Heather Sheppard lost her home several months ago when her husband’s deteriorating medical condition restricted him from working altogether. As participants in New Beginnings’ Safe Parking program, the couple are able to park their truck each night in a downtown lot, where they sleep until 7:00 a.m.
The couple qualified for a Section 8 housing voucher, as they both suffer from severe, debilitating illnesses. The vouchers have a lifespan of four months, during which peoples’ housing applications are guaranteed by state funding. Unfortunately, the couple have not yet managed to obtain suitable housing, and on Sunday their voucher expires.
Sheppard described how she spends her days searching for a house and walking to the food bank on Hollister. It’s a 24/7 job, she said, but one which has proved fruitless so far.
According to Sheppard, “landlords are often very reluctant to accept those on Section 8.” An additional obstacle is that Sheppard requires a guide dog, which are not allowed in many apartments.
Sheppard lamented the state of affairs that she has landed in. Being terminally ill with late-stage liver failure, cirrhosis, lupus, and hepatitis C, the doctors advised her not to use cleaning products in her house as they could aggravate her liver problems when breathed in. Useful advice, except when one has no home and is constantly at the roadside breathing in car fumes.
The Safe Parking program has been a tremendous help to the couple since they lost their home, said Sheppard. Over 100 people now take part in this pioneering program that aims to give greater security and stability to homeless people in Santa Barbara.
New Beginnings representatives meet with program applicants, and attempt to assign them to one of 21 safe locations, which can serve as their place of residence from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. each night. Applicants must have a car, which they park in their designated lot and sleep in during the night hours.
Previously, homeless people sleeping in their vehicles would be moved on by police patrols, or even targeted by thugs. Now, the participants can park up in safer locations, such as the County Administration Building and Mission Street car parks. Volunteers keep a watch on these areas at night, and the police are aware of participants’ right to be there. The system also provides counselling and establishes an action plan for each participant.
Homeless people who do manage to find a house usually accomplish it within a 2-6 year period, according to New Beginnings coordinator Nancy Kapp. The potential benefits of Safe Parking can be seen by the fact that 46 people graduated from the scheme into housing within the last year.
However, these people benefited from a special opportunity to move into newly available Section 8 housing, which is unlikely to happen again soon. Kapp says that the US housing market collapse means that most Safe Parkers are “caught in limbo,” with no real chance of ever moving under a roof.
Snowfax Walkingshaw is one of the 46 who managed to obtain Section 8 housing after a long, arduous search. She and her son both have a degenerative spinal disease. She said that her condition was a serious handicap in her housing search, because it was difficult to access many of the buildings even when she could afford the gas to drive there.
Walkingshaw believes that many landlords prefer to take those on Section 8 who are depressed or have addictions — people who the landlords can push around, she claimed. “I don’t allow that,” she said.
Nancy Kapp reported that Santa Barbara’s pioneering scheme has been adopted in other cities. Representatives from Ventura, San Luis Obispo, and Los Angeles, have all come to be informed and instructed on Safe Parking. With similar programs starting up as far as Eugene, Oregon, the future is slowly starting to look safer, but a lot remains to be done.