle. And it's Shaw Talley's job to get them off those streets and into parking lots, at least until he can find them a spot in supportive housing.
As the case manager for New Beginnings Counseling Center's RV Safe Parking Program, Talley meets with the "mobile homeless" and tries to find a spot for them in designated church, nonprofit and city parking lots at night.

"These are my grandfather and grandmother, my brothers and sisters," Talley said. "I see someone living in their car and it rips my heart in two."
Sitting in his closet-like office at the Salvation Army Hospitality House, Talley points to two license plates hanging on the wall. One is from the first person he helped find permanent housing. The other is the first client he had that died.
Living in a vehicle isn't easy, he said. Buying gas, dealing with mechanical problems and worrying about someone breaking in keeps vehicle dwellers constantly on edge, not to mention trying to avoid the police, who inevitably come rapping on their windows in the early hours of the morning and order them to move along.
"Our program offers another way," Talley said.
Qualified participants get a safe parking space between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and can take advantage of the other counseling and support services offered by New Beginnings. This year, Talley helped transition 23 adults and four children into supportive housing. He has his fingers crossed that he'll be able to get a 65-year-old woman who has lived in her car for eight years into senior housing at St. Vincent's Villa Caridad soon.
At last week’s City Council meeting, city leaders unanimously approved spending $36,420 for New Beginnings to hire a full-time parking specialist who will screen and select applicants, place them in an appropriate lot and make sure they enter and leave their lots on time. City staff said the funding is partly in response to concerns from residents that program participants need closer supervision.
Until the nonprofit counseling center gets that staff worker, Talley will continue to handle the 46 month-by-month permits currently on file, build trust with the participants and try to find them permanent housing.
"It's not the most ideal situation," Talley said. "You've got a parking lot and someone sleeping in a car. ... But these people have nowhere else to go."
Talley said although many permit holders live in their car alone, he does have a family of four and several couples who live out of their vehicles.
Their backgrounds are varied. Some have been evicted and can't afford another place to live. Others are victims of domestic violence. Still others struggle with mental illness. And although he agrees that there are valid reasons for having a law against sleeping in vehicles on the street, Talley likened the current system of ticketing and towing to a revolving door.
"The old way of giving them tickets and trying to push them out of Santa Barbara doesn't work," he said.
Dr. Gary Linker, executive director for New Beginnings, said the recent city funding will allow the program to expand. Linker has a goal of bringing in 34 new clients looking for a safe place to park at night and moving at least 15 into housing by June 2008.
After the city agreed to alter the municipal code to allow people to sleep overnight in certain commercial and industrial zones earlier this year, Linker has been trying to get local businesses to offer up spots in their parking lots.
Louis Weider owns an office building on Olive Street and said he recently agreed to open up a space in his lot for the New Beginnings program.
“By having someone on the property, that would provide a bit of security,” Weider said. “I also have security services, but if there is someone there with lights on, there hopefully will be less tagging or other nefarious activities.”
Weider said he’s known about the safe parking program for a while, and said as long as the person staying in his lot respects his property, he’s happy to offer up the space.
“There’s a very serious problem of recreational vehicles parked in the street at all hours of the day and night,” he said. “...I don’t mind having someone here if they are responsible.”
Frank Schipper said he heard about the parking program during a presentation by New Beginnings to the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce and volunteered an overnight spot at his construction company office lot on Cota Street.
“It’s so easy to kick these people out of town and say they don’t belong here,” Schipper said. “There are probably some good people who are just going through tough times. Everybody should give a helping hand every now and then.”
Linker said he plans to conduct outreach to other businesses and hopes an endorsement by the Chamber of Commerce will help him reach his goal of finding 25 spots in local commercial lots this year.
Prospective participants go through an extensive screening process, including background checks, Talley said. They are required to have a valid driver's license, registration and insurance. If they qualify, they are placed at a suitable site.
The RV Safe Parking Program grew out of a 2002 amendment to the municipal code that limited the on-street parking of RVs, especially during the night. Due to issues with enforcement and signage, the City Council further amended the code that same year to allow overnight RV parking on lots owned by local churches and nonprofits, as well as a small number of city lots.
Earlier this year, the Council adjusted the municipal code once again to allow overnight parking on private property within designated commercial and industrial zones, also requiring that anyone participating in the parking program receive a permit from New Beginnings.
Since August 2005, the city has allowed a limited number of people to sleep in their vehicle at the Carrillo Commuter Lot after being screened through the New Beginnings program. City officials expanded that agreement in April of this year to the Garden and Cota lots for a one-year test period.
“Other than one or two minor complaints from people who live near the Carrillo Commuter Lot, we’ve had no complaints from anybody who lives near churches or nonprofits,” Linker said.
Talley said his reward comes when participants call to tell him how glad they are that they don’t have to worry about finding a place to park or getting hassled by the cops. Instead, they can focus on getting counseling, finding work and finding a place to live.
“A lot of it is about support,” Talley said, adding, “I think 95 percent of my clients would get an apartment if they could.”


Anonymous said...

I am so happy that someone cares about these people and is not judgemental. We all need a little help once in a while. Thanks, Shaw for your compassion in action! I have always thought that the old drive-in theater in Goleta would be a great place for those living in their cars to park. It is spacious, has bathrooms and electricity...something to think about. I am not sure who owns it or how it could be used. There used to be a flea market there, but I'm not sure they do that anymore. Just a thought...I wanted to help find a solution.

Anonymous said...

Can't we just teach these people to pick broccoli and send them up north to make a living. The vagrants are scaring residents and tourists away.

Anonymous said...

Wat a pleasure it was to read this article. Shaw, I am very proud of you and happy to see your dedication to this project. Visiting you a few years ago, I saw first hand the beginnings of your efforts and its great to hear that you continue to help the homeless of Santa Barbara. Kudos to you - I just hope more people can volunteer part of their time to their community. Agai, congratulations and keep up the great work.

Realist said...

I live in SAnta Cruz where instead of this the City Council is passing laws we call the Parking lot Paranoia law, making it illegal to be in a public lot for more then 15 min. Its directed at the homeless and is a disgrace. I like this approach. I would like to know how much it took to get your city council to do this? We are trying to fight this current ordinance. Any further backround would be great. You can e-mail me is you wish to dicuss this program on a local radio program here that deals with poverty. Thanks!
Tim Rumford