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Building a Safe Haven: An Interview with the Safe Spaces Parking Program


As the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to grow, it has become increasingly clear that we must work together to provide solutions that address the various dimensions of this complex issue. One critical aspect of this challenge is the need to ensure safe and stable places for those without permanent shelter to rest, especially at night. In a world where ordinances criminalizing homelessness have only served to exacerbate the problem, the Safe Spaces Parking Program at the Association of Faith Communities offers a beacon of hope and a practical solution.


In this exclusive interview, we had the opportunity to speak with the Program Manager for the Safe Spaces Parking Program, delving into the details of this innovative initiative, which aims to provide secure parking spaces for individuals living in their vehicles. Our conversation not only highlights the importance of this vital service but also underscores the necessity for a holistic, community-driven approach to address homelessness.


The solution to homelessness is not one thing, but a convergence of many things happening simultaneously across organizations, sectors, and the whole community. All of the agencies involved in the fight against homelessness are part of an interconnected ecosystem, working together to create a world in which they are no longer needed. Ultimately, we all share the same goal: to end homelessness, one step at a time.


Join us as we explore the power of collaboration and compassion in the quest to provide safe spaces for those in need, and the role that innovative programs like the Safe Spaces Parking Program play in transforming lives and communities.


Listen to the interview on our podcast or read the transcript below.


The following interview transcript has been edited for clarity and readability.


Father Joseph:

My name is Father Joseph Jacobs. I'm the Program Manager for the Association of Faith Communities, Safe Spaces Parking program, and we provide a safe place to park overnight for people here in Santa Cruz County at about 12 different locations in Santa Cruz, mostly faith communities. After people stabilize, we do a needs assessment with them and connect them with the services that they need to be connected with and help them move on to housing. I reached out to Wings because one of my program participants needed a ride to outpatient surgery. He needed to be driven there, and then picked up, and brought back to where he was staying and I wasn't able to do that.


I work for the Association of Faith Communities, which is a local nonprofit based here in Santa Cruz (AFC). AFC is a coalition of about 30 different faith communities in Santa Cruz County. And the mission statement is pretty broad, you know, helping those in need. But the focus really has been on people who are unhoused in the homeless community for quite a long time. I mean, it started with the winter shelter, I want to say 13 years ago now. AFC runs the Faith Community Shelter, which is a rotating nightly shelter and the Safe Spaces parking program, which has been operating now for over two and a half years. And also we have a shower trailer ministry.


The model for AFC’s Board of Directors is a working board, so the board members are all quite actively involved and most of them very actively involved in these programs. They hired me two and a half years ago in April of 2019 to be the Program Manager for the then new Safe Spaces parking program.


Interviewer:

What is the capacity of the safe Spaces parking program? How many people does it serve per night?


Father Joseph:

Currently we're serving 40 people.


Interviewer:

Nice. That's wonderful.


Father Joseph:

And at about a dozen different locations. Towards the height of the pandemic, we were up to 50 and it was kind of overwhelming because of other components that are involved with it. So I had to cut it back to about 40. That's a manageable caseload.


Interviewer:

Yeah, definitely. That's quite a few people. I know that's something, that when I used to be a case manager in Santa Cruz, that was really hard for my clients who were living out of their cars. Finding a place where they could park safely was really difficult, if not impossible sometimes. And so that's really exciting to hear that AFC stepped up to that a couple of years ago and that it's going well and that it's got 40 people.


Father Joseph:

I think we were really instrumental in inspiring and are steering the city of Santa Cruz into doing its own safe parking program. They wanted very much to pass this “oversized vehicle” parking ordinance because of problems that the city and the neighbors are having with oversized vehicles parking on the West Side and West Cliff, in that area. What it boils down to is that unless they have somewhere else for those people to go to park, they can't really just willy-nilly tell them to move along and tow their vehicles. That doesn't play anymore.


I mean, especially since Martin v Boise, but also the Coastal Commission has said, ‘No, this is Coastal Commission land and if you want to be enforcing this ordinance on Coastal Commission property, then you need to have a place for these people to go’. So I think we've been very instrumental in helping the City come to the conclusion that they really needed to do something about this and they began in December.


Interviewer:

That's awesome. That's a really great success story to hear about: AFC starting this program and then having it be modeled by the city. I mean, that's kind of the dream, right? That these grassroots organizations start these programs and really push the public entities to pick up where they leave off.


Father Joseph:

Well, this has been the desire of AFC for some time is to start programs and then say to the city and the county, ‘Look, this works. We're doing it. This is how you could do it. Why don't you?’ And government agencies are much slower moving things than a small nonprofit like AFC, things can move pretty quickly for us because there are only a handful of people involved in making a key decision about something. And it doesn't require a full board meeting every time if they want to start a new program. It requires the full board buying in, but it’s just more nimble.


Interviewer:

That's a beautiful sort of partnership, where a more nimble, smaller organization that can move quickly tests out these different solutions and finds stuff that works. And then instead of the city having to go through and find all these things that work or don’t work, which would take ages, a municipal group can rely on more nimble nonprofits. That's a neat synergy.


Father Joseph:

It's a great synergy, you know? And then what it requires is for the larger agency, the municipal or county agency, which is really working on behalf of the people, to decide to do it right, they have to decide to make that step. And then once they've decided to make that step, they have to commit the resources. And in this case, whether it's a managed camp or safe parking locations, they have to commit the locations. They have to say, ‘OK, this city parking lot, which is not being used at night, we're going to use this for safe parking’. It's a challenge because there's a lot of politics involved and the neighbors are always, you know, unhappy with XY&Z. But we have shown that when properly managed, the programs are not a problem for the neighborhoods. In fact, it could be the other way around.


Interviewer:

That's a really important piece of data. I feel like a lot of people are afraid, and they think it's going to be bad. But you can now show that it isn't bad, but that it’s actually better than not having a safe space to park and to get case management.


Father Joseph:

We can show that it's working - it's been working successfully for two and a half years in a dozen different neighborhoods, from Santa Cruz all the way down to Aptos and in unincorporated areas.


So here's what the problem is today. We've been working very actively with the County since they made available these Emergency Housing Vouchers, which came to Santa Cruz County from other districts that weren't able to use them. But they have a shelf life. It's sort of an incentive. It's like if I said, ‘I'm gonna give you $1,000 but you have to spend it by the end of the month’. And if you went out and all the stores said, ‘No. We don't want your money’. Then you'd have to give the $1,000 back. We bring really good candidates to the voucher programs. We've already done the background check. They'll be stabilized in the Faith Community Shelter or in safe parking. We know them, we know the history.


So now we're partnering with two different landlords directly in Santa Cruz who say, ‘Oh, it's one of your people? We’d love to rent to them!’.


So what we need is more of that. Need more landlords to come to the table because even though recently we've managed to get Emergency Housing Vouchers for 80% of our participants, only a handful of them have found a place to live because there are only that many openings and in addition, there aren't enough landlords willing to accept Section 8 vouchers. So this is a gap. It's a conversation to have with people who are landlords.


So that's really what we need is more landlord advocates for people with Section 8 vouchers. Because even if we succeed, and I believe we will, in getting the vouchers for all of our participants who are eligible for them, they will need landlords to rent to them.


Through the pandemic, our focus shifted because during the shelter in place, the county asked us not to move the shelter around from place to place from night to night. They were fearing it would spread the pandemic that way. And so we worked with a couple of the bigger churches and they agreed to split the shelter into two. The county provided quite a bit of funding from COVID funds that they had received for food and utilities. And so then there we were these people at the shelter for a year and we started doing needs assessments with them and finding out where they were at in their journey.


That works into a whole process, which now we modeled for the County. We didn’t have anyone to sit down and correlate all the services that are actually available to people in Santa Cruz County or unhoused. It ranges from Cal Fresh, all the way to Emergency Housing Vouchers and everything in between.


So we changed our focus from just being a revolving door shelter for people who come and they stay as long as they can want to and then they disappear, into a shelter where we ask, ‘OK, what's the next step for you for employment? And for housing?’


So we've become caseworkers. And it's a lot of work and we're not caseworkers, and we need advocates for finding landlords who will accept Section 8 vouchers. We need to have Section 8 voucher parties.


Interviewer:

Like a Tupperware party, but for good! I like that idea.


Father Joseph:

We need landlords that will rent to you when you have a voucher in your hand. We have people who've had vouchers for 8 years.


Interviewer:

That's crazy.


Father Joseph:

Yeah, it's awful. It's a waste. People like weeping, you know, and they're just a wreck from PTSD from being on the street. So there's that, you know, and then the whole behavioral health. Mental health piece.


Interviewer:

Yeah, it's a real big piece.


Father Joseph:

Fortunately, the city has started to queue into this, too, and they're creating non emergency response teams that include a mental health, behavioral health specialist and the EMT along with law enforcement.


Interviewer:

That's nice. Yep, Yep. Important.


Father Joseph:

The Holy Trinity of services. They are there to respond to someone freaking out at the corner of sketchy and dodgy. They can ask, ‘What do they need?’. They don't necessarily need nine and half ambulances, four SUV's and a fire engine. That's not helping. That's really expensive too.


Interviewer:

Yeah, very expensive.


Father Joseph:

Most of the time when I start talking with people, I have a conversation and ask things like, ‘Where is your driver's license?’ They’re driving around in a car but most of the time it turns out it's very complicated. The stories are very complicated. Why they don't have their driver's license and their registration. A lot of the time it's fines and or court stuff.


Interviewer:

So is that another gap that you see? These fines and fees and stuff like that from the DMV?


Father Joseph:

[Nods]. And for the people who have their driver's license and it's valid, and they're a month behind on their insurance, but they have the registration and it's current, but they just couldn't make ends meet that month - I can help them. I know what to do about that. For the people for whom it's complicated and they missed a court date, and things like that, there's something wonderful which is available for Veterans and it's Veterans court. Santa Cruz County has a Veteran Court. I think it's one day a month, or maybe it's twice a month, but it's a day or hours that are set aside for veterans and parking tickets. The fines can snowball. So if that's the problem, like you can't get your registration renewed until you clear up these parking tickets, I have a person I can call who is the peer support team coordinator for Veteran Court.


The Veteran’s court rep, Stoney is his name, he'll go with the person to the court and say, ‘OK, it's $12,150 worth of unpaid tickets and fines. We want it reduced to $25 and 15 hours of community service’ and they always say ‘yes’.


Interviewer:

That's awesome.


Father Joseph:

We need that for non veterans.

Interviewer:

We need it for homelessness, right?


Father Joseph:

Yeah, exactly.


Interviewer:

Yeah, I totally agree.


Father Joseph

So we need a homeless court to be the equivalent of the Veteran Court. That would be awesome. Because if I could say, ‘Billie Jean, I understand it's not your child, fine, but you need to go to homeless court. And here's the number of the peer advocate’. That would go a long way to decriminalizing homelessness.


Interviewer:

They yeah. There's so many ways in which it's criminalized. It’s hard to tease them all out because they're in these different areas, you know, people understand that a sleeping ban is one way to criminalize homelessness, but fines and fees are a huge other way that not only criminalizes homelessness but it criminalizes poverty. And it keeps people poor.


Father Joseph:

Yeah, it pushes them further down.


Interviewer:

Yeah.


Father Joseph:

So I can see one of the biggest benefits, for not just this community, but for the world is to have a homeless court or an unhoused person's court. From my perspective, which is from the Safe Spaces parking program, if there was a number a person I could call and coordinate with, that would be a game changer.


We have used all along as our model, the safe parking program of Santa Barbara. They've been doing it for 17 years. They have 225 parking spaces at 25 different sites and they are the gold standard. So whenever a question comes up, I'll say, ‘Let me look this up in the manual because there is an excellent manual, let's not reinvent the wheel here’. It helps when I'm talking with new communities to say, ‘We have a two and a half year track record here, and we're basing what we do on the 17 years of experience from Santa Barbara, and these are my mentors and this is how it works.'


Interviewer:

Yeah, that would make people feel a lot better, to show such a track record.


Father Joseph:

Yeah. And there's going to be bad actors in all communities. It's not limited to homelessness, that's just people. It's just humans. That’s the biggest challenge, frankly, really, is the behavioral health and mental health issues as a society. That's a huge gap that we have.


One of the reasons I was hired by AFC is because I have a fair amount of experience with this, but not because I studied it, but because that's my experience. It's easy for me to communicate with people who are having a problem. I may not be able to help them, but I may be able to help them figure out what they need to do next.


Mental health issues are a societal illness. It's a societal problem. And you know, I'm going to say we need to address it as a society.


Interviewer, to audience:

A big thank you to the Association of Faith Communities and Father Joseph for sharing about the Safe Spaces program. This episode was recorded in 2022 and since then we received the following update from Father Joseph which we felt needed to be shared.


“Dear friends and colleagues,


I'm reaching out to you today because of my growing concern about the alarming numbers of local seniors who continue to lose their homes or housing and suddenly find themselves living in their cars or on the streets. Today, the average age of a Safe Spaces participant is 59 years old. Over 20% of our participants are 70 or older and several are in their 80s.


Even with our excellent full time case manager working with them, the prospects for these fragile elderly citizens are not good. I don't want to be doing the memorial services for those who died freezing in their cars in our program.


Why do we, as a society, have such a hard time taking care of our elderly? (Not a rhetorical question)


Sincerely, Father Joseph.”


If you'd like to be part of the solution and host the Landlord Information Party, please reach out to us at info@wingsadvocacy.org and we can connect you with the right people. Or learn more about what we do at www.wingsadvocacy.org.



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