Noel and Lhyn Cunanan were lucky. Both were hit by chronic illness and laid off from good jobs, then lost their home in March 2018. A story by Spectrum News 1 in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley says they now live in their upscale SUV — the last vestige of their abundant life — waiting for affordable housing.

Lucky? Yes, after more than seven months parking on the streets, they found a safe parking zone in a church parking lot where they have access to showers, meals, clothing, social services and a caseworker to help them secure housing.

Here in Half Moon Bay they wouldn’t be so lucky. Despite frequent efforts by the city to respond to homeless encampments, others without homes are hiding in plain sight, parked in their cars and RVs on the streets, shifting from one curb to another, to stay ahead of parking tickets. 

It’s beginning to alarm Coastsiders and may be the next wave of a social issue that already perplexes our community. Whether we think the homeless are nuisances or if our hearts go out to them, there they remain. If we want this to change, we can’t just look away.

Other communities in the Western United States are already running programs specifically to help people who live in their cars. Known widely as “safe parking programs,” they operate in Santa Barbara, Seattle, San Diego, Monterey, San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, Austin and other cities. Now Long Beach is working to establish a program too. 

A December report by the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern California tells us that about 35 percent of homeless people use their vehicle as their primary shelter. After evaluating safe parking programs across the country, they find that successful programs are funded by federal agencies, counties and cities, faith-based organizations and private donors — often in combination. On-site services focus on help for employment and housing in addition to toilets, showers and trash disposal. 

Outcomes are promising. The report states, “In Monterey, the smallest of all programs studied, 50 out of the 75 program participants have been housed since 2014. The Santa Barbara program has served more than 8,800 people since 2004 and cited placing roughly 432 (5 percent) into housing. In San Diego, 1,725 program participants have obtained housing since 2010, roughly 65 percent.”

Safe parking isn’t the only solution to car living. In February, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority had successfully disbanded a small RV camp in the Outer Mission “after homeless outreach workers spent months meeting with occupants of the eight RVs parked on De Wolf Street.” Half of them went into shelters or housing.

As with life, positive results are not assured. Safe parking programs depend heavily on effective coordination among city officials, local police, service organizations and, especially, local communities. But before we can solve the problem of people living in cars, we have to recognize it. Do we?

Douglas Howat is a local writer.

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