Mike Sawyer remembers what it was like to be “normal.” For nearly 60 years, he lived a “pretty normal” life. He grew up in Pacific Palisades, served a stint in the U.S. Air Force, moved to Santa Barbara in 1972, and attended UCSB. Along the way, he wound up owning two wholesale food businesses grossing about $2 million a year in sales, got involved in investments, coached sports, got married, got divorced, and had a daughter, who still lives in town. He got to know a whole lot of people. He never got rich, but that was never the point. Coaching, it turns out, was. Bringing people out of their shell; developing hidden talents; helping students get into schools they never thought they could attend.
Somewhere along the way, life took a hard left turn on Sawyer — not his real name — and he soon found himself living out of his car. “It was teeny,” he recalled. Ten years later, he’s gone through a van and now calls his SUV home. “Think Jeep Cherokee,” he said, describing his current digs.
Most people who take to car living do so for about 12-18 months, according to the people running the Safe Parking Program for the New Beginnings Counseling Service, which provides a sunset-to-sun-up four-wheeled housing program in 26 parking lots throughout the South Coast for people like Sawyer.
“I grew up normal, okay?” Sawyer reflected. “I came from an upper middle-class family, went to good schools, and lived a normal life.”
But economic reality brought Sawyer to a confounding fork in the road. “I can’t afford to live in Santa Barbara, but I can’t afford to leave it either,” he said. His daughter lives here. His grandson lives here. His coaching lives here. Sawyer — pushing 70 — brings in about $20,000 a year, including Social Security. He’s on all the affordable housing lists, but for the time being, he’s living something of a double life.
“If someone met me, they wouldn’t know I was living in a car,” he said. “They would be dumbfounded.” Sawyer has zero interest in advertising the fact. “I know a lot of people,” he explained.
According to recent statistics on Santa Barbara’s homeless population, Sawyer is one of more than 600 people countywide living in their vehicles. Of those, about 262 live in the City of Santa Barbara. And of those, 156 are staying in parking lots managed by Safe Parking.
With homelessness now achieving heightened critical mass as a public health and public policy challenge, much attention has been spent on expanding the county’s inventory of permanent transitional housing. But those efforts are expensive and time-consuming. Parking lot housing, by contrast, offers the possibility of a more immediate fix.
With homeless service planners fearful of a tsunami of new COVID-related evictions this summer, the need for quick fixes could become even more urgent and immediate. According to Cassie Roach, director of the Safe Parking Program, no fewer than 20 percent of her residents lost their housing because of COVID-related job loss. Some hit the streets, she said, anticipating evictions that were never served, not realizing that state and local ordinances protected them from such legal action. “They were trying to be responsible,” Roach said.
In response, the county has authorized funding for 80 additional Safe Parking spaces over the next three years. But finding new parking lot owners willing to join the program has long been a challenge, Roach said. Neighborhood opposition, she said, has been an issue. To date, she’s signed contracts for two new lots and expanded the number of spaces at two lots already in the program. Combined, this has increased the number of spaces by 20.
Roach, who graduated from UCSB in 2015, said she “sort of stumbled” onto the Safe Parking Program, first as a volunteer, then as a case manager, and now as director. Before that, she had been on the pre-med path and had worked as a medical assistant for a couple of doctors in town. “I was the one who took your vitals,” she said.
To provide more comprehensive service, Safe Parking now offers two case managers instead of just one. Parking-lot monitors make the rounds every night, and residents have to sign up again on a monthly basis. Typically, only a handful of cars and vans are allowed on a given lot at a given time. The largest number is 15. Local churches provide the majority of lots, but the City and County of Santa Barbara have provided three each. New Beginnings provides insurance for all participating lots and a 24/7 phone line for complaints.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, RVs make up only about 20 percent of their roster. About 84 percent of the guests, she said, are 55 and older; 70 percent are men; one third are working. Very few, she stressed, have substance-abuse issues. “Many do not consider themselves homeless,” she added.
All lots have porta-potties and hand-sanitizing stations or access to restrooms. MarBorg, she said, offers free septic services for RV dwellers. “That’s huge,” she noted.
Guests have to be in their place by 7 p.m. and out by 7 a.m. The goal is to transition residents into permanent housing. In the past 10 years, this has happened about 600 times. During the pandemic, Roach said, more landlords have become more willing to accept tenants who pay with Section 8 housing vouchers. More people, she said, are renting out single rooms.
Roach said she loves the challenges of her job. “Every day is different. Every challenge is new,” she said. When people die in their van, it’s up to her to track down next of kin and figure out who takes possession of the remains. When people get sick, it falls to Safe Parking to help.
It also falls on Roach to negotiate deals for new parking lots. Naturally, she gets lots of questions about the enormous Sears parking lot at La Cumbre Plaza. That lot, it turns out, is a jigsaw puzzle of different lots owned by different property holders. “It’s not that simple,” she said.
When Mike Sawyer hit the streets, he did so on his own. Cops, he said, would sometimes hassle him. On one occasion, officers — concerned about drugs or guns — wanted him to empty the contents of his van. That would have taken three hours, he said. He resolved the situation by texting a friend on the force, a captain. By signing up with Safe Parking and staying in its lots, there’s no longer any risk of such hassles. “That’s huge,” he said.
He starts the day — as he did before he hit the streets — with a cup of hot gas-station coffee. “No Starbucks poofie stuff,” he said. For breakfast and lunch, he eats healthy food bars. For dinner, maybe it’s chicken and vegetables at Panda Express or a salad at Vons. Once in a blue moon, he’ll splurge and buy himself a meal of steak and potatoes.
Before COVID, Sawyer was signed up at an athletic club so he could shower regularly. With gyms closed, he now showers at his daughter’s home while babysitting his grandson. He enjoys rewarding relationships with both. Equipped with a cell phone, an old-school transistor radio, and a portable TV, Sawyer stays on top of the news. He can go where he wants and do likewise.
“I can watch TV anytime I want,” he said with a chuckle. “I just finished a 16-square Sudoku puzzle.”
It can be a lonely life, he admits, and not one particularly conducive to romance and dating. But then, he added, he was a pretty solitary guy before. At times, he gets depressed. But that’s no different, either. A bathroom, he acknowledged, would be nice. But if he needs a porta-potty, he knows where they are. When he needs to pee, he has a gallon plastic bottle for just that purpose. Late at night, he stretches out on a Posturepedic foam mattress and gets a good night’s sleep.
“When I turn off everything and climb in the back, I close my eyes, and it’s dark. It’s pretty much the same when I climb in my bed when I was living in an apartment.” Sawyer expressed ambivalence about moving back into more traditional housing. His monthly income vacillates too much for him to qualify. And what would he be getting? “I’m not a victim,” he said. “I’m a person who made a lot of decisions in my life, and this is where it led me. To me, I live a pretty normal life. It’s not too much different than when I was in real life.”