Homeless Living in Cars Find Safe Havens

Member Blog

With nowhere else to go, individuals and families with only their cars as a home pull into one of two parking lots in San Diego each night, knowing they will be safe until morning.
“It’s kind of like a family here,” said Chauncy Evans, 56, who sleeps in his 1999 Ford Contour. “I feel comfortable here. You know the people. There’s some value to that.”
His is one of 40 cars that park each night at the Jewish Family Service’s Joan and Irwin Jacobs Campus in Kearny Mesa under a program operated by Dreams for Change, one of WGSD’s grant partners.

Along with its second lot at New Life Church on 28th Street in Golden Hill, the parking program can accommodate 70 cars night.
count in San Diego County found about 9,100 people living on the street, in shelters or other places. Of those, Dreams of Change founder Teresa Smith estimates about 1,000 live in cars.

Through a program operated by Dreams of Change, a WGSD grant partner, homeless people, many of them families, are able to sleep safely through the night in their parked cars at the Jewish Family Services’ Joan & Irwin Jacobs Campus in Kearny Mesa.  

“We’re at capacity,” Smith said. “We have a wait list of over 25. We’re adding about three people a day.”
Smith, who founded Dreams of Change in 2009 and started the parking program in 2010, said she believes it’s the largest of its kind in the country, and only one not run and funded by a city.
While it’s hard to know for sure how many people in the county are living in cars, Smith said the annual point-in-time count of homeless people has gotten better at detecting them by looking for tell-tail signs.

Those signs are easily spotted in Jewish Family Service’s Balboa Avenue parking lot, where some cars are crammed with boxes, blankets, clothes and other possessions needed for day-to-day existence.
Many of the people in the parking lot are like Dale and Dynna Stark, who had been living in an apartment before being evicted in March.  “That was a grind,” said Dale, 49. “It took us eight days to unload a two-bedroom apartment. I’ve never been so injured, and everything hurts so much that you can’t really move fast.”  He and Dynna live with his mother Fleur and their 11-week-old German shepherd puppy, Lady, in a 2009 Ford Taurus.  Most of their possessions were put in storage, and the family packed everything they could into the car.  It’s not comfortable, but at least there’s an electrical outlet nearby, which the husband and wife need to run CPAP machines that helps with their sleep apnea.  Stark said he and his wife are disabled and have little money. A veteran of the Marine Corps, he said he has been working with Veterans Village of San Diego to help find an apartment for less than $1,000 a month.  Smith said the cost of rentals and the scarcity of vacancies has exacerbated homelessness in the county.  “It’s taking them a lot of extra time to find housing,” she said, adding that people in the program usually stay in the parking lots for six months.  “A year or a year and a half ago, it was three months,” she said. “The reason is there’s no housing. The vacancy rate’s bottomed out, and rents are through the roof.”

Smith said people who live in cars often don’t identify themselves as homeless, but rather see themselves as going through a tough patch.  “When we started the program, that was the biggest thing we’d hear,” she said. “They go to a shelter and come back and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m not THAT homeless. That’s not me. I’m just in-between right now.’”

Smith said the organization has had some bumps in the road over the years. It was kicked out of a parking lot at a Vista church twice because the city found it in violation of its camping ordinance. Its now-closed Chula Vista parking lot had 80 spaces, which she said was chaotic because the ratio of case workers to clients was too high.

The nonprofit found a better fit at Jewish Family Service. Michael Hopkins, the CEO of the organization, said the mission of both nonprofits are aligned.  “We’re more than just a parking lot,” said Hopkins about Jewish Family, which provides a shower for Dreams for Change clients and has several programs they can use.  “When people get together to problem-solve, we’ve able to do way more than any one organization,” he said.

Ashley Harrington, public policy manager for Jewish Family Service, said Dreams for Changes also aligns with her organization’s emphasis on self-sufficiency.  “You can’t be self-sufficient and thriving if you’re living in your car,” she said. “You might just need a hand-up this month to get where you’re going.”  Harrington said Jewish Family Service gave financial assistance to a woman who had been in their parking lot, and she now has an apartment.  Hopkins said a 67-year-old woman living in the parking lot was helped by his organization’s senior employment program, and she is working in the kitchen at Jewish Family Service to raise money for a deposit on an apartment.

Harrington said having the clients on their property has been an eye-opening experience for her.
“When I talk to folks at night when I’m leaving, it’s demystifying,” she said. “It changes what you think about in terms of who are San Diego’s hidden homeless. They’re folks going to school, going to work. And they’re living in their cars.”

Smith said clients are screened before being allowed to enter the program and have a background check to see if they are on a sex-offender list because of children on the property.
People also are required to meet with case workers who help them find jobs, homes and financial aid, and everyone in the program has to want to transition out of homeless.  “They have to have a desire to get out of their car,” Smith said. “If somebody says they like living in their car, we say, ‘Great, just don’t do it here.’”  Evans said he has been looking for a place to live since being evicted in February, but can’t find one he can afford.  “I used to own a house in Clairemont,” he said. “I put a $175,000 down payment on it when I bought it years ago, and now I’m like this.”  Evans said he was mortgage broker before the real estate market collapsed.  “All the brokers went broke,” he said.Jesse Larson, 49, is living in a Jeep Cherokee with his wife, Rose, 29, and their 15-month old daughter, Jolene.
“We’ve really looked around and all the shelters are filled up for months,” he said. “There just doesn’t seem to be any help to get into a house or even a temporary situation.”
Larson said they became homeless in Montana in January 2016 and moved around to other cities before landing a month and a half ago in San Diego, where he came to study at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. He hopes to earn a massage therapy license in December.
Until then, it’s a struggle for the family. Jolene suffers from colic and Rose Larson doesn’t have a driver’s license.  “It’s really difficult,” she said. “Especially when he’s in school. I really don’t have a place to keep the baby. There’s not really any playgrounds nearby where he goes to school, so she has to be in the stroller most of the day, and she doesn’t like that at all.”
While he appreciates having a safe place to park at night, Evans is frustrated that more isn’t being done to help the families living in the parking lots.  “I don’t understand why you have all these big vacant properties and buildings, he said. “Why can’t they have somewhere for somebody to at least spend a night or something. We’re not like homeless, mentally ill bums, you know. We’re just down on our luck.”

To learn more about Dreams for Change, including how to volunteer or support the program, visit www.DreamsForChange.org.