For this Family, Safe Parking L.A. Was a Lifeline During the Crisis of a Lifetime
Rose Gutiérrez has had a nightmare of a year.
Despite receiving aid from the state and social security from the federal government, caring for her autistic son – the youngest of her four boys – already stretched her budget rather thin. When her husband struggled with substance abuse and lost his job, things went from bad to worse. Then, when she divorced him and lost her home, she found herself living a full-blown crisis. Not only had she lost her ability to shelter her family, but moving away from the Whittier School District meant her son would lose access to the Individualized Education Plan services he relied on.
By August of this year, Gutiérrez was scrambling.
Shouldering her son’s care had left her unable to afford a deposit for a new apartment. But the shortage of family facilities and the fact that she was employed made it harder for her to both access shelter and keep her family together.
Then, during yet another call to 211, a case worker recommended Gutiérrez try the Safe Parking Program in Los Angeles.
It would mark a turning point for her.
Within hours of sending program staff an email through their website, Gutiérrez had received a text message from Scott Sale, one of the three founders of Safe Parking L.A.: they would have a space open for her that evening. She finally had a place she and her boys could stay.
It was not ideal. She knew that commuting from the lot in Koreatown to schools and work in Whittier would be onerous and expensive, but it kept her family together.
“Yes it helped. Of course it helped,” explained Gutiérrez in a call last week. “Everything happened so fast, and there was so much to take care of. To know we had a place to stay every night we needed it was a huge help.”
It also gave her the ability to focus on finding a more permanent housing solution – the larger goal of the Safe Parking program – instead of having to expend her limited energy and resources on finding temporary shelter every night.
When I visited the Safe Park lot in at the Veterans Administration last month, Chanin Santini, the case worker underscored this point, saying, “The program can’t be about making sleeping in cars a permanent solution.”
While Safe Parking programs do not have housing services explicitly attached to them, case workers such as Santini regularly visit the lots to help participants connect with the system. “We’re happy to help provide a safe, protected lot. Happy to provide a place for Meals on Wheels to drop off food,” Santini says, “But we have to be more than that.”
When asked how successful they had been in moving people into more stable housing, staff with Safe Parking L.A. estimated they “probably have one patron/couple/family matched to a housing resource, connected to interim [housing], or housed every ten days to two weeks, across all locations,” but noted that an exact number was difficult to nail down. For one, Safe Parking has not yet been fully integrated into the centralized data system, and data from the Veterans Administration homeless services is classified differently than that available from the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.
The time it takes to house someone can also vary significantly, adding another wrinkle to the counts. At lots where service providers come on site to work with patrons, housing can be accessed as quickly as within six weeks. For someone with barriers to housing (low credit score or a previous eviction) and without strong interaction with a service provider, six months may be an average. Sometimes Safe Parking L.A. doesn’t find out that a former participant was successfully housed for weeks after they’ve stopped showing up at the lots.
And, as always, success rates for housing will continue to be constrained by the housing supply.
In Gutiérrez’ case, Safe Park didn’t magically lessen her burden – driving back and forth to Whittier cost her nearly $20 a day in gas. And her low credit score – a product of most of her bills having been in her ex-husband’s name – made it hard for her to find a landlord willing to take a chance on her.
But Safe Park also kept her housing status from adding to her burden. Her children were able to continue attending school in Whittier and she was able to both keep her job and keep up her search for a landlord who was willing to hear her out.
“I kept getting shot down. I could only afford a one bedroom and people kept telling me that it wasn’t enough space,” Gutiérrez explains. “But one day, I called, my heart told me to call and be completely honest, and just told a landlord my whole story. He told me he had a renter who wasn’t paying his rent and would be out soon. ‘Just come by. Bring your papers.’ Later that day I was approved…He wrote a promissory note, a legal document, that says the apartment is mine as soon as it’s available.”
She is currently living at her mother’s house and providing care for her as she recovers from surgery. Then she is set to move into the apartment in Whittier – a lease agreement has been signed. The Gutiérrez family is out of the Safe Parking Program.
When Safe Parking L.A. volunteers asked to photograph her family to use the picture to build support for the siting of another lot in another community, Gutiérrez immediately acquiesced. A few days later, one of the volunteers told her that the new lot site had been approved, in part, because of her photograph.
“We weren’t doing anything wrong, we were just trying to survive. I was happy to take a picture, to show my family, if it would help,” Gutiérrez explains. “Now other families will have a chance to be safe like my family was.”
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Safe Parking L.A. prides itself on getting people into the lots “as quickly as possible.” There are currently spaces available at some of their lots in operation, including the expanded lot at the Veteran’s Administration. Founder Scott Sale urges anyone looking for a safe place to park for the evening to contact Safe Parking L.A. through their website