The Santa Barbara Solution
In Santa Barbara, Calif., an ultra-affluent oceanfront city surrounded by mountains, a novel approach is being used to accommodate recently homeless people who are among the more fortunate—they work and can afford cars, gas and insurance and often retain gym memberships for a place to shower.
Every evening, a dozen private and municipal parking lots throughout the city are transformed into relatively safe outdoor lodging for 55 of the estimated 300 homeless people who sleep in their vehicles. Two social workers check the lots each night as part of a safe parking project, run by the local New Beginnings Counseling Center with funding from the city.
For three months, Barbara Harvey, 66, slept in the lot reserved for women only. Propped up by pillows and blankets, Harvey and her two hefty golden retrievers squeezed into the back of her Honda SUV. In August, a friend found her a place in San Luis Obispo, 100 miles away.
A mother of three, Harvey became homeless after she lost her job as a notary and couldn’t afford her $2,150-a-month rent, even with Social Security and a part-time job. But she didn’t want to leave. She was familiar with the city and its resources—so she wound up in the parking lot. “Just having a place to park added stability,” says Harvey. “The dogs were familiar with the area and they didn’t go running off. I felt safe.”
Among her “neighbors” were a 54-year-old woman who shared her compact car with three cats, and a 79-year-old Texan who spoke fondly of her boarding school days.
Gary Linker, executive director of New Beginnings, which modeled the parking program after one in Eugene, Ore., says the high cost of housing in places like Santa Barbara has pushed people into unexpected living situations.
“Communities are recognizing the viability of people living in their vehicles,” he says. “Each may not like it, but when you look at the severe limitations of affordable housing, you’ve got to accept this as an option for people.”
Harvey, like the grandmother in her Jeep, didn’t immediately end up sleeping in her car. Each stayed with relatives, friends and in motels before they ran out of choices.
Nancy Kapp, 50, one of the social workers who checked in on Harvey, was homeless herself years ago when she was raising her daughter.
“Santa Barbara is one of the richest places in the country, and it’s amazing what’s happening here,” says Kapp, shaking her head.
“Poverty has been going on for so long and people ignored it, but now it’s hitting the middle class, and people are paying attention. We should’ve been trying to find solutions years ago.”