Choosing their lots in life

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Two or three nights a week, a 29-year-old ex-Peace Corps volunteer named Shaw Talley rolls through the parking lots in his old Volvo wagon, offering help where he can. In spaces where others see a handful of battered RVs and vans, Talley sees lives playing out, for better or worse.

Here, a Vietnam vet suffers from war wounds that keep him in constant pain. There, a man in a van plays classical music on his violin. Here, a diabetic gives himself an insulin shot under the dim glow of his dome light. There, a quiet middle-aged woman eases into her old Lincoln for the night, resting up for another day in customer service at a big-box store. In the glare of a street lamp, she relaxes with a book before closing her eyes.

All are beneficiaries of the city-sanctioned Safe Parking program, which allows people to live -- sometimes for years -- in cars or RVs in about a dozen parking lots that belong to the city, the county, churches, nonprofits and a few businesses in industrial areas.

In the course of a week, Talley, a caseworker for the program, checks in with most of his roughly 55 charges. Some need doctors, some need jobs, some need car repairs. On top of such daily concerns, Talley helps them through the laborious process of applying for low-income housing, though a few prefer a more-or-less permanent berth on the asphalt.

“It’s not my job to judge them because they might want to live in their vehicles,” said Talley, who volunteers at a hospice during his off hours and plans to attend graduate school in social work next year. “I’m here to give them options.”

The five-year-old program, administered by the New Beginnings Counseling Center, is one of just a few across the United States. It is being considered as a possible model by neighborhood groups in the increasingly costly Venice area, where parking on congested blocks has been made even tougher by an influx of street campers.

“The streets aren’t meant for living -- it’s not acceptable,” said Mike Newhouse, president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, which, with Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, is studying the Santa Barbara program. “And most folks here think it’s not acceptable that anyone should be forced to live in a vehicle.”

In Santa Barbara, a place of legendary affluence where fixer-uppers can cost more than $1 million, nobody knows just how many people are living illegally on four wheels. Last year, Talley took it upon himself to do an informal census, driving around one evening looking for telltale signs of vehicular habitation: towels draped over windows, condensation fogging windshields. Within hours, he counted 249 makeshift homes.

“Mostly, they try to stay invisible,” Talley said. “They don’t want to get hassled by the police. They don’t want to be victimized by thugs.”

Talley, who has the sunny good looks of an extra in a surf movie, is unrelentingly positive. He speaks of “the higher self” within everyone and draws on his Peace Corps stint for inspiration: “When I go up to a vehicle, it’s like going to some hut in Paraguay and clapping my hands before I enter, saying, ‘Hey, I’m here!’ ”

Still, the job drains him. In his closet-size office at the Salvation Army in Santa Barbara, he sometimes cringes at the stories he hears. “They’re crying in front of me, they’re telling me about being raped on the streets, about all sorts of things -- and a little piece of me dies,” he said.

On the wall hangs a license plate, an artifact from the ancient Volkswagen bus that one of Talley’s first clients lived in for years. Talley helped place the man -- an ex-lawyer who had attended West Point -- in low-income housing. He drove him to a Los Angeles VA hospital for knee replacement surgery. He even got him a $1,000 check from a state program that pays motorists to scrap polluting vehicles.

“I just kept thinking that this guy could be my grandfather,” Talley said.

Addicts show up from time to time, asking for a parking permit. One man was obsessively picking at himself -- the mark of a meth user. When Talley told a couple to wait while he fetched a drug-testing kit, they vanished.

“If they’re not taking themselves or their hygiene seriously, I’ll pass them on,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘You need to go to detox. We’re not going to help you hurt yourself.’ ”

New Beginnings runs the program on an annual budget of about $105,000, drawn from city and county funds as well as private donations.

It does not cater to the poorest of the poor. Participants must have auto insurance, driver’s licenses and vehicles sound enough to drive off the lots during daylight hours. They must also agree to rules: no loud music, no alcohol, no drugs, no overnight visitors, no cooking outside the vehicle.

No showers are provided, and though only a few of the lots have portable toilets, using parking-lot shrubbery as a bathroom is grounds for immediate expulsion. No more than five vehicles are allowed in each of the lots, which are located downtown and in the outlying areas of Goleta and Isla Vista.

City officials say the program has generated few complaints, most of them from one resident who owns property near one of the lots. It hasn’t ended illegal camping on Santa Barbara’s streets, but police say it presents no major problems and offers security and hope to those involved.

Some of the lot-dwellers work steady jobs. More than half were living in the area for years before some combination of bad luck, bad choices, booze, drugs or mental illness bounced them onto the streets.

In 2004, an ex-welfare worker named Boyd Grant bought a 31-year-old RV after selling the Carpinteria mobile home he could no longer afford to maintain.

By day, he’s the unofficial caretaker of the Goleta fishing pier and has successfully lobbied Santa Barbara County for a small grant to fix the place up. At night, he’s at home in the parking lot of a local food bank.

When Talley knocks on his door and calls his name, the 63-year-old Grant tells him things are going fine. The surgery for the bladder cancer went OK; ditto the double-hernia operation. He describes a week of recovery at a Motel 6 the way a middle-aged couple might describe their house after the kids leave for college: “I didn’t know what to do with all that space.”

Grant reads Buddhist philosophy under his rig’s solar-powered lights and taps the latest news from the pier onto his website. It’s a far cry from the exhausting cat-and-mouse game he used to play with the police -- finding a parking spot every night, dousing his interior lights when the sun went down, keeping himself still to avoid attention.

In the neatly kept RV he calls his “monk’s cell,” Grant argues that more local governments should allow single people to live this way.

“We can’t afford to put everyone in a stick house,” he said. “This is a reasonable option.”

Not everyone agrees. Though she voted last spring for a modest expansion of the program, Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum said she worries about the city giving tacit approval to housing that can be squalid. She also fears exacerbating the homeless problem.

“The homeless community has a tremendous communication network,” she said. “If they tell each other that it’s OK in Santa Barbara, that’s not the message we want to give out.”

In 2000 -- two years before the program’s inception -- the city felt so besieged by the mobile homeless that police wrote more than 200 illegal-camping tickets in just a few months. The Safe Parking program was begun only after homeless advocates mounted successful legal challenges to the aggressive enforcement policy.

“Who isn’t drawn to Santa Barbara?” asked Talley, who grew up in the city before attending Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. “I mean, give me a break -- it’s Santa Barbara! Homeless people are going to keep coming here, and we have to engage them instead of looking the other way.”

At 73, Bob Coyle didn’t come for the ocean views. After a turbulent past of heavy drinking, a bad divorce and ruptured family relationships, he wound up in an Isla Vista church parking lot because he has a daughter in the area. Besides, he said, his daughter’s place was too crowded and “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.” When he wanted a shower, he would drive his cluttered van to his daughter’s house. When he needed a bathroom, he would use one at a nearby park.

Five years ago, the former home remodeler had a stroke. Last summer, he underwent a six-hour operation to replace a blocked artery in his leg. Grant, his fellow RVer, paid for a week’s stay in a motel.

“Amazing what that guy did for me,” said Coyle, whose face is as weathered as his van. A few weeks ago, Coyle, who gets around only with great pain, moved into $300-a-month senior housing that Talley helped him nail down. Beforehand, he worried about finding furniture for the place, about appliances, about the rent.

“I keep telling Shaw I’ll get there just in time to die,” he would say, only half joking. “Shaw keeps telling me not to worry.”

In the last couple of years, Talley figures that he has helped at least 35 people move from their vehicles into subsidized apartments. Even after the move, he checks in with them frequently, helping them deal with landlords, neighbors, monthly payments -- skills that can fall away with life on the streets.

Earlier this month, Linda Turner, 66, found a spot in a new low-income senior housing project. For eight years, she had lived in a van crammed with pillows, stuffed animals, self-help books and memories. A basket held the ashes of her cat. There were framed photos from happier times: Turner when she was a white-gloved flight attendant, and when she was in a Bavarian dance troupe. Another was of the son, now 37, whom she hasn’t seen in years.

She’s had dramatic ups and downs. One downward spiral was triggered, she said, by an attorney who was embezzling her life’s savings. A choral singer, she likens her life to the powerful operatic work “Carmina Burana” because “it can be seen as musically confusing but also exciting.”

Turner used to work in interior decorating but now gets by on Social Security and supplemental SSI payments -- a source of income she didn’t have until Talley gave her the paperwork and helped her fill it out.

With a loan from New Beginnings, Turner recently headed for Washington to retrieve her great-grandmother’s settee and other heirlooms. Over the years, she has paid $14,000 to store them.

“It’s kept my hope going that one day I’d have a place,” she said.

Not everyone wants that.

“There are hard-core cases where people who have moved into their vehicles are -- for very private and idiosyncratic reasons -- devoted to them,” said Peter Marin, a longtime Santa Barbara activist.

In 2002, Marin’s Committee for Social Justice won city approval for the parking program, which was modeled on one in Eugene, Ore. Marin said his group merely wanted safe parking spots for the homeless, but it was more politically palatable to “regularize” them with placement in conventional housing.

One man, who requested anonymity, said he has lived in vans off and on for 25 years, partly because coming up with rent every month can be so stressful that it triggers his chronic fatigue syndrome.

He said he feels some shame about it.

“Some RVers are just drunks, living on the street, letting their sewage tanks overflow and giving all of us a bad name,” said the man, who wears a dark suit every day to his minimum-wage job in the tourism industry. “I deal with some high-end people, and if they knew I lived in my van, I’d feel about two inches tall.”

That’s not a big concern for Harley Hill, 27, and Megan Connelly, 23, a couple from Oregon who can afford their expensive raw-food diet and all-natural clothing partly because they live with their two small children in an RV they bought for $2,300.

Last spring, Connelly gave birth to baby Theo in the RV, parked at the county office complex. A landscaper at UC Santa Barbara, Hill has medical benefits, but he and Connelly both wanted the kind of privacy that’s rare in bustling hospitals.

“We’d studied what to do, but we had a list of emergency numbers just in case,” said Hill, slicing tomatoes, peaches and Spanish sheep’s milk cheese for an evening repast by candlelight -- a necessity after a fuse blew. “In a hospital, people keep coming in to check on you. But here at home, it was quiet, we could focus.”

They’re not sure how long they’ll call the parking lot home. After all, they were en route to Mexico when Santa Barbara drew them in last year. “We’re kind of nomadic by nature,” Hill said. “Next stop could be South America -- who knows?”

In the meantime, most of their parking-lot peers will pursue more modest dreams.

Talley will help them navigate a three-year waiting list for apartments, advise them on how to save money, get them to medical appointments and point them to stores that have good deals on secondhand blankets and camping toilets and day-old bread. Rowdies and rule-breakers will be tossed out, at least for a while.

“It’s a constant give-and-take,” Talley said. “It’s a huge deal that organizations allow us to use their parking lots at night. They’re saying we trust you, we trust your clients.”

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