They Thought Religious Groups Would Open Their Parking Lots To The Homeless. They Were Wrong

RVs parked in Manchester Square shelter people without permanent housing. (Josie Huang / LAist)

The founders of Safe Parking L.A. had a simple idea — match people living in their cars with safe places to park overnight, let them sleep without disruption.

The group of friends who started the nonprofit two years ago thought churches and synagogues would be clamoring to open up their parking lots for the night, and that money to fund these efforts would flow from politicians' coffers.

They were wrong.

To date, the nonprofit has only been able to launch three "safe parking" sites with about 30 spots among them — a disappointment given that some 9,000 Angelenos live in cars, vans and recreational vehicles.

Fewer than a handful of city and county politicians have committed any funding, forcing the group to turn to private donors.

Among the biggest letdowns for founders is that only one place of worship, in a city with hundreds of them, has successfully started a safe parking program with them: St. Mary's, a historically Japanese-American Episcopal church in Koreatown.

"I thought more people would raise their hand," said Scott Sale, who founded Safe Parking L.A. with friends from Leo Baeck Temple. "I was surprised that there was as much sensitivity or hesitation on the part of churches and synagogues."

St. Mary's Episcopal Church's lot is where homeless people can park in their cars at night. (Josie Huang / LAist)

WHY RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS HESITATE

To Sale, religious organizations seem like they'd be perfect partners. Many are community leaders in raising money and volunteering to serve the city's homeless. Many have underused parking lots.

But when it comes to sharing their physical plant with homeless strangers, some congregations have raised concerns about issues that include liability.

Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents western San Fernando Valley and has voiced support for safe parking, has heard some of the reservations first-hand.

Leaders at his own synagogue in Tarzana voted this spring to work with Safe Parking L.A. But first they want to make sure that all of the cars parking overnight in its lot are registered and insured, Blumenfield said. This can be a challenge for a transient population.

In Blumenfield's conversations with faith leaders in his district, he's stressed the positive aspects of safe parking, such as the free security the program provides.

"You get a security guard," Blumenfield said. "Your parking lot is safer than it ever was."

Safe Parking L.A. will also add participating organizations to its insurance policy and screen those using the parking lots by running names through the National Sex Offender database.

Other religious congregations worry about children crossing paths with the homeless.

"A lot of the problem is that synagogues and churches have preschools and schools, and their parents are scared to death of having homeless living in their lots, even though they will never see them," said Pat Cohen, another Safe Parking L.A. founder.

Pat Cohen, a founder of Safe Parking L.A. (far right), and Brooke Wirtschafter of IKAR (second to right), show support for putting a safe parking program on IKAR's lot in the South Robertson neighborhood. (Josie Huang / LAist)

AND THEN THERE'S THE COST

Not all religious groups feel this way. One Jewish congregation, IKAR, has pledged to open its parking lot in the South Robertson neighborhood, and last week showed up at a meeting of the neighborhood council with representatives of Safe Parking L.A. to seek its support. The council did.

IKAR plans to offer meal programs to encourage interaction between the homeless visitors and congregants, including the younger ones.

"It's an opportunity for the children to see the problem and how they can be part of some of the solutions," IKAR Executive Director Melissa Balaban said at the meeting.

But before IKAR and Safe Parking L.A. can launch their program, they'll need to find $100,000. That's the amount it costs to operate each site for a year. The money largely goes to paying for the security guard. The budget also includes the cost of renting a portable bathroom that needs to be cleaned multiple times a week and a $500 per month payment to participating religious organizations for use of their utilities.

Safe Parking L.A. has received $38,000 from L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to help cover the cost of operating St. Mary's program. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has contributed $209,000 to open the safe parking lot currently run on county-owned land in Hollywood and another lot scheduled to open later this year on county property in North Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Councilman Mike Bonin has committed enough money to open two lots on city-owned land in his council district sometime this year, according to his office.

In cases where funding for a particular lot has fallen short, the founders of the nonprofit have turned to private donors and friends. The third of the parking programs it runs is located on the Department of Veteran Affairs campus in West L.A. and is funded entirely by donations from individuals who want to honor the veterans' community, Cohen said.

Cohen holds out hope that more religious congregations will join forces with Safe Parking L.A., and by doing so, will build buzz for the program.

With IKAR on board, Cohen said the congregation could help the nonprofit put pressure on local politicians to support it.

"We could be a team," Cohen said.

Emily Uyeda Kantrim, who manages the Safe Parking L.A. program, makes a presentation. (Josie Huang / LAist)

SHOULD PLACES OF WORSHIP FILL IN THE GAPS FOR CARE?

Moving forward, Safe Parking L.A. can expect more help in recruiting places of worship to participate in its program.

Becky Gross, who works on safe parking issues for L.A. Homeless Services Authority, said the partnership between religious organizations and safe parking programs are proving to be a success.

For the last year, LAHSA has been funding a pilot safe parking program at a Methodist church in South Los Angeles that primarily serves families with children. Gross said homeless households have felt more comfortable staying overnight on church property. She said church members have also embraced the program, donating clothing and shoes and providing meals during the holidays.

"The (safe parking) program helps the participants build a strong community, not only amongst themselves but with the church community as well," Gross said. "So I think that inspires people to be more successful and get the services they need."

Gross said future recruitment of churches and synagogues might take place at religious leaders' prayer breakfasts.

One religious scholar cautioned against imposing too many expectations on religious leaders "to fill the gaps in a frayed social safety net."

Brie Loskota, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, said faith-based groups are already lobbied to help by different nonprofits and governmental organizations.

"Every door of the congregation is being knocked on by multiple people, often by groups that have very similar things they want to accomplish but have never talked to each other," Loskota said.

But religious groups will continue to be targeted by those groups for which fighting homelessness is a key priority.

Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, an L.A.-based social justice organization led by faith-based leaders, has made recruiting more religious organizations to do safe parking a top goal, said CLUE spokeswoman Tessie Borden.

"It's been a very challenging mission but certainly not one that we see as impossible and certainly not one we're going to abandon," Borden said.

Josie Huang covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.


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