Church leaders applied to join the parking program run by Santa Barbara’s New Beginnings Counseling Center, which finds overnight parking spots for people living in their vehicles, since local cities have banned it in most areas. The program sets people up with case managers and services to help them move out of homelessness and has been lauded — and copied — on a national level. New Beginnings partners with local nonprofits and churches to gain access to parking places, and Cambridge Drive Community Church, near Kellogg School in the Stow Canyon area, applied to host one recreational vehicle at a time in its lot.
The occupants of the one vehicle would park in the lot from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day and use sanitation facilities inside their RV, or the church or New Beginnings would be required to provide them.
The permit was approved, appealed, approved again and then appealed to the Planning Commission, which led to Monday’s meeting. Neighbors, church members and community members showed up to either demonstrate their support for or opposition to the program, and the commissioners were ultimately split 2-2 on whether the permit complies with the ordinance. Commissioner Jonny Wallis continues to recover from a stroke and was absent.
The lack of a decision means the lower decision — to approve the church’s permit — stands.
Neighbor Robert Shull, who appealed the approval, circulated a petition against the project that said the parking program would decrease property values in the area.
“It is well known that some homeless people living in their vehicle are unpredictable, which is disturbing to many, particularly the elderly and single women, those of us with children and families who now feel safe in this neighborhood oppose such a permit,” the petition said. “All of us have labored many years to have the privilege of living in a nice residential area as well as paying the necessary taxes.”
Neighbors at the meeting voiced similar sentiments, arguing that overnight parking was not compatible with a single-family residence area. They also had issues with the church’s lack of communication on this issue.
“I support it, I would like to see it happen, but not in my neighborhood,” Beverly Daniels said.
The neighbors said they have safety concerns with strangers in motor homes being added to the neighborhood, especially with the amount of activities for children in mornings and evenings. They are also concerned about background checks on the occupants, having supervision of them while they are parked in the lot, and having sanitation services available. The church plans to host only self-contained RVs, which can then go to a dumping station during the day. In other lots, New Beginnings has provided porta potties if necessary.
Alfredo and Jane Gonzalez, who live across the street, said they already have to keep an eye on the church and have called the police for such incidents as children playing on the roof.
“I just don’t want to take on one more responsibility for that church,” Alfredo Gonzalez said.
Neighbor Cristi Smith said the residential neighborhood isn’t the right place for this program and a commercial lot — perhaps the one where the City Hall resides — would be a better fit.
“If the church really feels led to help the homeless, which I admire, why not take them into their church with open arms, take them into their homes or provide financially for them instead of providing them a parking space?” she said.
Stow Canyon Road resident Karen Hunter, who said she lived in an RV for a brief period while homeless in the mid-1990s, said she sympathizes with people living in vehicles but disagrees with the ordinance itself.
“I strongly believe a car is not a place for a person or a family to live and sleep, especially when it is cold or raining outside,” she said.
As program supporters pointed out, people living in vehicles have nowhere else to go. Local shelters are filled to capacity, and the 22-lot parking program has a waiting list of 70, according to New Beginnings Executive Director Kristine Schwarz. Another Goleta church — Community Covenant Church — already belongs to the Safe Parking Program.
“We’ve had the program more than a decade without an incident of any kind,” Schwarz said.
Everyone in the program undergoes a criminal background check, and is required to have vehicle registration and insurance. Case managers have coverage 24/7, and the only problem reported has been someone trying to plug into county power to charge an RV, she said.
People say “we’re making them stay in vehicles, causing them to be in this terrible situation — they have no choice,” she said, adding that New Beginnings is a HUD-funded transitional program to get people off the streets and back into jobs and housing.
Some neighbors spoke in favor of the program, but they were in the minority of neighbors represented at the meeting.
Church leaders urged the Planning Commission to uphold the permit approval and give them a chance to help.
It’s “a religious obligation to reach out to these folks and provide for them in the best way that we can,” Pastor Roy Donkin said.
He did say that the church hadn’t done a very good job connecting with neighbors — including Kellogg School and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — but has been working on it since going through the permit process.
Michele Tappeiner, director of the church’s nursery school, said she fully supports the program.
“I know without a shadow of a doubt that the church would not put our children at risk,” she said.
She lives across the street from Community Covenant Church, which is in the Safe Parking Program, and said she has not had one incident. Her son has even taken the bus with a Dos Pueblos High School student who lives there with a parent and does homework under the street lights on the property.
Local clergy spoke in favor of the permit as well. The Rev. Jon-Stephen Hedges of St. Anthanasius Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church said the people in the Safe Parking Program are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime.
“These are folks in transition. This is not general population, and this is not a hobo camp,” he said. “I get more nervous every fall when thousands of transients show up in my Isla Vista neighborhood.”
The Rev. Doug Miller of the Interfaith Initiative and Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association helped craft Goleta’s ordinance, based off the one in effect in Santa Barbara.
“There are so many safeguards, it’s good for all neighborhoods — that’s the way it was designed,” he said, adding that if one neighborhood says no, they all can, and the ordinance becomes pointless. “There’s no NIMBYism — not in my backyard — written into the ordinance, and I hear a lot of that.”
Planning Commission chairwoman Meg West and Commissioner Bill Shelor voted to deny the appeal, while Julie Solomon and Brent Daniels voted to revoke the permit. With a tie, the zoning commissioner’s approval stands.
West said she was confused as to how a program that seems successful — and complaint-free — everywhere else sparked such outcry from neighbors in this case. She and Shelor said the permit is in compliance with the ordinance.
Solomon, who has experience with the program through her work as a county human services commissioner, said the program has great oversight and the neighbors’ concerns are “based on imaginary things,” which caused violent outcry from the crowd. They yelled out that she was biased and should be excluded from the vote, until West banged the gavel and called for order.
She did vote against the permit in the end, saying the ordinance wasn’t meant to be imposed in neighborhoods that were this hostile to the idea.
Daniels analyzed the decision on a more technical level.
“The bottom line for me, again,” he said, “is that the zoning ordinance, with respect to residential development and residential zoning, would not have people living in trailers in that zone.”