Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Safe parking program plugs away


When CNN picked up the story of Santa Barbara’s RV Safe Parking Program, a flood hit the phones and email inboxes at New Beginnings Counseling Center, a local nonprofit that runs the program.
Within two days, Dr. Gary Linker, executive director of the center, received 300 messages, many from other media outlets looking to cover the program, which secures a safe place for the “mobile homeless” to park overnight — in city, county, church and nonprofit lots.

“It has just become a media sensation,” Dr. Linker said.
But more importantly, the widespread attention has attracted other communities looking to replicate the parking program, something very near and dear to Dr. Linker’s heart.
“I think we need to address this on the national level,” he said, adding, “We need to find ways to get them off the street wherever possible.”
Helping out folks living in their cars or RVs has been a process of stages for New Beginnings, starting in 2003 with a few lots and slowly building up to today’s total of 58 spaces and more than 100 clients.
In September 2007, the program earned the financial support of Santa Barbara city leaders, who voted to fund an outreach worker and allow its expansion into city and business lots.
More than simply finding a safe place for vehicle dwellers where they won’t be awakened by an officer rapping on their window and telling them to move along, the program seeks to get participants out of their cars for good.
A full-time case manager and the part-time outreach worker spend a large amount of time trying to find supportive housing for their clients, enrolling them in substance abuse treatment programs, or helping them find jobs.
“This program is a needed stepping stone for our clients to find stability, communication and compassion,” Dr. Linker wrote in a letter to City Council. “Once they are in the program we can guide them into the right direction.”
During an update report to the council on Tuesday, city staff and leaders praised the success of the program.
“The passion of your staff and the work they’ve done with their clients has made the difference,” Councilmember Das Williams told Dr. Linker.
Transportation Director Browning Allen also noted that since September, the program has assisted 20 clients to transition into permanent housing or substance abuse treatment programs. During that time, no complaints have come from the police department or public.
Nonetheless, overnight RV parking on city streets has remained an issue. Allen said the city’s restriction on parking recreational vehicles on Cabrillo Boulevard overnight has been successful, as have limitations around Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens and Alameda Park.
But problems have remained in other regions, such as the Montecito Street and Calle Cesar Chavez area.
“They’re not just parking there, but personal belongings are ending up in the public right-of-way,” Allen said, displaying a photo of items near an RV scattered along the sidewalk.
As a result, city officials are considering a permit parking program in some areas and planning a public meeting on the topic.
Dr. Linker said his staff workers have continued to conduct sweeps of city streets, placing a flyer on windshields of RVs informing owners of the safe parking program.
“But many of these folks like the freedom of coming and going as they please,” he said.
An estimated unmet need of at least 180 vehicles remains, he added, as well as a crucial need for those transitioning from a hospital or a home ravaged by fire.
Dr. Linker said he is looking into creating an all-hours lot to help out those folks for a month or two until they can get back on their feet.
So as a four-page spread in People magazine and follow-up stories by CNN start pouring out to the public, and organizers field more interviews from outlets as far away as New Zealand, the work continues.

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