Early on a chilly Monday night, the first of what would become eight clients of a newly opened overnight parking area for homeless people brought his vehicle to a stop at the back entrance to the Leichtag Foundation property.
The middle-aged man, who drove a sport utility vehicle and holds a job in the retail industry, checked in with the security guard at the gate. The guard looked his name up on a list, then opened the big metal barrier that had blocked off access to the Leichtag Foundation’s 67-acre farmland property and directed the man to drive up a paved, private roadway toward the 25-spot parking area. Just over the crest of a hill near some night-lit greenhouses glowing softly in the darkening evening sky, two caseworkers waited to greet the man.
He spoke to them briefly after he parked his vehicle near the portable restroom building, then climbed back in the vehicle, eased his seat back and closed his eyes, looking like a weary dad waiting for his kids to finish an evening soccer or softball game.
“He’s tired, I can see,” Lea Bush, the senior director of family and community services for Jewish Family Service, said as she watched from the shadows.
Both Bush and Charlene Seidle, executive vice president of the Leichtag Foundation, said the man was typical of the people who have been referred to the new Safe Parking Program lot in its first five days of operation. Nine of the 10 clients in the first few days reported that they were employed — one works in a beauty parlor, another in a fitness center. All either work in Encinitas or say they have been sleeping in their vehicles on the city’s streets at some point in the last year, Bush said.
“We really tried to hold to the guidelines that we have,” she said, referring to the rules the city has set for the project.
Most of the new lot’s overnight occupants drive SUV-type vehicles; they don’t look like they’re homeless and they don’t want people to know that they are, she added.
That’s why it has been so hard to convince opponents of the parking lot proposal that there is a need for this lot; they don’t realize these homeless people exist, Seidle said.
Jewish Family Service, which operates three Safe Parking Lots in San Diego, has teamed up with the Leichtag Foundation and the city of Encinitas to create the lot, its first in North County. The Leichtag Foundation is leasing one of its paved parking areas, a small lot nearly surrounded on three sides by farm buildings, to the city for $1 a year, and the city is contracting with JFS to manage the operation each night. JFS has received a $256,000 grant from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program to fund the project.
The goal of the new parking lot program, organizers have said, is to catch people who have recently fallen into homelessness and help them get back on their feet, so they don’t become permanently homeless. The two caseworkers will be helping the clients with everything from money management to house hunting skills. In order to use the lot, people must have a functioning vehicle that they’re currently living in. And, they can’t just show up at the gate. They’re prescreened for various things, including criminal history, before they’re granted permission to come.
So far, the site is running at less than half full. On Monday night, eight spots were claimed by the gate-closing time of 9:30 p.m. On Tuesday, JFS’s enrollment processing system had reviewed a total of 11 requests to use the lot, and three more enrollments were pending, Bush said.
She added that they expected to have a slow start to the project. What’s been unexpected is that people tend to arrive later each night than what JFS has experienced with its San Diego lots. Most of the new Encinitas lot participants are coming in between 7 and 9 p.m. after they get off work, not at 6 p.m. when the lot opens, she said.
That may partly be due to the recent weather, she added, saying people might be hanging out in places with heat as long as they can. In recent days, the weather has been a bit chilly. By 7 p.m. on Monday night, the temperature had dropped to 55 degrees and the security guard at the gate was dressed in multiple layers of clothing and a black beanie.
He told a reporter that his job had been so trouble-free and quiet that he was contemplating entertaining himself by counting the acorns he could hear falling from the nearby trees. As he described how quiet it was, a great horned owl started hooting as it flew overhead.
Parking lot participants must leave the lot each morning by 7 a.m. In addition to the plastic portable restroom, there’s also two bathrooms inside a trailer building that they’re allowed to use. And, there’s what’s envisioned as a client gathering space — a repurposed, unheated concrete barn where JFS has set up a few chairs, a table, a microwave and some children’s toys, books and games.
Parking lot users need to bring their own microwaveable items to eat. JFS isn’t providing meals at this time, though it may eventually pair with some Encinitas community organizations to offer meals once the parking lot program gets established, Bush said. They’re also not taking donated items for the program yet, she added, saying that people who wish to help the homeless can donate to JFS’s other programs, including its food pantry.
— Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune