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Serving people experiencing vehicular homelessness in Los Angeles

Young Adult Volunteer: ‘Everyone’s story is different’

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

The first lot opened about a year ago by Safe Parking LA is at a church in Koreatown. Each lot has a portable bathroom and a guard available during program hours. (Photo by Rachel Eliser)

LOUISVILLE — Many individuals and families are just one paycheck away from homelessness, explained Rachel Eliser, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) serving with Safe Parking LA, a nonprofit committed to providing a safe and secure place for vehicle dwellers to sleep. The Safe Parking LA program is modeled after programs in other cities in California, including Santa Barbara, San Diego and San Jose, as well as communities in Washington state and Oregon.

Through her work with Safe Parking LA during her year of YAV service, Eliser has met a woman living in her car with her 3-month-old son and a man living in his vehicle because he had to choose between paying rent on his apartment or child support for his four children. These tenants gave permission for Eliser to share their stories.

When she asked the man about sharing, he replied, “Absolutely! I am here on this planet to learn and to share my experiences with humankind. Take care of yourself because you have been an inspiration to me that humanity caring is still in our natural makeup. Please include that I am able to succeed with my life at this time because of Safe Parking LA.”

“Their story is their reality,” Eliser said. They are among the more than 15,700 vehicle dwellers (car, van, camper, RV) in Los Angeles County, as of the homeless count taken in January 2018. On Skid Row, a 54-square-block area of downtown LA where it is legal to sleep on the streets, on any given night there are approximately 84,000 people transitioning through homelessness and in shelters.

Vehicle dwellers make up more than 25 percent of the overall homeless population of LA.

“Safe Parking LA often gets applicants who are college educated and working 40 hours a week,” Eliser said. “We are not case managers, nor social workers. We simply want to provide people with a safe place to sleep at night, while resting their body and their mind, so they can continue working to get back into housing.” She said Safe Parking LA provides access to a restroom facility while also helping vehicle dwellers avoid parking tickets and harassment.

If an applicant has a family, every effort is made to try to connect them to family services where their needs can be prioritized, she added.

Eliser majored in public relations at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, and served as a publicity intern for the New Wilmington Mission Conference prior to her YAV year in LA, which she describes as “beyond words, incredible.”

“I grew up in Ohio,” she said, “and you don’t really think about homelessness. I mean it’s easy to just not think about it, specifically vehicular homelessness.” Coming to LA, she said, “You can’t ignore the homeless population and the struggles that they’re facing.”

Rachel Eliser, a Young Adult Volunteer in Los Angeles, and one of her Safe Parking LA colleagues, Eurie, at right, pose with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti during a Homeless Connect Day event. Connect days are similar to job fairs, except that booths are staffed by service providers to help people experiencing homelessness. (Photo by Emily Kantrim)

Safe Parking LA obtains privately or publicly owned parking lots. Some lots are owned by the Department of Transportation or the Department of Public Health. Other lots are owned by faith organizations, such as the first Safe Parking LA lot that opened at a church in April 2018.

There is a general application and a compliance form that must be completed online. Tenants must have a valid driver’s license, as well as current vehicle registration and insurance. “If their registration and insurance is not current, we have organizations we work closely with that can help,” Eliser said.

“As long as the parking lot is in a convenient location for the applicant, in terms of work or their children’s school or things like that, we can bring them on and give them a permit to hang on their rear view mirror,” Eliser said. “They will have a permit for one specific lot. We have about six lots right now. They are not required to park every single night, so we often get people who stay with family for a weekend or they work during the week around here, but they have a second weekend job elsewhere. We accommodate for that.”

Eliser’s job placement at Safe Parking LA is varied. She works on applicant intake, which means talking with applicants to determine if they are in an area convenient to one of the parking lots. If not, she is able to share information on other resources and collaborate with others to help provide assistance. She also attends meetings and works on the website and social media for Safe Parking LA. She visits each of the lots from time to time and, on Saturday evenings, serves as a lot coordinator, checking people in as they arrive. Each lot also has a guard on duty during program hours.

A Presbyterian church in Beverly Hills donated 450–500 bags of canned food and water bottles to be handed out to Safe Parking LA patrons as needed.

“Most people living in their vehicles are homeless for the first time, and very recently homeless,” Eliser said. “So they don’t know what resources are available to them, or they may not even consider themselves homeless, like this is a temporary thing. We always emphasize that no one at Safe Parking LA is a case manager or social worker or housing navigator or anything like that. We are simply lot operators, so we always try to point them in the direction of a case manager or housing navigator or whatever they may need.”

She added, “A lot of times you pick up the phone and you start talking to someone, and all they need is an ear to listen. If that’s all I can offer to someone, sometimes that’s their saving grace. That’s definitely a huge lesson I’ve learned.”

Eliser said she applied to serve at four YAV sites within the U.S. “I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” she said. “After being interviewed for Los Angeles through YAV’s mutual-discernment process, my thought process was that I felt the impact that I would get from Los Angeles would be the most incredible thing to happen to me because the reality of homelessness and the severity of it in LA was just something that really resonated with me.”

Rachel Eliser with Curren Price, a member of the Los Angeles City Council, during a Connect Day event. (Photo by Emily Kantrim)

This is the first year the YAV program has partnered with Safe Parking LA, which is holding a May 15 workshop in Los Angeles to discuss the concept of safe parking, best practices and challenges for operating a safe parking lot, as well as what’s on the horizon serving people experiencing vehicular homelessness. The workshop is free and open to the public. For more information or to register for the workshop, visit

“Vehicular homelessness is the future of homelessness in LA,” Eliser said. “People are continuously getting kicked out of housing.”

A California State Assembly bill (Assembly Bill 302) would require all community college districts to grant overnight access to campus parking facilities to homeless students for the purpose of sleeping in the student’s vehicle overnight. The bill passed the Assembly Higher Education Committee with a 10-0 vote. It will next be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee in May.

Apply to be a YAV

There’s still time to apply for a year of service as a Young Adult Volunteer in the 2019–20 year (August to August). Spots are available at several national sites. To learn more, follow @yavprogram on Twitter and apply by June 1.

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