This week, Palo Alto, California passed a vehicle dwelling ban. People found living in their vehicles will be charged with a misdemeanor and face a maximum penalty of six months in county jail, a $1,000 fine or both. The criminalization of homelessness with laws like this, actually creates more homelessness and greatly increases taxpayer costs. When a person just loses their job and apartment, they often will sleep in their car, or find a old RV on Craigslist to live in. Obviously, they are extremely low-income, so they do not have the ability to pay a fine. If they don't pay the fine they go to jail, or they may go directly to jail, which taxpayers pay for. Either way, their car or RV is impounded causing them to be unsheltered homeless, which then causes a different and more tragic issue, and taxpayers pay for that too.
I first learned about mobile homelessness from Sandy, a woman I met who sleeps next to her car because she was arrested for sleeping in her car. Since then, I have met many people who call their vehicles home.
As an outreach worker, I have been in several meetings where business owners and church leaders say they have compassion for vehicle residents, but then in the same breath say they cannot use their parking lots. COME ON FOLKS! Most church parking lots are used only twice a week, yet most churches won't open their unused parking lots to people who need a safe place to park!!!
Although there should be services so no one has to sleep in a vehicle, I am glad that there are safe parking programs like I found on a recent trip to San Diego. Dreams for Change operates out of three parking lots around the city. I have to give a huge thanks to the churches that are not only allowing use of their parking lots, but also use of showers and bathrooms. That may seem like only a little, yet it is rare for a church to allow homeless people to use their facilities. If you work at or attend a faith based group that has a building and parking lot, I hope you will consider opening a safe parking program.
In the following video I interview Teresa L Smith, Ph.D., who co-founded Dreams for Change. Safe parking programs like this are actually very rare, so I am grateful for the opportunity to learn more and share their story. Passing laws to fine people, and sending them to jail for living in their vehicle is ridiculous. Criminalization increases taxpayer costs and creates more problems while solving nothing. Ideally, I hope we'll have adequate services so people will not have to live in any state of homelessness, but until then, please support safe parking programs in your community.