The housing crisis has forced people to live in cars. Can we make it safe and legal?

Laurane Ivey, 37, and her boyfriend Herb now live in an RV that they got after trading in their van on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 in Sacramento. Ivey said she suffered from heat stroke and was too exhausted to get out of bed. “It’s a lot better than a car but it’s hot,” said Ivey.
Laurane Ivey, 37, and her boyfriend Herb now live in an RV that they got after trading in their van on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 in Sacramento. Ivey said she suffered from heat stroke and was too exhausted to get out of bed. “It’s a lot better than a car but it’s hot,” said Ivey. rbyer@sacbee.com

It’s tragic when making it easier for people to live in cars is what passes for a bold solution to California’s escalating housing crisis. But that’s what it has come to in the Golden State in 2019.

Every night in Sacramento County, hundreds of people – including approximately 100 children – lay their heads down to sleep on the seats of the cars they call home. A survey of the county’s homeless population conducted earlier this year found homeless people using approximately 340 vehicles as shelter.

“The number of people, including families with children, living in their cars in Sacramento County has drastically increased in the last four years,” according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Theresa Clift. “Volunteers canvassing the county in January found four times the number of vehicles where people were living than they counted in 2015.”

Sacramento is not unique. With housing and shelter beds in short supply, the trend of people using their vehicles as homes has become increasingly common in cities across the state.

That’s why Sacramento is rightly considering the creation of safe parking zones where people who live in their vehicles can safely park. In doing so, Sacramento would join several cities across the state – including Oakland, San Luis Obispo, San Diego and Santa Barbara – in creating legal spaces for homeless people who live in cars.

“For many homeless families, living in a vehicle is like hanging on to their last piece of normalcy,” wrote Clift. “They plan to just live in their cars for a few weeks in between losing an apartment and finding the next one.”

Living in a car is hard enough, but city laws make it even harder. When you live in your car, parking tickets and tow trucks become an existential threat. When a person’s shelter gets towed away, they can lose all of their belongings in the process.

That’s what happened to Gwen Mayse, who lives in a Honda Accord in North Sacramento with her two small dogs. Her daughter lives nearby in a Jeep Cherokee.

“Mayse has had three cars towed in recent years,” wrote Clift. “She never gets them back. When her Ford Expedition parked on an Elk Grove street earlier this summer got towed, she and her daughter lost everything – clothes, toiletries, tools, their new car jack, and even Mayse’s birth certificate.”

Safety is another pressing issue for vehicle dwellers. Parked on isolated streets or cul-de-sacs, potentially in violation of the law, homeless people can be left more vulnerable to crime.

“I’m afraid if I got to sleep and there’s nobody back here, then something might happen,” Mayse told The Bee.

For people who have hit rock bottom and must live in their cars, a safe place to park can make a big difference. That’s why it’s heartening to see Sacramento leaders like Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Councilman Jay Schenirer and Councilman Rick Jennings embracing the idea.

“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,” said Steinberg, who has made solve homelessness a priority. “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.”

Schenirer and Jennings have asked city staff to study the idea, which was recommended by Sacramento State University researchers who conducted the countywide homeless count.

Sacramento’s safe parking zone would have security guards, bathrooms and shower trailers, matching the approach other cities have taken. While Sacramento is spending millions to open temporary shelters around the city, the tide of homelessness is rising too quickly to keep up. Many people who live in their cars are new to homelessness.

The approach seems to be working in other cities.

“Our first site is doing better than we could have possibly imagined,” said Joe DeVries, assistant to the city administrator of Oakland, where the city opened a safe parking lot for people who live in recreational vehicles. “The need is overwhelming.”

Oakland plans to open more sites, while San Diego already has five sites serving more than 600 people a night. Safe parking lots are more economical than traditional shelter spaces, and some can cost less than $50,000 a year, said Assemblymember Autumn Burke, D-Marina Del Ray.

Burke has introduced a bill to require municipalities with 330,000 people or more to open safe parking lots by 2022. Three other bills pending in the Legislature would make it easier for people to live in their cars without legal problems.

It’s a sad sign of the times, but also a refreshingly realistic approach to a growing crisis. Sacramento should open as many sites as necessary to keep people safe until they can find real housing. Residents of Sacramento County can play a role by supporting, rather than opposing, the placement of safe parking lots in our communities.

To start, Sacramento’s leaders should consider declaring the streets around the State Capitol a safe parking zone. It might provide state officials with a daily reminder of the escalating and untended emergency on their doorstep.