For a little under a year, Adam John Halvorsen and his girlfriend, Angela Del Castillo, have been living in her minivan on the streets of Southern California.
“We know how to blend in,” Halvorsen said. “Just don’t look homeless, you know?”
The couple drives around constantly to avoid citations, safety risks, and scrutiny from neighbors. The anxiety has taken its toll.
“You can never fall all the way asleep,” Del Castillo said, fighting back tears. “The words are hard to find, because it’s so hard. People don’t understand.”
Halvorsen was a combat engineer in the U.S. Army in the 1990s. He is eligible for VA benefits, which allowed him to join a new pilot program on the West L.A. VA campus trying to reach veterans like himself who sleep in their cars.
On Monday, the non-profit Safe Parking L.A. partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer 10 parking stalls for vets to spend the night in their vehicles. The number could expand if there’s enough demand.
There will be a security guard and a portable bathroom with a handwashing station on-site from 8 PM to 8 AM, seven days a week.
The amenities are far from lavish. But the first participants said the safe parking program made a big difference—it relieved some of the stress of a night in their car. “You don’t have that anxiety of someone knocking on the window and saying you gotta leave, or you’re in trouble or anything,” Del Castillo said. “It’s awesome.”
The veterans staying in the designated lot must fill out an application and will be screened by the VA or Safe Parking L.A. No weapons, drugs or alcohol are allowed. The group reserves the right to evict anyone who doesn’t follow the rules. The organization runs vets' name through a sex offender database, but it doesn’t require a full criminal background check, according to Executive Director Dr. Scott Sale.
“It’s for veterans only. And as far as I know, this is the first safe parking program for veterans anywhere in the country,” Sale said.
The program’s security guards will work alongside the VA Police Department that already patrols the campus. Along with the restroom, there’s a picnic area to eat meals. No food service is planned, but on Monday evening, the non-profit Village for Vets had teamed up with Meals on Wheels to bring nighttime snacks and breakfast food to the car campers.
The safe parking vets will be encouraged to access medical services on the VA campus as well as connect with social and mental health services through a VA ‘Welcome Center’ open Monday-Friday at 8 AM.
Safe Parking Hard To Come By
L.A. County estimates about 8,500 Angelenos sleep in their cars. The city instituted new restrictions on car camping last year, changing parking rules to ban living in your car in most residential areas between 9 PM and 6 AM. At the same time, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority told KPCC the agency was having a hard time finding qualified contractors to run safe parking programs in sanctioned lots.
Safe Parking L.A. also operates a program at an Episcopal church in Koreatown. The VA is the third location of its kind in the city—A Methodist church in South L.A. opened a safe parking program last year.
“I would like all members of every city council district to be kinder to their neighbors who have to live in their cars,” Sale said. “These are solid citizens who are down on their luck and have lost their ability to afford rent.”
Long-Promised: Permanent Housing
The VA says its ultimate goal is to keep homeless vets safe while also helping them get the services they need to transition into housing.
The agency is working on a massive housing effort on the 388-acre campus near Brentwood, which was originally gifted to the federal government to be a home for aging and disabled veterans. Under the terms of a 2015 legal settlement, the VA must find a way to build 1,200 units of permanent housing for veterans on the land. So far they've opened 54 apartments, with plans to renovate two more buildings—adding 110 dwellings—by early 2020.
Most observers agree that progress isn't fast enough. Meghan Flanz, the Executive Director of the Master Plan to overhaul the West L.A. VA told KPCC in March, "we need to be working with a sense of urgency about getting veterans housed on this campus."
In April, the agency announced it's looking for a principal developer to oversee the renovation and construction of hundreds of apartments on the North side of campus, a shift in strategy that could jump-start the speed of development. A public hearing is scheduled for Thursday to discuss details of the search.
The last official count found more than 4,800 unsheltered homeless vets in L.A. County.
This story has been updated.