M. Terry / SFVS

Yolanda explains how the “Safe Parking Program” led to her and her husband being able to get off the streets and eventually find a permanent residence.

A parking lot in the North Hills United Methodist Church Mission has become the latest attempt to develop solutions toward ending Los Angeles county’s massive homeless problem.

The North Hills Caring Services — which controls the parking area — with support from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and the county Department of Mental Health among others, is operating a six-month pilot program known as the “Safe Parking Program” that began here in September.

The program takes in a maximum of 20 autos and five recreational vehicles a night to give those living in their vehicles a safe place to stay from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The lot is monitored by security workers. Participants, all adults, remove their vehicles from the lot the following morning.

The program also offers showers, breakfast, clothing and gift certificates, a chance to talk with employers, and help with resumes for those working toward a solution to more permanent housing.

“[Homelessness] is a critical challenge we all face throughout the city of Los Angeles,” said LA Councilmember Monica Rodriguez during a press conference at the church on Wednesday, Dec. 12, and in whose district the site is located.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was also on hand Wednesday. And while admitting programs like this are “a drop in the bucket,” Garcetti also said, “it takes 1,000 drops together until the bucket is filled. There’s no magical parking lot where 9,000 vehicles can be parked tomorrow. There’s no high-rise that will take 25,000 people off the street. When every community says ‘we’ve done our fair share,’ we all need to do even more.”

“We will not ‘address’ homelessness. We will not ‘reduce’ homelessness. We are here to end homelessness.” 

Manuel Flores, community liaison for North Valley Caring Services, said those who park here overnight are now referred to them.

“We’re targeting a specific demographic, which is persons new to homelessness,” Flores said. “It’s not long-term housing for RVs. And not a lot of RV participants want to be in a structured program. They want to be left alone on the street.”

“More than anything, we hope to show there is no ‘footprint’ for the neighborhood. Other churches are skeptical about opening up a program, and they are looking at us to see how it works. We’ve had zero incidents so far. And the neighborhood has embraced the program. They don’t feel it, they don’t see it.”

According to Flores, nine people that have been part of the program have gone on to find a more permanent solution.

The church parking lot is one of five sites currently operating in the program that first began in Santa Barbara. This is the first site in the north Valley, and also the first program to accept RVs as well as autos.

City officials are hoping to open at least two more sites by June 30, 2019 — the end of the current fiscal year — and have an overall goal of creating nine such sites in LA county.

The sites, Garcetti said, will be a place for those accepted “to stabilize their lives. That’s what this does here.

“‘Safe Parking’ is not something for neighborhoods to fear. It’s the opposite. People are already living in their cars and RVs. The question is, will we give them services and showers, a place to do laundry, connect them with a caseworker who can help bring them a home.”

The mayor added that funding was already available to extend the program at the church beyond the six-month trial.

Peter Lynn, LAHSA executive director, said his agency funded North Hills Caring Services with $84,000 to cover the program costs, including security, staffing and meals.

“This is the first one here in this part of the Valley, and the RVs are pretty important. They are large, and many parking lots don’t want to accommodate them,” Lynn said.

One woman, identified as Yolanda, said she first came to the program because of the ability to take showers.

“I was sleeping in my car. I would have police come knocking on my window at three o’clock in the morning, waking us up. Me and my husband parked with friends because they were afraid,” she said.

“When ‘Safe Parking’ opened up, I was in here the first day. And let me tell you: I can sleep comfortable now. Not only that, I’ve gotten a place to live. I do volunteer work at the church, the showers for the homeless. I have a lot to thank them for.” 

Another participant, Cynthia Jerro, said she has been homeless nearly two years. She also came into the program in September.

“I have a small car, and [being able to park here at night] is safer. It’s working for me and my friend Lisa. Me, her and her son, we are together in our separate vehicles,” Jerro said.

“I understand fixing the homeless problem goes off in a lot of directions. But I’m not a criminal or drug addict. My father did a reverse mortgage, and before he could put my name on the mortgage he passed away. I got stuck out here.”

This year the LAHSA reported an estimated 52,765 people as being homeless in LA county — and that was a decrease, the first such decrease in four years. The highest total ever reported by the agency was 55,048 in 2017.

Actual numbers can fluctuate because there are still a number of people who will not let themselves be included in the homeless counts made by various social agencies.

Garcetti — who was heckled on Monday by protesters, including homeless advocates, while trying to give a speech at USC — was asked if the enormity of the homeless situation is creating fatigue, restlessness, or even worse, indifference from the public who may want more immediate, larger scale solutions to the problem.

“I don’t care about talking and debating. I care about doing,” Garcetti said. “That same day, we had trained 100 [outreach] workers, we opened up another new facility at the VA, and broke ground on more public housing.

“[Dissenter’s] have fears that come from a real place that you have to address. But that doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop. I’m committed to this. Somebody’s gotta fight even in the tough times when people will criticize. This took decades to create. It will take some years to end. But it is a solvable problem.”