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'Safe parking' for LA's homeless off to a slow start

In this file photo, a skater passes a van where a homeless person is sleeping July 13, 2004 in Venice, California. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that a 1983 law prohibiting people from sleeping overnight in their vehicles was vaguely written and discriminates against homeless and poor people.
David McNew/Getty Images
There are fewer and fewer places to legally park for those living in their cars in Los Angeles--and a pilot program to provide safe spaces has been slow to develop.

A pilot program aimed at providing people who live in their cars a consistent, secure place to park near restrooms has been slow to get off the ground in Los Angeles.  

Developing a "safe parking" pilot program for homeless people and families was cited by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti as the kinder side of a new parking policy restricting where and when people living in their cars can park on residential streets. That policy formally went into effect in February and prohibits people from living in their cars on residential streets from 9pm-6am. 

The restrictions expire next summer, at which point the city has planned to scale up its parking pilots to a full-blown program. But while the city has issued 71 citations so far for violating the parking restrictions, the safe parking program has barely launched.

In January, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority put out a call for homeless service contractors to operate parking programs in different neighborhoods. But not a single qualified application came through. 

"There are a few reasons that service providers didn’t apply – they did not have a parking lot to accommodate the program or they were anxious because of recent neighborhood opposition to other site-based programs," Carolyn Pruitt, a LAHSA spokesperson said in an email to KPCC. "As a result, the coordination and development of potential lots has been time-intensive."

Alex Comisar, a spokesperson for Garcetti, said in a statement that the parking restrictions are meant to "carefully balance the safety of our streets with the rights and needs of Angelenos who are forced to live on them."

Comisar also said the city is working on expanding its HEART program, which allows people to perform community service and receive substance abuse counseling as an alternative to paying fines. 

And one parking pilot did open last month in South Los Angeles, in the parking lot of a Methodist church that was already providing food to the homeless. HOPICS, the service provider, said four families who live in their vehicles have become regulars in the lot. A fifth family signed up this week. The program has enough space for ten vehicles. 

"The point is to provide them with a safe place, where they can't be harmed" said Takita Salisberry, a program manager for HOPICS. The families in the program, she said, have generally been homeless for a few months. Many of the parents work, but for whatever reason, have not been able to maintain housing. 

"Unfortunately, there are families on the streets already," said Veronica Lewis, division director at HOPICS. "They're parking in dark places to try to hide, covering their children so police don't see them, they're afraid of their children being detained."

They're less safe in such circumstances, Lewis said, and parents report getting very little sleep while they watch over their children. 

"We want to give them the opportunity to at least rest," she said. 

At the safe parking program, HOPICS screens family members before admitting them to the program, to ensure no one presents a known safety risk. Security stays onsite while the lot is open, from 8:45pm to 6am. Porta-potties sit in the parking lot itself. A youth center across the street provides showers (and towels, shampoo, and soap) and a taco truck for dinners. The church provides breakfast and a sack lunch. HOPICS also sends its caseworkers to evaluate families for other services and long-term housing. 

This lot is set aside for families, but Salisberry said she's gotten a lot of inquiries from individuals who need a parking spot. 

"Singles attempt to get in, some have even tried pretending they have children," she said. "This is the first step, but I think we should definitely create something for singles."

Lewis said the city and LAHSA were highly involved in seeing the pilot take off, making sure the funding and legalities were settled.

Carol Sobel, an attorney who's represented homeless individuals in many lawsuits against the city, however, said officials aren't doing enough.

"I don't see the city being serious about this," she said. "They're restricting where people can park and every council meeting brings new restrictions."

Sobel said the city should look into using its own lots for homeless parking and throw more political will behind finding sites for programs. 

There's also a privately funded effort underway, led by Scott Sale, who founded SafeParkingLA, a nonprofit operated by volunteers. They have a site up and running outside a Jewish temple in Bel Air. But it doesn't yet have proper bathrooms or running water, Sale said. 

"We're looking to find more lots that'll accept us," he said. "It's just easy to say, 'no.'"

Other churches around the county, including sites in Pasadena and Malibu discreetly allow homeless to park in their lots at night, without formal programs in place. 

Pruitt said LAHSA is currently in talks with other service providers and parking lot owners to potentially develop more sites for the publicly funded program as well.