In the grim calculus of homelessness, having a vehicle is what passes for being lucky. It means you can avoid spending the night on a sidewalk or in a creepy emergency shelter. And if that’s luck, it’s spreading: The number of cars, campers and vans serving as homes in the city of Los Angeles has gone up significantly, reaching more than 4,700 in 2017’s homelessness count.
But with an L.A. city ordinance against overnight parking in residential neighborhoods and an increasing number of block-by-block restrictions in commercial areas, there are fewer and fewer places for vehicle dwellers to stop for the night. Since the parking ordinance went into effect in early 2017, the city has banned overnight parking on 300 blocks. The restrictions in commercial districts, as in residential neighborhoods, are being driven by complaints about unsightly recreational vehicles parked at the curb, piles of trash left behind and sewage dumped on the sidewalk.
Recognizing the dilemma, the City Council approved the framework for a pilot program that would allow private companies and nonprofits to open their parking lots at night to vehicle dwellers. If ever there were a program that could work in Los Angeles, the city of parking lots, it would be this one.
Consider this: We ban people from sleeping in their cars on many of the streets of L.A., but we allow them to sleep on any sidewalk at night.
Yet it’s been more than a year since the “safe parking” program started, and progress has been glacial. There is one lot at a church in South L.A. that offers parking to the ho meless, but it is open only to women and their children. Several weeks ago, a second church — this one in Koreatown — opened its lot broadly to the homeless in cars. Still, that’s not enough to make a dent in the problem.
Elected officials and lot owners alike appear to be unwilling to simply make this happen. In some cases, they have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed up front. Churches and temples, for example, need to get the approval of their congregations. Port-a-potties or bathrooms should be made available, for obvious reasons. In the case of RVs, either the city or the site has to make provisions for the dumping of septic tanks — or there has to be a rule that RV owners can’t dump. Some lot owners are willing to allow homeless parking, but they want a security officer on site; they’re concerned, among other things, about drug use on their property.
But it is also the case that there are limitless potential problems, and it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. What if, when the homeless people drive away in the morning, they park on the street right outside the lot? What if they refuse to obey the rule against dumping septic tanks? What if there is no system set up to offer social services to the people who use the safe parking lots?
Then there are the political hurdles. For instance, council member Mitch Englander says he wants to support parking programs in his San Fernando Valley district and has a church interested. But before he signs off on it, he wants the blessing of the local neighborhood council — even though no such approval is required.
You don’t need the equivalent of the Paris Peace Talks to open a parking lot to homeless people who just want a place to sleep for the night. The groups that own the lots get to set the number of vehicles that can park there. For more than a decade, there has been a successful safe parking program in Santa Barbara that uses two dozen lots to park more than 100 vehicles. There’s no reason why we can’t replicate that program here.
Councilman Mike Bonin, who has been pushing for safe parking for a few years, has a couple of churches in his Westside district that are close to setting up a program. He also has found four city parking lots in the district where he hopes he can set up parking. It’s reasonable to use city land when it’s available.
Elected officials should be encouraging the use of these lots and quelling — or addressing — the fears of nonprofits and churches. How about this: Urge the groups opening their parking lots to set some rules, and if people don’t follow them, kick them out. Start the parking program, and if it doesn’t work, close it down. There are plenty of complicated issues around homelessness to be resolved. This should not be one of them.
And consider this: We ban people from sleeping in their cars on many of the streets of L.A., but we allow them to sleep on any sidewalk at night. How ridiculous is that? Do we really want people to climb out of their RVs to go sleep in tents? What does that solve?