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Valencia Park, Golden Hill offer some help to homeless with vacant lots

Sorry, not for cosplay attendees at Comic-Con

"We kept seeing this kind of segment of the population where they say, 'I'd rather stay in my car.'"
"We kept seeing this kind of segment of the population where they say, 'I'd rather stay in my car.'"

Many San Diegans living on the street were not accounted for in the May 19 report released by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. During the count, some of the unaccounted San Diegans lived in their cars, vans, and RVs.

The 2022 Point-in-Time Count report states that "no less than 8,427 individuals" in the February countywide assessment were homeless. During that February morning, about 1400 volunteers covered as much of the 4,261 square-mile area of San Diego County to assess the unsheltered resident numbers before noon.

"The challenges of finding every person in a car, canyon, or under a bridge is impossible, but every effort is made to find and engage as many people as we can," reads the May 19 report. "This number includes 4,106 unsheltered San Diegans with 4,321 individuals in shelters. Of those surveyed, 85 percent said they had fallen into homelessness in our region." The total count was 10 percent higher than the task force's last count in 2020.

Individuals and families can utilize the electricity and running water from the shack.

Unaccounted families and individuals living in their vehicles are part of the underreported numbers, as families are on the move and missed by surveyors. And by happenstance, if surveyors catch them, some would be reluctant to admit they are homeless and living in their vehicles for fear of being reported to social service organizations, parking enforcement, or the Get It Done app. But on the flip side, some family matriarchs openly declare their homeless status to expedite getting their families back into stationary and standard housing.

There are two spots in San Diego where people can legally park their vehicles and safely sleep within the confines of their vehicles parked within a fenced-off and secure area for free of charge. The first is the New Life Church parking lot by the 28th Street and 94 exit, just east of downtown; the second spot is located at 5605 Imperial Avenue in the Valencia Park neighborhood, about a mile east of the Imperial and 805 exit.

Locals bring donations collected from the neighborhoods.

"If they show up with kids, there will always be a slot for them," Teresa Smith, CEO of Dreams of Change on Imperial Avenue, said to me. "It's why we started this back in 2010. It's because we kept seeing this kind of segment of the population .... where they say, 'I'd rather stay in my car.'"

Smith's non-profit manages the two aforementioned safe parking program locales in San Diego, amongst other long-term solution programs to help transition San Diegans back into stationary homes.

Smith continued, "As we're coming out of the pandemic, we see the cost of rent increase. That's what I hear over and over again.

"My call this last week, 'They're remodeling my place, and we all have to go — the whole complex. We're out. Where do I go? What do I do? I can't find anything that meets my budget.'" She added that these situations are the most common for people calling in seeking a safe place to park and sleep.

"Nobody can just walk in or climb the fence."

In the meantime, the displaced tenants, many of whom are family units, get outbid by the new San Diego transplants willing to pay the higher rents. Consequently — for the first time in their lives, some displaced families and individuals become homeless.

A Realtor.com report states that San Diego County's median "rent growth" increased 25 percent to $3,008 per month in 2021, the second highest median rent in the U.S.

Many people transplant to San Diego for a new job, stay in their vehicles for a while, and shower at local gymnasiums before heading into their new jobs. Other San Diegans moved out of their permanent residences and moved into their vehicles to save an average of $3,008 a month, which does not account for utilities.

More than 70 percent of the participants who check into Smith's two safe parking program lots have incomes.

She continued. "So we started thinking about, 'How do we then help them because they still needed help to get connected because of the system we have,' but while at the same time, preserving some of that dignity and space."

But there's a process and checklist one must complete to get their vehicle into the 60 or so safe parking spots between both Dreams of Change parking lots.

When I interviewed Smith, she was weeding the safe parking spot on Imperial Avenue. It's a fenced-off lot with a shack with a bathroom and shower and a pantry and refrigerator. Once the safe parking candidate is approved, they have to check in at 6 pm. Shortly after, the gates are closed for security reasons, and nobody can just walk in or climb the fence. The individuals and families can utilize the electricity and running water from the shack and hang out on the picnic tables to eat or just hang out. Then, every morning at 6 am, everyone has to pack it up, clean up, and leave the lot with their vehicles. Although Smith has given The RVers in the recent past the option of leaving their gas-guzzling RVs on site — as gas prices in San Diego surpassed the $6 per gallon mark.

Then, cosplayers and comic book collectors call the safe parking program about this time of the year.

"We do see the calls increase during Comic-Con time," Smith explained. "Often we get these calls [where they say], 'Hey, we heard about safe parking, can we come and stay?' So we know when there's stuff going on in San Diego, we'll see those increases. But the focus here is on re-housing. So as soon as they come in to start doing intake, I can tell that 'Oh, I'm only here for the weekend [vibe].' Okay, that's nice; you need to go down the road and find someplace else because this [program] is truly about people experiencing homelessness."

And where we see it impact the most is our elderly and our seniors. That's the population we've slowly seen start to grow in the last few years."

Nobody else was present on the Imperial Avenue lot when I spoke with Smith. However, in an NBC San Diego 7 news clip that aired in October 2021, they interviewed Susan, who stayed at Smith's Imperial Avenue safe parking lot. "Everybody [here] gets along," Susan said in the news clip. "We all eat together. Everyone's been nice. The caseworkers have been great."

Smith does get some pushback from San Diegans.

"It is 'nimbyism,'" she explained. "You know, people who don't want it in their backyards, the 'not in my neighborhood' [mentality]. We've opened quite a few over the last 12 years." Fortunately, the Valencia Park and the surrounding Emerald Hills and Encanto neighborhoods support the safe parking lot at the Imperial Avenue location. "We've been here since the end of 2018."

A couple of neighbors regularly bring meals to the families and individuals on different nights. They also bring donations collected from the neighborhoods. "This has been a very welcoming community, to the point that we bought this property just a couple of months ago, so we're going to be here permanently."

Smith's organization paid $260,000 for the lot and accompanying shack with running water and electricity.

"The biggest reason it was cheap was that you can't build on it," she said. "The city has easements from here back, and because there's a water main and a stormwater drain that runs down on the property right behind that building, you can't build on it."

In April, the city of Vista spoke of a safe parking program on their city agenda. "And we've been out in El Cajon talking with the city council," Smith added. "As of their last meeting, it was 'We're not going to block it, but you have to go through the permitting process.'"

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"We kept seeing this kind of segment of the population where they say, 'I'd rather stay in my car.'"
"We kept seeing this kind of segment of the population where they say, 'I'd rather stay in my car.'"

Many San Diegans living on the street were not accounted for in the May 19 report released by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. During the count, some of the unaccounted San Diegans lived in their cars, vans, and RVs.

The 2022 Point-in-Time Count report states that "no less than 8,427 individuals" in the February countywide assessment were homeless. During that February morning, about 1400 volunteers covered as much of the 4,261 square-mile area of San Diego County to assess the unsheltered resident numbers before noon.

"The challenges of finding every person in a car, canyon, or under a bridge is impossible, but every effort is made to find and engage as many people as we can," reads the May 19 report. "This number includes 4,106 unsheltered San Diegans with 4,321 individuals in shelters. Of those surveyed, 85 percent said they had fallen into homelessness in our region." The total count was 10 percent higher than the task force's last count in 2020.

Individuals and families can utilize the electricity and running water from the shack.

Unaccounted families and individuals living in their vehicles are part of the underreported numbers, as families are on the move and missed by surveyors. And by happenstance, if surveyors catch them, some would be reluctant to admit they are homeless and living in their vehicles for fear of being reported to social service organizations, parking enforcement, or the Get It Done app. But on the flip side, some family matriarchs openly declare their homeless status to expedite getting their families back into stationary and standard housing.

There are two spots in San Diego where people can legally park their vehicles and safely sleep within the confines of their vehicles parked within a fenced-off and secure area for free of charge. The first is the New Life Church parking lot by the 28th Street and 94 exit, just east of downtown; the second spot is located at 5605 Imperial Avenue in the Valencia Park neighborhood, about a mile east of the Imperial and 805 exit.

Locals bring donations collected from the neighborhoods.

"If they show up with kids, there will always be a slot for them," Teresa Smith, CEO of Dreams of Change on Imperial Avenue, said to me. "It's why we started this back in 2010. It's because we kept seeing this kind of segment of the population .... where they say, 'I'd rather stay in my car.'"

Smith's non-profit manages the two aforementioned safe parking program locales in San Diego, amongst other long-term solution programs to help transition San Diegans back into stationary homes.

Smith continued, "As we're coming out of the pandemic, we see the cost of rent increase. That's what I hear over and over again.

"My call this last week, 'They're remodeling my place, and we all have to go — the whole complex. We're out. Where do I go? What do I do? I can't find anything that meets my budget.'" She added that these situations are the most common for people calling in seeking a safe place to park and sleep.

"Nobody can just walk in or climb the fence."

In the meantime, the displaced tenants, many of whom are family units, get outbid by the new San Diego transplants willing to pay the higher rents. Consequently — for the first time in their lives, some displaced families and individuals become homeless.

A Realtor.com report states that San Diego County's median "rent growth" increased 25 percent to $3,008 per month in 2021, the second highest median rent in the U.S.

Many people transplant to San Diego for a new job, stay in their vehicles for a while, and shower at local gymnasiums before heading into their new jobs. Other San Diegans moved out of their permanent residences and moved into their vehicles to save an average of $3,008 a month, which does not account for utilities.

More than 70 percent of the participants who check into Smith's two safe parking program lots have incomes.

She continued. "So we started thinking about, 'How do we then help them because they still needed help to get connected because of the system we have,' but while at the same time, preserving some of that dignity and space."

But there's a process and checklist one must complete to get their vehicle into the 60 or so safe parking spots between both Dreams of Change parking lots.

When I interviewed Smith, she was weeding the safe parking spot on Imperial Avenue. It's a fenced-off lot with a shack with a bathroom and shower and a pantry and refrigerator. Once the safe parking candidate is approved, they have to check in at 6 pm. Shortly after, the gates are closed for security reasons, and nobody can just walk in or climb the fence. The individuals and families can utilize the electricity and running water from the shack and hang out on the picnic tables to eat or just hang out. Then, every morning at 6 am, everyone has to pack it up, clean up, and leave the lot with their vehicles. Although Smith has given The RVers in the recent past the option of leaving their gas-guzzling RVs on site — as gas prices in San Diego surpassed the $6 per gallon mark.

Then, cosplayers and comic book collectors call the safe parking program about this time of the year.

"We do see the calls increase during Comic-Con time," Smith explained. "Often we get these calls [where they say], 'Hey, we heard about safe parking, can we come and stay?' So we know when there's stuff going on in San Diego, we'll see those increases. But the focus here is on re-housing. So as soon as they come in to start doing intake, I can tell that 'Oh, I'm only here for the weekend [vibe].' Okay, that's nice; you need to go down the road and find someplace else because this [program] is truly about people experiencing homelessness."

And where we see it impact the most is our elderly and our seniors. That's the population we've slowly seen start to grow in the last few years."

Nobody else was present on the Imperial Avenue lot when I spoke with Smith. However, in an NBC San Diego 7 news clip that aired in October 2021, they interviewed Susan, who stayed at Smith's Imperial Avenue safe parking lot. "Everybody [here] gets along," Susan said in the news clip. "We all eat together. Everyone's been nice. The caseworkers have been great."

Smith does get some pushback from San Diegans.

"It is 'nimbyism,'" she explained. "You know, people who don't want it in their backyards, the 'not in my neighborhood' [mentality]. We've opened quite a few over the last 12 years." Fortunately, the Valencia Park and the surrounding Emerald Hills and Encanto neighborhoods support the safe parking lot at the Imperial Avenue location. "We've been here since the end of 2018."

A couple of neighbors regularly bring meals to the families and individuals on different nights. They also bring donations collected from the neighborhoods. "This has been a very welcoming community, to the point that we bought this property just a couple of months ago, so we're going to be here permanently."

Smith's organization paid $260,000 for the lot and accompanying shack with running water and electricity.

"The biggest reason it was cheap was that you can't build on it," she said. "The city has easements from here back, and because there's a water main and a stormwater drain that runs down on the property right behind that building, you can't build on it."

In April, the city of Vista spoke of a safe parking program on their city agenda. "And we've been out in El Cajon talking with the city council," Smith added. "As of their last meeting, it was 'We're not going to block it, but you have to go through the permitting process.'"

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