Credit: Courtesy Office of Rep. Salud Carbajal
Julie Bowles

For Julie Bowles, living on the streets had never been in the cards. Born to a well-to-do family, Bowles worked for many years as a real estate broker. But then her mother got sick, and Bowles had to drop everything. Then Bowles encountered serious health issues of her own. No drugs or alcohol, she stated, were involved. Soon, Bowles found herself living out of a 2002 Nissan Pathfinder.

“You can no longer do all the things you take for granted,” she said at a press conference late Monday afternoon. Simple things — such as where to go the bathroom in the middle of the night or charge her cell phone — became significant challenges. For a while, she parked at night by Vista Point near Refugio to stay out of the way. But she worried that the big rigs rumbling by might crash into her. Later, she moved out near UC Santa Barbara but soon found herself chased off by someone else who had the same idea. “It was a territorial thing,” she explained. “It was scary.”

She did not sleep well.

Bowles’s life as a car camper lasted about 14 months. Somewhere along the way, she made contact with New Beginnings, the counseling service that runs the much-heralded Safe Parking program for vehicular homeless people. The ultimate point of that program is to get its clients — about 150 of them now — inside. While Bowles is not back at work yet, she is housed, thanks to vouchers secured on her behalf by workers with the Safe Parking program.

All this came to light Monday afternoon during a press conference convened by Congressmember Salud Carbajal as he unveiled new legislation to fund programs like Safe Parking that target people living in vans, cars, and RVs. If passed, the bill — named after Carbajal’s political mentor and former boss, onetime 1st District supervisor Naomi Schwartz — would set aside $125 million in federal funds over a five-year span for programs helping people who are living in their vehicles. The money could be secured by local government agencies across the country on behalf of such programs with the maximum award of $5 million for the duration of the five years.

As Carbajal noted, the bill is the first of its kind to focus federal assistance to such programs. “It’s kind of a no-brainer,” he declared, citing the much-touted record of the Safe Parking program, which now operates throughout much of the South Coast in 26 parking lots.

The program’s virtues, he said, were not always quite so self-evident. Back in 2004, when then-county supervisor Susan Rose first hatched the idea, there was intense resistance to the program. Homeless people parking in public parking lots in downtown Santa Barbara?

“I know,” Carbajal recalled. “I fielded the calls.”

At the time, Carbajal worked for Supervisor Schwartz, who represented the district in which the program was first launched — in the parking lot right behind the county’s own Administration Building. But it was then-supervisor Rose who stumbled onto the idea.

Former supervisor Susan Rose gazed out her fourth-floor window and realized the empty parking lot would be perfect people living in their cars overnight. | Courtesy Photo

Rose had been scouring the South Coast for a suitable site where people living in their vehicles could park at night without fear of “the knock” — the dreaded 3 a.m. intrusion by law enforcement. But neighborhood resistance was, predictably, intense, and Rose encountered staunch resistance. Looking out from her fourth-story window one night, she noticed that the county administration building’s own parking lot was all but empty.

“I realized then the answer had been there all along, right in front of me,” she exclaimed.

The rest, as they say, is history. Initially, the project was overseen by Catholic Social Services. Then New Beginnings took it over. Applicants are carefully screened. Monitors show up on a nightly basis to ensure codes of conduct are complied with. Restrooms are provided. Only a small handful of residents are allowed per lot. (The county admin lot has the most: 10.) Food is provided on occasion, as is technical automotive assistance or help for residents trying to navigate tricky bureaucracies. The goal, always, is to get people out of their cars and into housing. That requires intensive case management.

All of this takes money that’s painstakingly cobbled together with a patchwork of public and private grants. If Carbajal’s bill — co-sponsored by Doug LaMalfa, a conservative Republican from Northern California — were to pass, that funding could help underwrite such expenses.

The demand for safe parking spaces, everyone agrees, has escalated sharply in response to COVID. Of the 1,900 documented homeless people living throughout Santa Barbara County, fully one-third are believed to be residing in vehicles. The real number is no doubt considerably higher.

“You know there are a lot more people out there than people can even imagine,” said 1st District Supervisor Das Williams, who succeeded Carbajal as county supervisor. “There are lots of people out there — hundreds if not thousands — who are invisible living in their vehicles. They’re invisible; they’re trying to be invisible.” Many, he added, had jobs and “looked for all purposes like normal members of the housed community.” The answer, he said, is obvious. “We need to become YIMBYs, Yes in My Backyards.”

At last week’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting, it was stated that four 91-year-olds were living in their cars. In the last 900 months, New Beginnings executive director Kristine Schwarz estimated Safe Parking served 300 people and housed 70. Supervisor Williams stated that in the past year, the program served 600. The program shields participants from the fear of violence and police intrusion. Residents, Schwarz said, can “get a good night’s sleep.” Most of the residents are advancing in age; 80 percent are older than 55. The fastest growth is taking place with people over 65. People in their eighties and nineties are not uncommon.

By most reckonings, the Santa Barbara program has been a great success. The number of complaints has been negligible, and a host of other communities have looked to Safe Parking as a model for programs of their own. Schwarz said she’s been contacted by 65 other communities from a dozen states and two countries. More than 135 copies of Safe Parking’s how-to manual have been mailed out, 30 to other municipal entities.

“We’re a success,” declared Carbajal. “I don’t know how much more perfect a look it can get.”

For all the accolades — including a glowing write-up in Rolling Stone magazine — Schwarz has found her way blocked. Getting new parking lots into the program, she said, is very difficult. Neighborhood opposition is fierce. Big, obvious lots, like the one owned by Sears, are tangled up by complex ownership structures. The Earl Warren Fairgrounds are more logistically complicated than they might seem at first blush. And she’s gotten nowhere trying to negotiate deals with any of the many California state government agencies that own lots throughout the county.

The good news, she said, is that Safe Parking has negotiated deals with the cities of Lompoc and Carpinteria to open new lots there. But even those, she said, have proved logistically complex.

Schwarz said she’s been lobbying Congress for years to introduce such a bill. Carbajal waited until the timing was right. There would have been no point, she said, with Donald Trump still in the White House. With Joe Biden now president, she said, Carbajal’s bill stands a good chance of passage.

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