Organization Helps Homeless People Sleeping In Cars

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LOS ANGELES — With housing shortages and job losses continuing in Southern California, hundreds of residents are faced with a growing option: to live in their cars.

“Some people may have lost their home or been evicted from their apartments, but still have their car,” said Silvia Gutierrez, executive director of Safe Parking LA. “Many people who experience homelessness prefer to sleep in their car rather than go to a shelter or spend the night on the streets where it can be dangerous.”

Fortunately, the nonprofit Safe Parking LA program is tackling the growing dilemma by activating underutilized parking lots around the city and offering homeless residents a safe place to park their cars at night.

There are approximately 60,000 Los Angeles residents who are currently homeless and about 25% of L.A. County’s homeless population are living in their vehicles which amounts to about 16,000 people who are living in their cars or  vans.

And the need for Safe Parking LA continues to grow. In three years, Safe Parking LA has become the largest safe parking program in Los Angeles. Since opening its first lot in Koreatown in 2017, Safe Parking LA has expanded to nine lots scattered throughout Southern California. The organization has received nearly 3,000 inquiries from homeless individuals experiencing vehicular homelessness and has offered safe parking to more than 650 vehicles since its inception.

“We’re funded through the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority,” Gutierrez said. “Another 30 percent of our funding comes from foundations such as the Jewish Community Foundation and the California Community Foundation.”

Gutierrez said most people have misconceptions about residents who live in their cars.

“Many of our residents have jobs and go to work everyday,” said Gutierrez, who has worked with the homeless population for 20 years.

Gutierrez said that the residents enrolled in the program range from single mothers with children to adult children living with their parents to veterans.

“Our occupancy rate varies,” she said. “Sometimes people stay for the week or periodically during the week.

One of Safe Parking LA’s clients is MJ, 62, who was living in an apartment in South L.A. until he decided it was no longer safe.

With bullets being fired into his bedroom, he quickly abandoned his apartment and chose the option of living in his car. He felt he would be less likely to have bullets penetrating his vehicle.

During his quest for safe places to park, MJ accumulated parking tickets and moving violations which he could not pay.

His car was towed and impounded by the city. He found out about Safe Parking LA through the LavaMae mobile shower program.

MJ applied for Safe Parking LA financial assistance for which he qualified so that he could get his car out of the city impound facility.

Through the Safe Parking case management, MJ is working on his veteran’s benefits and finding stable housing. He also is a volunteer for Safe Parking LA and helps other homeless people who are living in their cars.

“Some of our clients have had health-related crises that have affected their ability to work,” Gutierrez said. “They are spending most of their money on medical bills.”

Despite most of the residents having employment, many homeless are unable to save enough money for the first and last month’s deposit to secure an apartment.

Gutierrez said that before a client can enroll in the program, each person is tested for the coronavirus.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the whole country hard, we immediately do an intake and perform a health screening on each potential client,” Gutierrez said. “We are constantly providing all of the (health) resources so that our clients can get tested. We have  also been handing out masks as well as hand sanitizer, wipes and gloves.”

The Safe Parking LA program attempts to make each resident as comfortable as possible.

“All of our lots have security, good lighting, restrooms and wash areas,” said Gutierrez, who added that clients are allowed to enter the lots starting at 8:30 p.m. and that closing time is at 10:30.

“We also connect the residents in our program to resources such as supportive services and community programs that offer housing to make sure that our clients eventually move on from living in their cars to finding a permanent place to stay,” said Gutierrez, who added that the organization has partnered with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey that offers permanent housing for the homeless.

Aware that maintaining a client’s car is critical for their survival, Gutierrez said that Safe Parking LA also helps with car repairs and assists with car registration.

“We also can financially assist with paying car insurance so that clients don’t lose their vehicles and can maintain a safe place to live,” she added.

“There is also a special parking lot that is only for veterans,” added Gutierrez, who said that the veteran’s lot is located on the VA campus in West Los Angeles. “We have 50 spaces for cars of veterans and currently we have approximately 40 veterans registered. Volunteers from Village for Veterans provide dinner every evening and some of the local churches and synagogues also bring in meals.”

Gutierrez said that she is very gratified to be helping the homeless population.

“I like making a direct impact on people’s safety and ensuring they have a pathway to stability,” she said.

“We are always looking for clients to sign up with our program,” said Gutierrez, who added that Safe Parking LA can be reached at safeparkingLA.org.

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

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