Viola Fields
Viola Fields, at 6145 Carpinteria Ave. adjacent to the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve, has been suggested as a possible Carpinteria location for the New Beginnings Counseling Center’s overnight Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing Program, which assists the vehicular homeless. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The City of Carpinteria is looking at possible locations for a program that provides safe overnight parking to people sleeping inside their vehicles.

The City Council last week directed city staff to work with New Beginnings Counseling Center to find potential parking lots for the nonprofit organization’s Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing Program. The vote also allowed staff to identify sites suitable for portable restrooms to remain open 24 hours.

City staff is expected to report back to the council on possible sites at a future meeting.

Councilman Gregg Carty proposed a site for the safe parking program.

“When I think of a location, one of the only I can think of would be the upper parking lot at Viola Fields,” he said, adding that the city “should probably only try it (the safe parking program) in one location to start.”

Viola Fields, at 6145 Carpinteria Ave. adjacent to the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve, is part of the city’s park system.

Mayor Wade Nomura spoke of the city’s plan for exploring possible locations for the safe parking program.

“Maybe we can take a look at all options, but I do like your choice,” he told Carty.

Councilman Roy Lee said the program is a “great opportunity,” but he would like “more information to weigh the pros and cons.”

Lee suggested that the city look at “a buffer zone away from the residences,” later adding, “I hope staff can come back with something more detailed.”

New Beginnings Counseling Center’s Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing Program

New Beginnings Counseling Center’s Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing Program offers people living in their vehicles a place to go at night while they look to make the transition back into housing. The program has been operating in Santa Barbara, Goleta and nearby unincorporated areas. (New Beginnings Counseling Center photo)

Vice Mayor Al Clark said he would like to learn more about the vehicular homeless program and how it would be implemented in Carpinteria.

“It’s very promising,” he said. “It will get people off the street, and get them into housing sooner.”

The March 22 meeting included a presentation by New Beginnings executive director Kristine Schwarz.

The program is currently operating elsewhere on the South Coast, including Santa Barbara, Goleta and nearby unincorporated areas. There are 26 parking lots being used with more than 150 spaces.

In the North County, meanwhile, the program recently received Lompoc City Council approval to open the first lot on city-owned property later this spring.

Safe parking is an overnight shelter for families and individuals living in their vehicles, Schwarz said, with the goal of helping participants make the transition into permanent housing.

The lot is a place “for people who are forced to live in their vehicles to have somewhere to go,” she explained.

“It is not an encampment,” Schwarz said. “It is not an alternative lifestyle program.”

She described the program as “incredibly structured.”

“While people are in our shelter at night, we are also working with them during the day to transition them back into housing,” she added.

Schwarz said the federally mandated point-in-time count conducted in 2020 found at least 51 percent of Santa Barbara County’s unsheltered homeless population were living in their vehicles.

“That’s a significant number of people in our county,” she said.

The tally found at least 39 people experiencing homelessness last year in Carpinteria, and more than 20 individuals were counted experiencing vehicular homelessness, according to a presentation from Schwarz.

Between one to 15 vehicles will park in each lot, depending on the size of the site, and the program works in partnership with for-profit and nonprofit organizations, along with city, county and faith-based groups.

“It’s all structured,” Schwarz said of the program, mentioning that each lot owner is insured by New Beginnings.

“We distribute impact in scattered sites, so we don’t take one parking lot and fill it to capacity with a bunch of vehicles,” she said.

In general, program participants are permitted to enter the lot after 7 p.m. and they’re out by 7 a.m. There’s no curfew because several people work at night or work into the night.

“If they were required to meet a curfew, they might not be able to maintain their job,” Schwarz said.

She said people are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis, and each lot has a different population based on discussions with the property owner, vehicle type, current needs of the program and lot location.

One lot might serve all women, while another might have families or all RVs.

“The lots are for parking and sleeping only,” Schwarz said, adding that some have access to restrooms, while others have portable toilets or self-contained vehicles. Lots are monitored throughout the night and morning.

Safe Parking Program Demographics

According to Schwarz, about 8 percent of program participants are under the age of 18 and 4 percent are families.

She said 60 are between age 55 and 62, 20 percent are older than 63, and 95 percent of participants are below 30 percent of the $75,653 area median income.

“There’s a significant and growing, unfortunately, population of seniors in the program,” Schwarz said.

“One of the main reasons people find themselves homeless in Santa Barbara is because of a lack of income to afford housing,” she added later.

About 22 percent of participants are employed, Schwarz said. Some people lose their housing because of overwhelming medical bills, and some people lost their housing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“The most recent data we have tell us that 20 percent of our current program population is homeless because of COVID, and that’s just in safe parking, not across all of our other programs,” Schwarz said.

Carpinteria resident Phoenix Hawking voiced support for a safe parking program in the city during real-time public comment. The 72-year-old described it as a good thing for the community.

“When I was a kid, there were seven of us sleeping in the car,” she said. “We weren’t bums. We weren’t criminals. My mother and father both worked, but nobody wanted to rent to somebody with five kids.”

Hawking shared her own experience of growing up.

“There was also no help back then,” she said. “Nobody to help us find housing or to figure out where the food was going to come from, and to this day — to my dying day — I will remember how it felt sleeping seven in a Buick, and eating raw potatoes.

“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” she continued. “The safe parking program I think will help people who were like me when I was a kid.”

Hawking said people want a place to sleep at night.

“With a program like this, people like me who grew up sleeping in cars when they had to will finally get some help,” she said.

It’s important for New Beginnings to understand the unique needs of the Carpinteria community, Schwarz said.

“We understand community members and residents get nervous with any kind of new program, especially a new program that provides services to people who are vulnerable,” Schwarz said. “They are concerned about the implementation and the execution of expansion.

“We are accustomed to understanding what people’s concerns are.”

New Beginnings is committed to Carpinteria, according to Schwarz.

One New Beginnings board member is a Carpinteria resident who is assisting the organization in the expansion effort.

The organization has provided sliding scale mental health services to low-income residents, with 11 mental health clients from Carpinteria in 2020.

New Beginnings also has a seven-year history of addressing veteran homelessness in Carpinteria through the organization’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, and partnership with Carpinteria’s Lou Grant Parent-Child Workshop.

The organization provides housing assistance services and psychological counseling to the homeless, and low-income individuals and families across Santa Barbara County. The organization also works to provide services to veterans and others, as well as the safe parking program.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.