In California, Safe Parking Lots Offer a Haven for the ‘Mobile Homeless’

Chrystal Audet and her daughter, Cierra, pictured here with their dog Coda, are among a growing cohort of working Americans living out of their cars.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

One of the fastest growing segments of America’s homeless population is people who live in their cars, R.V.s or other vehicles.

In many ways, it’s a sign of the worsening squeeze on the nation’s middle class. Compared with those living in tents and shelters, the so-called mobile homeless are more likely to have jobs or to be actively looking for work, a U.C.L.A. study found. Many lost their homes after being unable to afford rent or their mortgage, and had to move into their most valuable possession.

But living in a car comes with risks — of burglary, harassment and more. That has led to the creation of safe parking lots, designated places for people living in their vehicles to stay overnight. Dozens of such lots, often outside of churches, have opened across the nation in the past five years, a testament to the severity of the homelessness crisis.

“Cities aim to build affordable housing, but the timeline for doing so is measured in years,” Rukmini Callimachi, a housing reporter for The Times, told me. “The question becomes: What do you do with the people who are right in front of you?”

Rukmini just published an article about these lots and the people who need them, most of whom have some kind of income but are stuck in expensive housing markets. She shadowed a social worker in Washington State who makes more than $72,000 a year, but lives in her car.

California has more safe parking lots than any other state, with more than two dozen from Santa Rosa to San Diego. And what’s believed to be the very first lot opened in Santa Barbara in 2004.

Kristine Schwarz, the executive director of New Beginnings, the nonprofit that runs the parking initiative in Santa Barbara County, told Rukmini that the inspiration for it came from a county supervisor. The supervisor had stepped out of her office one day, looked around at the parking lot and realized that the solution to Santa Barbara’s growing homelessness problem was right in front of her.

Now, New Beginnings publishes a manual that instructs other communities on how to run parking programs.

But even with the growth of these programs, only a fraction of the tens of thousands of people living in their cars across the country can be accommodated. And some cities are cracking down on people sleeping in their cars. The number of statutes restricting living in vehicles has increased 213 percent since 2006, according to a 2019 study by the National Homelessness Law Center.

“That growth is a testament to the growing tension between municipalities who are trying to limit the eyesore of R.V.s, vans and passenger cars parking on public right-of-ways and the people stuck inside them, who have nowhere else to go,” Rukmini told me.

The need has become so pronounced in California that Long Beach City College set aside a parking structure for its homeless students, after discovering in 2021 that close to 70 students were sleeping in their cars each night.

Administrators debated what to do, with some arguing that offering parking was not a long-term solution, Rukmini told me. They were overruled by Mike Muñoz, who immediately opened the lot after becoming interim college president, arguing that it was better to “do something.”

Now they are fielding requests from other community colleges asking how to provide parking for their own homeless students.

At the de Young, “Hollow,” by James Shefik, foreground, is a depiction of Gen. Robert E. Lee in the form of a classic wooden toy, knocked flat on his back with sword limp.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The rest of the news

  • The MyShake earthquake warning app will send out a test alert this morning to all Californians who have the app on their phone, KQED reports.

  • An explainer on the four food additives banned in California, which are found in products including candy corn, sodas and tortillas, and have been linked to a number of health issues.

Southern California

  • Christina Pascucci, a Los Angeles newscaster, announced that she was running for the Senate seat left vacant by Dianne Feinstein’s death, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Ann Philbin, who turned the Hammer Museum into a destination for contemporary art and helped transform the cultural landscape in Los Angeles, will step down as director next year.

  • Ahead of Los Angeles Fashion Week, The Times asked West Coasters for their ideas of the quintessential Los Angeles uniform.

Northern California

  • At the de Young in San Francisco, 883 works from Bay Area artists make up a dizzying, bursting-at-the-seams extravaganza of an exhibition.

  • Stanford researchers have ranked 10 major A.I. models on how openly they operate.

  • F.B.I. officials say more than half of Chinese spying efforts aimed at stealing technology occurs in Silicon Valley.

An employee empties out jelly beans for packaging at the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield.Credit…David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Lizzy Miles, who recommends visiting the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield in Solano County. She says that the whole place smells like candy, and that there are free samples.

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

What we’re recommending

The books we’re looking forward to for the rest of the year.

Tell us

What are the best things that have happened to you so far this year? What have been your wins? Or your unexpected joys, big or small?

Tell me at [email protected]. Please include your full name and the city where you live.

Credit…Mooncrest Media

And before you go, some good news

When Nancy Chen and Patrick Sheridan McFawn met, she was a student journalist at the University of Southern California covering trade talks between the United States and China and he was a recent graduate recruiting volunteers for the event. As the media gods would have it, she asked him for a press pass to the event and the two exchanged business cards, and eventually Facebook pages.

When they went on their first date during Chen’s senior year of college, the spark was there, but Chen was on the precipice of a dream career in broadcast journalism, a job she knew could take her anywhere in the country. She delivered the warning to McFawn, but it didn’t matter.

The two began a long-distance relationship that lasted the next seven years, with Chen moving to San Luis Obispo, Boston and eventually New York City. In April 2020, when the pandemic began, McFawn finally joined her in New York. And in January 2023, on a sunrise walk on the beach in Montauk, N.Y., McFawn got on one knee.

The two were married in a small ceremony at a winery in Paso Robles in September. “After all these years and all these places,” Chen said, “this is still our happy spot and where we fell in love.”

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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