Office workers were still at their desks when Thomas Goodwin’s 1974 motor home clanked out of a downtown parking lot one recent evening, power steering groaning as Lego blocks flew around the plaid interior.
The 54-year-old single father moved the newly acquired camper to clear a parking place for the van where he and his 7-year-old daughter sleep — with the city’s blessing.
Goodwin makes use of Santa Barbara’s “safe parking” initiative, a homelessness program that Los Angeles is studying as a possible model for responding to its own explosion of people sleeping in RVs and cars.
The Santa Barbara program takes 115 vehicles off the streets overnight, placing them in designated spaces in 20 city, county, church, nonprofit agency and industrial lots in Santa Barbara and Goleta.
New Beginnings Counseling Center, which runs the $270,000 program on a city contract, furnishes bathrooms and spot monitoring.
Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider says she receives few complaints. The lot locations are not made public, and supporters say many people aren’t aware of them.
“They’re the working poor, trying to lift themselves up from poverty,” Schneider said.
The 12-year-old program gets homeless people off the streets at night, but the lots close at daybreak, sending the RV dwellers back into the neighborhoods.
Officials say the lots make it easier to connect homeless people to services and housing. New Beginnings says it has placed 47 in homes in the last nine months.
But the program is no match for Santa Barbara’s punishing rental vacancy rate — less than 1%. Some clients remain stuck in the lots for three years or more, less visible but still homeless.
“These are people who would have brought in the crops,” said writer Peter Marin, a longtime Santa Barbara homeless activist. “They used to live in cheap hotels, but now the cheap hotels are gone and we didn’t put anything in their place.”
Still, some L.A. officials see safe parking as a useful strategy as part of their $2-billion homelessness plan. More than 3,300 inhabited cars and RVs were counted in 2015, part of an 85% countywide jump in homeless encampments that has aroused fury from San Pedro to Verdugo Hills.
Also last year, a federal appeals court struck down the city’s ban on vehicle dwelling, prompting new parking restrictions that led to tickets and impoundments for homeless people.
The city’s plan says safe parking “would provide stability and safety to individuals living in their cars or recreational vehicles, while reducing the impact on neighborhood street parking and perceptions of safety.” The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is studying where to create a pilot program that could include safe parking.
L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin said the goal is to get most of the vehicles off the roads while the city helps people move into housing, but added that wouldn’t happen overnight.
“It is unlikely we will be able to birth a full-grown and comprehensive program overnight, so I suspect the way safe parking will develop is with some individual council members identifying lots in their districts, and with churches, synagogues and mosques volunteering to participate,” Bonin said in a statement.
Glitzy Santa Barbara may seem an odd testing ground for an innovative homelessness initiative, but the town has a history of such efforts stretching back to Lillian Child, who opened her estate to a “hobo jungle” in the 1940s. The coastal city is a popular stopover for RV travelers who choose to live on the road.
People who live in vans and campers are sometimes described as the upper middle class of the homeless population. Clients in Santa Barbara’s program work in retail, nursing, restaurants, construction and security; one owns his own business.
Patrick Cole, a 50-year-old safe parking client, is working toward a design degree at Santa Barbara City College after getting out of prison and off drugs.
“They actually care about the clients,” Cole said of New Beginnings, which provides meal and gas cards, move-in and vehicle insurance assistance, utility payments, case management and other aid.
Cole’s motor home, which he parks in a campus lot by day, is pin-neat, with a whiteboard inscribed with his school schedule above a laptop.
A Bible sits on a shelf next to “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ popular memoir. “I’m writing a paper on it. He’s an awesome writer,” Cole said. “I thought, ‘Damn, I’m starting to sound like Ta-Nehisi.’”
One drizzly morning last month, Cole slung on his backpack and climbed the hill to the campus, atop a 74-acre bluff overlooking the ocean. The Channel Islands were silhouetted at the horizon as he headed into his print-making class.
Gavin Thatcher, 19, of Lafayette, Calif., said it was a “gift” to have Cole as a classmate “to give us greater perspective.”
Cole said it’s a different story when he’s on the streets, and police hassle him for living in his camper.
“There’s a lot of discrimination against people in motor homes,” he said. “Sure, they worked and paid for their views and stuff. But there’s always going to be homeless people and we all have to live together.”
Goodwin has seized safe parking as a chance to be a hands-on parent while he and his daughter await her mother’s return from prison on a drug charge.
“It’s been tough, ducking and climbing in and out, " Goodwin said of the cramped van, filled with his daughter’s toys and clothes, an ice chest, bedding and mattress. “Sleeping with this little girl in the same bed, she will beat you up.”
“But it’s a good life,” he added, ticking off the child’s accomplishments this past year: baiting her own hook, surfing, dock diving and riding a bike “like a 12-year-old boy.”
“At 6 o’clock I get coffee, go to the pier and watch the sunrise,” Goodwin said, before getting his daughter up for school. “I try to wake her up nice.”
Girls Inc. provides after-school care. They eat microwaved meals at a 7-Eleven and shower at a local gym, Goodwin said, and strangers are often kind.
“One left $100 in her bike helmet,” he said.
“He’s a good dad,” said Joe Mastroianni, the New Beginnings lot monitor, whom the little girl greeted by throwing herself into his arms. “They got the RV, that’s a big step up for them.”
Goodwin planned a major overhaul of the motor home before the girl’s mother arrives.
“We’re going to be OK real soon,” Goodwin said.