Using Parking Power for Good
As the holiday season approaches, I find myself pondering the meanings of gratitude and giving. Just kidding. As the holiday season approaches, I ponder how it could be coming around again so quickly.
Past holidays have shown me that all the planning in the world will not ease the pressure. Having a good attitude will not decrease the work load. So this year, when the tinsel starts hitting the fan, I’m going to stay in the moment. I’m going to accept the chaos and call it Christmas.
One thing I really do ponder every December is how lucky I am. I am well fed, have a comfortable home and can afford to buy my children gifts. I know that not everyone is having this experience.
What’s got me thinking about the holidays and their impending impact, besides this column and the date on the calendar, is something I saw online about people who live in their cars.
I was happy and intrigued to read about a group called Dreams for Change, founded in May 2009 by Teresa Smith. This organization, based in San Diego, is using creative solutions to help homeless and low-income individuals. It funds food trucks to feed transients, delivers meals to the elderly, and offers financial counseling and tax preparation services for those in need.
And here’s the link to parking: The group also runs the Safe Parking Program, which arranges for parking lots to be opened at night for individuals and families who live in their cars.
After the recession of 2009, Smith encountered increasing numbers of working families who had become homeless. These “transitional homeless” families and individuals went to work, attended school, and ate, slept and lived in their cars. The Safe Parking Program provides a location where they can legally park overnight. Everyone enrolled participates in its Achieving Financial Independence Program.
“We’re really trying to prevent chronic homelessness from happening,” Smith says.
At the organization’s three locations, participants arrive in the evening and leave early in the morning. They are responsible for leaving the site clean.
Meals are sometimes donated to the Safe Parking Program participants and, Smith says, the organization makes sure nobody goes hungry. All of the locations have toilets and one has a shower facility. One person is designated the “eyes on the lot” to call Dreams for Change if there are any problems and to make sure all vehicles have left the location on time.
“Most lots are being used during the day. We don’t want people just sitting around in their cars and the majority have a life that they have to get up and go off to,” Smith says. “People come in. We work with them, they go to sleep at night, and they leave in the morning. We leave no trace – in seven years, we haven’t had any issues with any of our sites.”
Since 2009, the Safe Parking Program has helped 2,650 people. Dreams for Change reports that 65% of its participants find traditional housing within three months.
Smith says the program doesn’t just provide parking and keep people from losing their cars; it also creates a place where individuals and families facing similar challenges can connect. She says that this eases feelings of isolation and shame – especially for the children.
“They create their own community. It’s like a neighborhood versus some kind of camp like people imagine. That’s where the success of the program happens – there’s only so much we can do,” Smith says. “What they learn from one another is something we could never provide – that they’re not alone.”
Smith says the organization carries its own liability insurance and works hard to address concerns about Safe Parking. The biggest challenge that Dreams for Change faces is raising funds. Case managers are the main expense, and because the service is seen as unorthodox, it’s not easy to find support.
I know there are members of the parking industry who will read this column and howl about how impossible it is to support and sustain a program like this. I am aware that there are places where the weather would make the Safe Parking Program unfeasible and dangerous. I understand that cities and corporations have strict guidelines and specific philosophies they are required to apply to their approaches to homelessness.
What I love about Dreams for Change is that it accepts the situation for what it is – people are living in their cars. “Vehicular residence” is a real thing, and no parking regulation is going to change that. Giving people a place to live in their cars is one good way to make sure they don’t end up living on the streets.
For more information, visit dreamsforchange.org.