When Home Is Where You Can Park It
Continued from the previous page
More people are living out of their vehicles, but the streets are becoming less welcoming.
June 6, 2013
on Fick and his partner, Andriana Goodell, are sitting in their RV in a commercial parking lot on upper State Street, playing with their baby, Ginger, who was born in the vehicle last July and is learning to walk. It’s 10 a.m. on a beautiful day, but they’re staying inside to avoid drawing the attention of passersby.
Fick, 34, and Goodell, 22, have been living in their aging RV in Santa Barbara for a year, trying to make ends meet. They bought it with student loans and grants while they were enrolled at City College. After Goodell got pregnant, Fick quit his classes to look for work. They chose to deliver their baby themselves, with Goodell’s mother on hand.
“It was a lot longer than I expected, but I was daring myself to do it,” Goodell says. “It went really well.”
This winter, Fick and Goodell had a permit to park in a church lot, obtained through the city and county’s Safe Parking program. But the church asked them to leave after a month. Fick says he plugged the RV into an outlet on the building to heat some water; a church member yanked out the plug, and an argument ensued, leading to eviction.
“We don’t have anywhere to go,” Fick says. “I can’t believe people from a church would act like that.”
During the day, Fick parks in a commercial lot, hoping the security guard won’t ask the family to leave. If they need to drive somewhere to charge their batteries, dump their waste tanks or fix the transmission on their truck, which is parked nearby, they are careful to avoid the more than 100 city blocks where RV parking is banned. Even on the blocks where it’s allowed, two hours is the city’s limit for staying in one place in an RV. Fick and Goodell fear that if they park for too long, a guard, a resident or the police will order them to “move on.”
“People automatically have a whole lot of advice,” says Fick, who came here three years ago and has part-time work installing solar hot water and electric systems for $10 an hour. It hasn’t been easy “in the midst of all this craziness” trying to find another job.
“People just have no idea what it’s like to be on this side of it, and there’s no way of getting through to them,” he says. “They tell us, ‘This isn’t the place for you to live.’ I work hard to live in this town. This is my place. I’m not asking for a handout. I just need some rest.”
But rest, as in sleeping in a home of one’s own, is seemingly years away for most of Santa Barbara’s homeless—there are just too many with too few housing options. The second biennial homeless count, a national “point-in-time” survey conducted here on two mornings in January by the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, identified 946 homeless people in the city of Santa Barbara, including 51 heads of families, and 1,466 in the county. Single homeless people in Santa Barbara County have been homeless for more than six years on average, according to the count, and families for more than three years. (The Public Health Department has much higher numbers, estimating that there are 6,250 folks experiencing homelessness in the county.)
As a result, the average wait for one of Santa Barbara’s 2,186 rent-subsidized apartments, through the federally funded Section 8 voucher program, is five years. If that weren’t bad enough, Congressional sequester cuts may soon eliminate vouchers for an estimated 300,000 families nationally, meaning that 46 needy families in Santa Barbara won’t get vouchers this year, city officials say.
It’s even harder to get into one of the 500 low-rent apartments the city owns. On April 1, Santa Barbara’s housing authority closed the waiting list because there are more than 5,000 names on it. The average wait is eight years.
City officials say only about 350 subsidized apartments open up in Santa Barbara yearly. Of those, 75 are reserved for the homeless. First dibs on these go to names drawn from the homeless Vulnerability Index, ranking the 100 most in danger of dying on the street.
During the past two years, officials say 53 individuals and 39 families from the 2011 Vulnerability Index were placed in subsidized housing countywide. Yet more than 1,300 homeless who were counted two years ago did not get housed. Most of the city’s housing assistance goes to low-income people who have been living in overcrowded and substandard apartments for a long time.
One consequence of the great recession and the foreclosure crisis, as documented by Rolling Stone last summer, is that an increasing number of working people are living in their cars or RVs in Santa Barbara. That influx into the ranks of the homeless means that it can now take months to get into one of the 108 spaces in the Safe Parking program, case managers say. A total of 90 to 95 people are enrolled and 53 more are on the waiting list. Many others living in vehicles here may not qualify for the program because they lack a driver’s license, insurance or up-to-date registration.
Since Safe Parking was launched in 2004, only 18 parking lot owners have stepped up to provide overnight spaces for vehicle dwellers. (Fearing complaints from neighbors, the program’s case managers have asked that most of the locations not be made public.) Participating lot owners are the City of Santa Barbara, with 15 spaces; County of Santa Barbara, with 25 spaces; City of Goleta, with 15 spaces; nine churches, with 48 spaces; three nonprofit agencies, with 12 spaces; and two businesses, each with one space. Goleta Community Covenant Church has been the most generous non-governmental provider, with 10 spaces.
“It all comes down to funding,” says Kristine Schwarz, the executive director of the New Beginnings Counseling Center, the nonprofit organization that raises funds from public and private sources to administer the Safe Parking program. It costs $167,000 yearly to run the program, she says. The money pays for two case managers, a data-entry clerk, two parking lot monitors, office expenses, Porta Potties, food distributions, and cash assistance for vehicle repairs and security deposits.
“We have long-timers in the program who are living on a fixed income and have nowhere else to go,” Schwarz says. “We need more staff and volunteers to talk to landlords. We’re trying to find more parking spaces.”
Further complicating matters, the city will sometimes offer housing units that don’t provide parking and vehicle dwellers will turn them down, not wanting to give up their RVs even if it means going to the bottom of the list.
arcy Randall, 56, a loquacious army veteran who volunteers as a janitor at Casa Esperanza, the homeless shelter on Cacique Street, is crossing his fingers that he’ll get housing assistance and be able to hang onto the van he’s been living in for four years. Randall says he was a cavalry scout in the military and has been able to put those skills to use doing reconnaissance for good spots where he can park and sleep.
Randall receives a monthly Social Security disability check of $850, he says, for “something connected to the military—mind disorders or mental problems.” He shows off his military-design sleeping pad, which he says is like the ones they issue combat crews, and says he stays warm on cold nights with three sleeping bags. But he’d jump at the chance not to have to sleep in what he calls his “tent on wheels.”
Randall’s days of hopscotching around the city, though, may soon be over. He recently got into the Safe Parking program and says he’s been told he ranks high on the Vulnerability Index. “I’m so, like, happy,” Randall says. “Some elderly ladies came and talked to me. They had seen me on the streets. They must have spoken up about me with the Housing Authority. I just don’t know how long it takes. Sooner or later those ladies are going to get back to me, huh?”
Other Safe Parking participants may not be so lucky. One of the program’s first clients, an older man who lives in a dilapidated van, is not on any lists. He says he avoids survey volunteers and has never applied for housing assistance, even though he once had a heart attack in his lot and drove himself to the hospital. The man, who asks to remain anonymous because of what he calls “the stigma of homelessness,” says he does not trust government agencies.
“I’ve lived here nearly 40 years, but I don’t like it that much here anymore,” he says. “I’m a law-abiding citizen. Losing one’s home doesn’t suddenly make you an undesirable criminal. I’m not one of them. I’m one of you.”
James Frangella, 46, a four-year veteran of Safe Parking who volunteers with the program and homeless count, says the housing authority has told him he will likely not qualify for subsidized housing because he is not a veteran, a disabled person or the head of a family. But Frangella wants to stay in Santa Barbara. He calls it “a blessed city where I got my health back.” He says he came here from the Midwest after losing his home, his job and his marriage. He weighed 480 pounds when he arrived, he says.
Frangella has slimmed down now and is looking for work. He’s thankful for what he’s got, despite having to put up with late-night noise from the slamming doors on the Porta Potties and the carousing drunks who wander through the downtown lot a block from State Street.
“When you pull into this spot, it’s a place you call home,” Frangella says. “Can you maybe relate to that? It’s our safe haven.”
As for Fick and Goodell, they applied for Section 8 housing a year ago and are still waiting, dreaming of a haven where no one will bother them. Lately, they say, they’ve been getting away with parking on the street at night, enjoying not having to be up and out by 7 a.m. Last summer, Fick says, even as Goodell was giving birth to Ginger in one of the Safe Parking church lots, one of the neighbors was complaining to the priest about the program.
Fick still wants to stay here. It’s better, he says, than dying of an overdose or winding up in prison for drug offenses, like the friends he left behind back East. It’s home, too, for Goodell, a Santa Barbara High School graduate. But from where she sits now, she can’t help but look back longingly to the time when she and Fick were living in a Santa Barbara canyon, sleeping on a mattress on a wooden pallet with a tent over their heads.
“It was really nice,” she says. “It was hidden from view. It’s much less stressful to be living out in the wilderness than in the RV.”