Tipping Point

More homeless are living in cars. Are safe-parking ‘camps’ an answer to Sacramento’s crisis?

“Life is hard,” say a homeless mother and daughter living in vehicles in Sacramento

Suffering from tragedy to homelessness, a mother and daughter describe their struggles living in cars after the Railroad Shelter closed in Sacramento in April 2019. They each get $1000 in Social Security but their low credit scores hold them back.
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Suffering from tragedy to homelessness, a mother and daughter describe their struggles living in cars after the Railroad Shelter closed in Sacramento in April 2019. They each get $1000 in Social Security but their low credit scores hold them back.

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The number of people, including families with children, living in their cars in Sacramento County has drastically increased in the last four years.

Volunteers canvassing the county in January found four times the number of vehicles where people were living than they counted in 2015. Researchers estimate people were sleeping in at least 340 vehicles in the county. This included approximately 100 children. Most of the vehicles were in the city of Sacramento.

Now, Sacramento officials are considering one remedy to help people living in their cars – putting many of them into one or more designated parking lots. Instead of a tent city, Sacramento would create a car encampment for the homeless.

No sites for the sanctioned encampments have been identified, although two members of the City Council said they are considering lots in south Sacramento and beneath the W/X freeway near Land Park, midtown and Curtis Park.

Sacramento State researchers who worked on the recent homelessness report recommended the city create so-called safe parking zones – lots where people can park their vehicles to sleep at night and where they don’t have to worry about being towed or break-ins.

The lots would be staffed by security guards and include bathroom and shower trailers. Volunteers would bring food regularly. Many parking zone programs also provide people with medical and mental health services, as well as help finding housing and employment.

Homeless activists James Lee “Faygo” Clark and David Andre have since the fall of 2017 repeatedly asked the City Council to create safe parking zones for homeless people to sleep in their cars.

A year and a half later, the city still hasn’t opened the lots, while cities with far smaller homeless populations such as San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Barbara have done so. City staff is just starting to look into it, prompted by requests from council members in July.

“Right now there’s a major crisis,” Clark said. “I think they’re starting to realize the things we’ve been saying for years are kinda true.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who has promised to get 2,000 homeless off the streets by 2020, has focused his attention on opening large “rehousing” shelters. He said he would support a safe parking zone as an “interim emergency solution,” though his priority is getting people sheltered.

The city has gone more than three months without such a shelter, though another one is planned to open at the Capitol Park Hotel downtown, where 80 elderly and disabled residents currently live. Steinberg originally said he expected that shelter to open in July, but it is now delayed until September, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency officials said Wednesday.

Sacramento has set aside millions to open at least 800 more shelter beds. The county has about 5,570 homeless people, according to the most recent survey. They live in riverfront encampments, under freeway overpasses and outside City Hall. Sacramento State researcher Arturo Baiocchi, who worked on the study, estimates at least 65 percent of them – or 3,620 – live within the city’s boundaries.

“It’s time for a jolt of clarity and that jolt of clarity, to me, is people gotta be inside and in any way possible,” Steinberg said. “I don’t consider a car to be a long-term or even a medium-term place to be, but if we can organize an area in the short interim and use it to help people get indoors, I’m open to it.”

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Laurane Ivey, 37, gets ready to help move a friend’s belongings and dog to transitional housing after leaving the Railroad Drive shelter, Tuesday, April 30, 2019 in Sacramento. Ivey has been living in her car since a week before the shelter closed. She says they wouldn’t let her back in after she took several days to go to her daughter’s funeral. Her daughter was hit by a drunk driver and spent several days in a coma, suffered 14 broken bones and died, she said. Ivey’s mother Gwen Mayse, 59, right, is also living in a car. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Living in a car is clearly not a long-term solution. For one, it’s dangerous.

Gwen Mayse, 59, normally sleeps in her car with her two small dogs. She lies in the driver’s seat, reclined all the way back. She parks next to her daughter’s Jeep Cherokee in a cul-de-sac of a north Sacramento business park. Half of the cul-de-sac is surrounded by barbed wire.

Most nights, either Mayse’s daughter, Laurane Ivey, 37, or her boyfriend, Dana Ashley, 54, return to the cul-de-sac by dark. When she was interviewed by The Sacramento Bee on a recent evening in July, Mayse was alone.

“I’m afraid if I go to sleep and there’s nobody back here, then something might happen,” Mayse said.

Minutes later, a man she didn’t recognize drove into the cul-de-sac at a high speed, whipped around in a circle and drove away. Just up the hill, a man yelled inaudibly as he rode his bicycle along the Sacramento Northern Bike Trail along Steelhead Creek, which is peppered with homeless encampments.

“Somebody might try to get me,” Mayse said.

Statewide efforts

If Sacramento decides to open a safe parking program, it would join Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and Oakland with similar encampments. San Francisco’s will start later this year.

Councilman Jay Schenirer said he asked city staff to look into the idea previously, but the city’s homeless services office was short-staffed. He and Councilman Rick Jennings renewed the request during a council meeting last month. Jennings sent interns to check out the zones in San Diego and San Jose and report what they learned.

Indoor shelters the city plans to open allow people to bring pets, partners and possessions, and don’t screen them for drugs or alcohol in their systems. They also provide guests with medical and mental health services, and help them find housing.

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About this story

As Sacramento struggles to find a solution to its growing homeless problem – opening and closing shelters, converting hotels to help the homeless, occasionally clearing out homeless encampments – a new problem confronts the county.

The number of people, including families with children, living in their cars in Sacramento County has drastically increased in the last four years.

In this story, we take a look at the data and visit families living out of their cars to tell the story of Sacramento’s homeless crisis.

The city spent $5 million on its first such shelter, at Railroad Drive in north Sacramento, which permanently housed 164 people during the 17 months it was open – about a quarter of everyone who stayed there. Another 100 found temporary housing. In total, 658 people spent some time at the shelter. The city spent about $7,600 per person who passed through the Railroad Drive shelter, or $30,000 for every person who eventually got permanent housing.

San Diego has five safe parking lots, about half run by the city and half run by a nonprofit, that serve more than 600 people living in cars and RVs per night. Along with bathrooms, showers and security, participants get help finding housing, jobs, finance management, dental screenings, credit repair, tutoring for kids and free meals.

About 42 percent of people at the city lots and 35 to 45 percent of those at the nonprofit’s lots find permanent or temporary housing, officials said. The nonprofit’s two lots cost about $85,000 annually to run, said Teresa Smith, CEO of Dreams for Change. The city’s three lots cost about $950,000 annually, according to a spokeswoman for San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina Del Rey, has proposed a state bill that would require all municipalities with populations of 330,000 or more to start safe parking programs by June 1, 2022. Burke said safe parking zones are not replacements for shelters, but a necessary accompaniment.

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“I’ve got a headache,” says Gwen Mayse, 59, as she stresses in a van on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 in Sacramento. She and her daughter were told they had to move their vehicles before Aug. 5th and they had no idea where they were going to go. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com


“It’s not one of those bills you want to have to carry because the last thing you’re trying to do is promote people living in their cars,” Burke said. “However, we do have to deal with the realities of the situations we find ourselves in.”

The programs cost some municipalities just $50,000 a year, Burke said.

“It can be a very cost effective model,” Smith, of the San Diego nonprofit, said.

Safe parking zones and triage shelters often share a common goal – to get people housed. Employees of the organizations that help people find housing can meet the homeless at safe parking zones, before they go to sleep, or at shelters. The difference, Smith said, is that people who live in cars are frequently homeless for the first time, often have kids and jobs, and do not need the more intensive services like mental health and medical.

“This really is a different population than one would find in a shelter,” Smith said. “What we hear over and over again is they don’t fit in the shelter system. They’re usually first-time homeless. It scares them, and I don’t blame them. A car provides a different kind of barrier.”

Three other bills in the Legislature would address the issue of homeless car camping. One would require community colleges to provide access to campus parking for homeless students who sleep in their cars. Another would require the DMV to issue a 90-day permit to operate a vehicle for people in safe parking zones whose registration had expired. And another would exempt people in safe parking lots from requiring a smog check to register their car.

Steinberg said that by early next year, he wants to have at least one shelter open, if not two, and another alternative such as a safe parking zone.

Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator, said her office is starting to look into the idea of safe parking zones, but that getting the lots up and running by winter would be “a huge stretch,” unless there’s already a designated location.

Schenirer suggested lots along the W-X street corridor beneath the freeway be considered for overnight parking. Jennings said he’s looking at parking lots in his south Sacramento district, including churches, community centers and parks.

Neither are sure that any of those will work, though.

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