Some Encinitas residents are concerned about a plan to relocate an overnight parking lot for people living in their cars, with critics saying the new location is too close to schools.
The Safe Parking Program gives people who have lost their homes a safe place to sleep at night. It helps people like 63-year-old Susan, a lifelong City Heights resident, who asked us not to use her last name. She became homeless in March after her mother passed away. She said she couldn’t afford the rent on her own.
“It was just hard, really hard," Susan said. "I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing. I just loaded my car with my dog and clothes and that's it."
Susan now spends every night at a Safe Parking Program lot on Imperial Avenue in San Diego that is run by the nonprofit Dreams for Change. The lot is open to participants from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Every day, Susan said, her routine is the same.
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“My day is: I leave here and I go to a park and I sit there at the park," Susan said. "There is nothing else to do."
Susan said she looks forward to returning to the lot, where she eats dinner and sleeps.
“Everybody gets along," Susan said. "We all eat together. Everyone’s been nice. The caseworkers have been great.”
Teresa Smith has been running the Dreams for Change lot on Imperial Avenue, and another location on 28th Street, since 2010.
“So we take anyone that is experiencing homelessness and living in their vehicle and have a willingness to move back to housing,” Smith said. “That fear of who these people are [is] completely unfounded.”
Smith said both lots are completely full, with about 30 vehicles parking at each location every night. The sites have bathrooms and running water, security and access to social workers. Participants and workers are responsible for cleaning up every day before they leave.
Jewish Family Service runs four other Safe Parking Program locations, including the only one in North County — the Encinitas lot that’s getting ready to move to a new spot.
“All of our participants are prescreened for entry,” said Chris Olsen, chief of staff at Jewish Family Service. “We have security on-site during our operating hours in the evening, and we leave a clean space in the morning, and we're always willing and happy to work with neighbors."
Some neighbors aren’t welcoming the new location for the program in Encinitas, however.
Tamara Daul protested outside Encinitas City Hall on Sept. 29 when the city council gave its initial approval to move the Safe Parking Program.
“They go to our beaches and our libraries, and they hang out in front of downtown Encinitas,” Daul said, referring to the homeless population.
Charlotte Getz, another Encinitas resident said, “I don't think it’s a good idea to have homeless shelter cars parked that close to the school.”
The plan would move the Safe Parking lot from its location on Saxony Road to the Encinitas Community and Senior Center off Balour Road. Critics’ main concern? It’s right next to Oak Crest Middle and other schools.
Only a small section of the parking lot will be used for the program, which will be capped at 25 vehicles each night. Smoking, drinking and drug use are not allowed at any of the sites.
Some opponents told NBC 7 that it’s not the people admitted into the Safe Parking Program who concern them. Rather, it's those who are turned away and end up making neighborhood streets their home.
"You know, I would look at the record over the past 18 months," Olsen said. "We have been operating a program successfully in the city of Encinitas. So much so that at a recent city council meeting, Captain Taft from the sheriff's department actually testified that he found no proof or correlation between increased crime or any changing crime actually attributable to safe parking.”
NBC 7 Investigates combed through records from the San Diego Sheriff’s and Police departments to see how many times officers and deputies were called to the Safe Parking locations during their operating hours and what for.
At the current location in Encinitas on Saxony Road, deputies have responded three times over the past 18 months. One of those was for a noise complaint, and the two others were requests for extra patrols.
At the other three locations run by Jewish Family Service, there were a total of 39 calls to police over the past two years, but only three of those ended with officers taking some kind of action. In one case, a person was taken into custody for a mental health reason. Reports were taken for the other two calls, which included a minor injury accident and a threatening phone call.
NBC 7 Investigates found that law enforcement was at the two locations run by Dreams for Change at least 18 times in the past two years. In two cases, people were arrested — once for disturbing the peace and another time for robbery. There were also three reports taken for disturbing the peace and burglary.
Cheryl Mendez, 64, considers herself a success story.
“I think we should embrace and help people as much as we can to help people get back on their feet,” Mendez told NBC 7 Investigates. “For me, I was so grateful for the Safe Parking Program.”
Mendez was working as a security guard when an accident changed her life.
“I fell four-and-a-half feet down the stairs, and I messed up my lower back and hips, and so I was not able to work anymore,” Mendez said.
Mendez couldn't pay her bills, became homeless and had to use the Safe Parking lot on 28th Street for a year. After years on a waiting list, she said, she finally got approved for Section 8 housing and now has a place to call home.
Cheryl’s transition into housing is something Susan dreams of, but until then, she said, “we hope that more people understand that we are not going to ruin the neighborhood because we don't. We are a community trying to find a way out.”
The plan to relocate the Encinitas parking lot needs one more vote from the city council. That is scheduled for Wednesday evening’s meeting. If it passes, the city attorney must still sign off on the plan.