The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Californians living in their cars, a church parking lot can briefly be home

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SARATOGA, Calif. — In the two years that John slept in his car on the streets of San Francisco, he saw some scary things.

There was the woman beaten in the middle of the street, the drug users and dealers who slunk past his windows, the thieves who gave him a warning eye as they moved stolen electronics around his vehicle. Harassed by police and some residents, he was constantly moving from curb to curb, all while working full time to pay off the car he was living in.

“It is really a dangerous place,” John, 44, said on a recent evening as he hung blackout curtains — repurposed hair salon smocks — in his black 2015 Prius, parked in a corner of a church parking lot in this suburb an hour south of San Francisco. “But being here gives me a feeling of being settled. I don’t have to sleep with one eye open anymore.”

John, who gave only his first name to maintain his privacy about being homeless, is one of about 15 people enrolled in a new program that provides secure overnight parking and other services to Bay Area residents who live in their vehicles. Saratoga’s interfaith program, started in the spring by seven local congregations and a community college, is one of a growing number of “safe park” programs across the San Francisco Bay area, where the exorbitant cost of housing has forced many onto the streets.

Drugs and weapons are not allowed at these sites, and most provide a security guard. Most of the congregations open their buildings to their guests for a couple of hours, providing bathrooms, recharging stations and sometimes a kitchen and, as in Saratoga, a weekly meal. There may also be gas cards and gift cards to coffeehouses or retail stores.

“We are used to going outside the church to help the homeless,” said Finny Abraham, an associate pastor at WestGate Church, where John spends his November nights. (The Saratoga congregations rotate the program monthly to comply with local parking laws.) “But bringing them in gave us a chance to humanize the problem. And we learned these are people who all have a story, all have ambitions about the future and all have dreams. Like us, they are all on a path to those dreams.”

Last year, the National Alliance to End Homelessness counted more than 553,000 people in the United States without housing. A quarter of those live in California, despite its booming economy, record low unemployment and the massive wealth generated by Silicon Valley, where Saratoga is located.

The problem — largely caused by a lack of affordable housing and skyrocketing housing costs — is exacerbated by recent wildfires that left tens of thousands of Northern Californians homeless. When this month’s Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise, it displaced upward of 20,000 people, while last year’s Napa and Sonoma fires destroyed or damaged almost 10,000 homes.

As they often do in hard times, houses of worship stepped in. In Chico, a hub for Paradise refugees, churches have opened their buildings and parking lots as temporary shelters.

But while those churches have been lauded, congregations in other areas that open their parking lots to those they sometimes refer to as “vehicle residents” face hurdles and hostility. Many Bay Area municipalities, including the tech centers of San Francisco and San Jose, have outlawed sleeping in a car parked on the street overnight, while neighbors speak out against having the homeless next door.

Some residents of Mountain View, 11 miles north of Saratoga and home to Google, vehemently opposed the expansion of “Lots of Love,” a safe-parking program, from two local churches to three. The opposition led the third church to bow out of the program.

And in Los Angeles, where advocates for the homeless estimate that 9,000 residents live in their cars, the faith-based founders of Safe Parking L.A. thought they would have no trouble enlisting congregations. But to date, they have only two.

“Faith organizations have a misperception about who we are attracting,” said Scott Sale, who co-founded Safe Parking L.A. with leaders from churches and synagogues. “They are people just like you and me. Ninety-nine percent of the people we work with are not criminals and never were.”

Sale now woos potential faith-based partners to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Koreatown, where 15 spaces are given to vehicle residents nightly.

“We have to go slowly,” he said.

Other safe-parking programs have had a smoother route. Santa Barbara’s New Beginnings Safe Parking Program launched in 2004 with a handful of spaces and has expanded to 24 lots with 133 spaces; 13 of the lots belong to houses of worship.

“Our program has been very successful by just being quiet,” program director Cassie Roach said. “Most of our lots have just four or six [safe parking] spaces, so you can walk by the lots every night and have no idea they are there.”

Faith-based groups running safe-parking programs from San Diego to Seattle include Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Mormon partners. A multifaith group in Oakland, where homelessness has grown 25 percent since 2015, just received a $300,000 city grant to start a safe-parking program in early 2019.

“Our Gospel tells us to welcome the stranger, to take care of the widows and orphans,” said Karina O’Malley, the safe-parking coordinator at Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, Wash. “To me, it is such a gift to the congregation because proximity is the thing that is so desperately needed to awaken our souls and is so hard to get. It just enriches our experience of what needs to be happening in the world.”

Lake Washington’s program is for women and children only. Some are fleeing domestic violence; some lost their homes after a debilitating illness; some are simply priced out of the housing market. There are women-only lots in Mountain View, San Jose and Santa Barbara.

Sara Rankin is the director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law, a Jesuit school, and author of a report on faith-based safe-parking programs. She said no one is certain how many of these programs exist but they seem to be limited to the West Coast, where temperatures seldom dip below freezing.

“Virtually every religion has some sort of focus on ministering to the poor,” she said. “But it is a head-scratcher to me how so many faith communities have issues not just with vehicle residents, but also immigrants and refugees. We are not always consistent in what we profess our faith to be and what that faith compels us to do.”

The vast majority of guests are like John — with a full- or part-time job to go to when they leave the parking lots around 6 a.m.

“There is just such a community here,” John said after a meal of chicken and vegetables provided by a church member that he shared with volunteers and other parking lot guests, including a 70-year-old woman who gives Spanish lessons. “The churches have helped us become a cohesive group. We’ve gotten to know each other, and we all look out for each other.”

But there is no proselytizing — John identifies as an atheist and says none of the congregations where he parks have ever made him uncomfortable.

The volunteers said their own spiritual paths are enriched through their encounters with safe-parking guests. Dawn Kaltenbach, who shared dinner and a chat with John, said she comes to eat with the residents because “this is where our faith gets real.”

Then she adds, “I am just one 60-day notice away from living out of my car myself.”