Randolph Allen Parker pulls his 89’ Ford Econoline camper van into the safe parking lot run by Project We Hope for the city of East Palo Alto. (Courtesy of Project We Hope)
As the housing crisis wears on, a proposed state bill attempts to help the growing number of people forced to live in their cars. But some cities aren't waiting; they're doing it themselves.
AB 891, by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-El Segundo, would require any city or county with more than 330,000 people establish “safe parking” for those living in their vehicles by June 1, 2022. It’s a concept that’s met with success, albeit on a small scale, around the state already — like in East Palo Alto.
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On a recent Saturday night, a local Christian group called the Sovereign Band provided live entertainment for about 50 special dinner guests, all of them clients of the nonprofit organization Project We Hope. We Hope runs several programs for East Palo Alto, including, as of May 1, its safe parking pilot program.
"Currently, we have 16 RVs, most of them families. Families first, seniors next, disabled, veterans and then everybody else," said We Hope's Associate Director Alicia Garcia.
Thanks to soaring rents, the RV population on local streets has grown to an estimated 50 vehicles. So why is Project We Hope only hosting 16 of them?
For one thing, safe parking is not cheap. East Palo Alto is a modest city, especially compared to its phenomenally wealthy neighbors, like Palo Alto and Menlo Park. But East Palo Alto is picking up the $300,00 annual tab for this pilot program and providing the property it sits on.
Garcia argues A) there will never be a 100% adoption rate on the part of RV dwellers for any safe parking program, and B) transition to permanent housing is built into the safe parking concept, so new spots should open up on a regular basis.
As with most safe parking programs in California, case managers in East Palo Alto help program participants get a stationary roof over their heads. "We’ve already gotten two families into housing. And we’ve gotten several other families on housing lists, because that’s part of the secret, the secret sauce, right? Is to get people on as many housing lists as possible," said Garcia.
People commonly ask whether the RV dwellers are local and, if so, whether they're willing to relocate to cheaper parts of the world. Garcia explains that those who sign up for safe parking agree to aim for housing outside of their vehicles, but typically their jobs are nearby and their children, if they have them, attend local schools. Senior citizens may not be constrained in the same way, but they often feel compelled to stay close to their social support networks.
Randolph Allen Parker, 74, was one of the first to sign up for the We Hope safe parking program. He takes great pride in his '89 Ford Econoline. "Custom classic! That thing has a sit-down toilet in it, a shower that you get in, two closets for clothes and a microwave oven, built in from the factory."
Pride aside, Parker said life on the streets is dangerous for him and his camper van. It's been hit twice when he was parked. He’s happy for the help getting a real roof over his head, as well as the other services that are standard for safe parking programs in California, like free security, restrooms and showers.
"We Hope is like a warm light in dark and stormy times. I got nothing but praise for them and what they’re doing," he said.
According to this year's San Mateo County one-day homeless count and survey, of the 1,512 people experiencing homelessness on Jan. 30, 901 were found living on streets, in cars and in RVs, as opposed to in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs.
Project We Hope's safe parking program is taking in people fleeing much wealthier cities nearby, like Menlo Park and Mountain View. Take Judith Ortiz, who lived in Mountain View for 18 years before her landlord doubled the rent. "I was paying $1,300 for two bedrooms, and it was going to be $2,200 after remodel," she said.
Ortiz plowed into her savings, bought an old RV, fixed it up and then started looking for places to park. She had a cousin in East Palo Alto, but upon arrival, came up against a neighbor who didn’t want her parked outside his house. "She called the cop the first night that I arrived with the RV. I just got here. I just got here, like 20 minutes ago!"
Like many cities that run safe parking programs in California, East Palo Alto doesn't currently provide parking during the day—only from 7:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. That means Ortiz has to park her RV on city streets during the day. But she said the exhausting and expensive hassle is worth it, in exchange for the help getting housing. "Every sacrifice comes with something good in the future, so that’s what we hope," she said.
For Ortiz, that something good is the stability of a regular apartment for her and for her sister and two-year-old nephew, both of whom Ortiz is also supporting.
There are safe parking lot programs in San Jose, Oakland, San Diego, L.A. and, the granddaddy of them all, Santa Barbara, the first to set up safe parking in 2004. That program has provided the model others have copied, typically run by local nonprofit groups and faith-based partners.
While many cities are in the process of developing similar programs, all eyes are on Sacramento to see if that proposed safe parking mandate gets to the Governor’s desk and requires it of all cities.
It’s unusual for a small city like East Palo Alto to commit to being part of the solution to the housing crisis. But, Garcia said, "It’s going to take local solutions. It’s going to take county solutions, regional solutions. Because it’s a big problem."
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