When 15-year-old Thomas Jessop was growing up, he came home every night to a 1981 Wyoming school bus, where he lived with his dad, brother and their three dogs. They had a makeshift kitchen, a toilet and another bus welded on top for a private sleeping loft, but they had no place of their own to park their home.
Living in a car can be a tricky business. Many cities prohibit sleeping in a car or parking overnight on public streets or lots. In Santa Barbara, however, the Jessops discovered a haven for the semi-homeless like themselves.
The Safe Parking Program was established in 2005 by New Beginnings Counseling Center in Santa Barbara to aid people who are forced by economics to live in their vehicles.
According to program coordinator Roslyn Scheuerman, 22 parking lots are made available by churches, nonprofits and at city and county administrative buildings. More than 120 people are issued permits to park their vehicles in a consistent, safe place from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day.
An avid athlete, Thomas Jessop is in Sacramento this week on his second cross-country cycling tour. He set out for the East this month to raise awareness of and funds for national safe-parking programs like that in Santa Barbara and three other cities.
A safe-parking program allows "people to stay where they are, not having to leave their friends and their town," Thomas Jessop said. And "it builds a we're-in-this-together, you-know-what-it's-like community. It's a uniting thing.
"I have spent about half my life growing up half-homeless, and I wouldn't be the person I am today if I didn't have my community," he added.
Thomas' father, Jess Jessop, retired from the Navy with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and then worked as a computer engineer for 30 years. In the dot-com bust, he lost his job and ended up rearing his kids in the bus.
Thomas, who graduated from high school at age 12 through an online home-schooling program, began studying in hopes of a perfect score on the SAT, which he cannot take until he turns 16. His brother, David, 16, waits to enroll in a culinary program at a community college in Santa Barbara.
"I've got amazing boys," Jess Jessop said. "Raising these boys here in this bus has been priceless."
Scheuerman says these parking programs are practically cost-free, because use of the parking lots is donated, leaving only salaries of two program directors, office rent and some material costs. The Jessops hope that the program will work with volunteer organizations to keep operating at low cost.
"People don't understand that the clients go through a background check, and we have a whole bunch of rules they have to abide by," Sheuerman said. "Most clients are working at least part time. The majority of people see that parking lot as their home so they don't want to do anything to upset the apple cart. We really have very few problems."
On this second cross-country trek, Thomas Jessop hopes to speak at churches and other venues about his visions of a nationwide safe-parking program.
On the family's first voyage, he spoke at 24 Unity churches, which helped to fund the trip through donations from the congregation.