Rep. Salud Carbajal wants to expand a Santa Barbara County program nationwide with the Naomi Schwartz Safe Parking Program Act. The bill would provide up to $5 million over a five-year period for cities to start or expand a safe parking program.
He is proposing the bill alongside Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a republican from Richvale, California.
“One: it’s a bipartisan issue. And two: I think it’s such a no-brainer program,” Rep. Carbajal said. “I think it has a huge chance of making it over the finish line sooner rather than later, and we’re hopeful that we can get over the finish line in this session and scale this program up.”
The bill is named after former Santa Barbara County Supervisor Naomi Schwartz who championed the program locally.
The Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing Program, offered through New Beginnings, served 600 people last year. It offers a safe, monitored parking spot overnight for homeless people to sleep in their own vehicles and use bathroom facilities.
The program also helps homeless people find jobs, access benefits and acquire housing. The bill requires the grant recipients to provide services that help the homeless find housing and employment.
Julie Bowen, a former participant in the program, spoke about how she was able to move from her car to an apartment.
She, a former real estate broker, lost her house when her mom got sick, and her own health worsened. She lived in her car, barely getting sleep from the anxiety of being vulnerable.
“I felt like I was in pure survival mode, and that made it impossible to work on things in my life that would have allowed me to move back into housing,” she said.
New Beginnings staff helped her access a hotel room when the pandemic struck, and they assisted her in applying for a housing voucher and accessing health care providers.
Ms. Bowen is now living in an apartment and looking for a job.
“It’s not just for overnight parking; the goal has always been to help people get into permanent housing,” Susan Rose, former supervisor and current advisory council member for New Beginnings.
She helped establish the program and found the first parking lot in which to launch the idea.
The Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing Program has received requests for assistance from 65 communities, across more than a dozen states and in two countries, hoping to replicate Santa Barbara County’s program.
“There is clearly a demand for this legislation. We encourage Congress to reflect on the needs of these 65 communities and act now so that everyone can rest a little easier at night, especially if it is in their car in a safe parking lot,” Kristine Schwarz, executive director for New Beginnings, said.
Ms. Schwarz had asked congressional leaders to consider the vehicular homeless “for the past several years.” Her efforts were embraced once Rep. Carbajal joined Congress.
“As with all housing insecurity, vehicular homelessness is a complex issue,” she said. “And addressing it requires intensive case management and a successful public private collaboration amongst all community stakeholders.
“Our own county is seeing an increase in the number of people living in their cars as a result of the pandemic — yet we continue to struggle to expand our safe parking program throughout Santa Barbara County despite the nearly 20 years of a successful run of our program.”
The program, which has been around since 2004, boasts “no major incidents or damage to any of the participating lots or neighborhoods” on the New Beginnings website.
Still, businesses are wary of opening their parking lots to homeless at night.
“As you could imagine, sometimes the better angels in our humanity fail us, and there are always concerns or stereotypes that lead to concerns when we’re dealing with individuals who are challenged or find themselves in uncertain predicaments,” Rep. Carbajal said. “Supervisor Schwartz knew housing this project in downtown Santa Barbara would be a challenge because of some of those perspectives. But she stepped up.”
First District Supervisor Das Williams noted that beyond willingness to participate, funding is a large problem.
“This federal funding would be critical for our county to be able to expand the program,” he said.
Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart agreed.
“We can’t be complacent. The numbers of people that are being served are a tiny fraction of what is needed to address the problem,” he said. “We need to scale this growth. And with federal funding, we can do that.”
Rep. Carbajal hopes the bill will pass this year but knows it is one of thousands of bills that are introduced.
He is optimistic because the bill is bipartisan, though his republican co-sponsor is also a Californian — the state experiencing the largest numbers of homeless individuals.