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LA church greenlights overnight parking for some homeless

There are fewer and fewer places to legally park for those living in their vehicles.
There are fewer and fewer places to legally park for those living in their vehicles.
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April says she's been living in her car for the past year. With the city of Los Angeles steadily cracking down on where people living in their vehicles can park overnight, it can be hard to find a safe place to park and sleep. So the 36-year-old is grateful that she's one of a small group of people allowed to sleep in their cars in the parking lot of a Koreatown church that has partnered with a nonprofit group called Safe Parking L.A.

Thursday was the first night St. Mary's Episcopal Church opened its lot to five people in four vehicles to spend the night, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Safe Parking L.A. is providing a portable toilet, sink and security guard. The arrangement is modeled on a program that's been in Santa Barbara since 2004. 

Sleeping in her car in a church parking lot doesn't provide "a lot of comfort, but I am at the bottom and I need some help, like a lot of people in this city," said April, who declined to give her last name.

And she said having a security guard would lower her stress level, noting that when she parks on the streets overnight sometimes people approach her car while she's trying to sleep.

"I’m afraid like any woman would be out here," she said. "You know? Vulnerable. I’m afraid all the time."

People living in their vehicles "need to be somewhere safe at night, so they can get up for work in the morning and get their kids to school," said Emily Uyeda Kantrim, who manages the Safe Parking L.A. program.

Those parked at St. Mary's included a disabled Navy veteran, who said he's been living in his truck for about a year. There was also a woman with her 8-year-old daughter; the mother didn't want to speak to a reporter.

April said she used to run a dog training business out of her home, but she got evicted and lost her company. She said she spent so much in legal fees fighting the eviction that even though she won her court case, she couldn't afford to get another apartment.

Only people vetted by Safe Parking L.A. can participate in the program. A social worker will help them find services that could get them into permanent housing.

Safe Parking L.A. co-founder Pat Cohen is eager to see more organizations follow St. Mary's lead.

"Faith-based organizations are the ones that really want to do this," she said.

Cohen said her group is in talks with about 15 churches and synagogues to use their parking lots in the same way. She doesn't want to name any of them until they have officially signed on.

"It takes a lot of time," said Cohen, adding that congregations often need to convince their supervising boards to approve allowing car-dwellers to use their lots overnight.

Safe Parking L.A. offers to pay the hosting organization $500 per month to help cover the cost of lighting the parking area or other incidentals.

New regulations make it hard for the estimated 8,500 people in L.A. county living in their vehicles to find parking in the city.

At the same time, city-led plans to allow homeless Angelenos to sleep in their cars in secured lots have been slow to get off the ground.

"We'd love to get city and county lots, but that's more complicated," said Cohen.

In any event, securing a place for homeless people to park their vehicles is only a temporary solution, she said.

"Our goal is to get them all housed," said Cohen.