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No Safe Parking

Hailed as a success, Humboldt's only program comes to a close due to a lack of funding

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It's a morning in early January and Arcata House Partnership Executive Director Darlene Spoor is addressing the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors at the invitation of Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson. The board is holding a public hearing to consider extending a temporary ordinance making it easier for organizations to open so-called sanctuary parking shelters in the county for another two years, hoping it will provide some much-needed relief to the local homeless crisis. Spoor, whose organization had opened and run the only safe parking program operating in Northern California, is there as a kind of expert witness.

Spoor explains that the program initially opened at the behest of and funded by the city of Arcata has at that point served 128 people, providing more than 14,500 "bed nights," or nights they weren't classified as unsheltered on the streets. Thirty percent of people who entered the program were moved into permanent housing, she says, explaining that the program doesn't just provide folks a place to sleep in their vehicles where they won't be ticketed, but also provides intensive case management, housing and job search assistance, and a bevy of other services.

To underscore the program's successes, she turns to specifics. There was the 71-year-old woman who came to the program "frightened" and with mobility issues, having become homeless for the first time in her life after an eviction.

"We got her into the program and eventually got her permanently rehoused on a rapid re-housing voucher," Spoor says.

She then shares the story of a 51-year-old nurse who'd had a family and a stable home before domestic violence left her homeless with a traumatic brain injury.

"She trusted no one," Spoor says, explaining she'd been in and out of several programs but just "kept fleeing."

Arcata House's outreach staff convinced her to come to the safe parking program, saying she could stay in her own vehicle with her cat. The woman spent six months there, Spoor says.

"Today, she's housed," she says, adding the woman still receives case management services through Arcata House and "is stable," before pausing a moment. "We have dozens of these stories. What we're not is a parking lot. It is a program. It's staffed 24 hours a day."

The distinction is an important one, Spoor later tells the Journal, as it differentiates the program from a drop-in, night-by-night shelter and helps explain why it has been so successful, now with a proven track record of serving populations that traditional shelters don't, getting them housed and winning over skeptics in the process. The distinction also explains the program's $477,000 annual price tag and why it will come to a close June 17, with Arcata House having been unable to secure funding to continue its operation.

"It's expensive to run a program with 24-hour staff, to run a program that has case management and housing assistance," Spoor says, adding that people who enter the safe parking program are also offered three meals a day, and have access to showers and laundry facilities. "We're not just a shelter. At Arcata House, our principle is we help people prepare for and obtain permanent housing. That's who we are."

Standing in the center of Arcata House Partnership's safe parking area, an industrial property anchored by a warehouse tucked off Samoa Boulevard on the western edge of the city, Ali Rose and Kate Newby say one of the things that sets the program apart from traditional, brick-and-mortar shelters is that it eliminates barriers for certain populations.

For example, Newby, Arcata House's director of housing and development, says the program has been successful in bringing in families with school-age children who wouldn't access a traditional shelter due to fears of separation. Rose, the organization's interim director of client services, adds that lots of folks have pets they are unwilling to leave behind. Spoor says the program was also able to bring in some people who are reclusive and wouldn't do well crowded into a typical shelter space, allowing them to "park away from everyone and just have their own space."

Many of the folks who entered the program were already working but couldn't find affordable housing or were simply spread too thin trying to survive to maintain a housing search. For them, Newby says, the program provided stability, as well as help searching for housing and qualifying for assistance.

"For some populations, this is exactly the program that was right for them," Spoor says, quickly adding that isn't the case for everyone.

About 45 percent of the people who entered the program left it to go back to the streets or "a place not meant for human habitation," like someone's garage, Spoor says. Some of those left after just a couple days, she adds, saying they quickly realized a program with rules and permanent housing as a goal was not for them.

"Not everyone wants to or can be housed, and we honor that," she says.

But the majority of people who entered the program — 55 percent — left with shelter of some kind. A few moved into another shelter program, Spoor says, while others were able to reunite with family, but she says most were able to secure permanent housing.

At the January board of supervisors meeting, Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said he supported extending the county ordinance with the hope someone else will start a program similar to Arcata House's, but he stressed his belief that it's the rules and structure that made it so successful.

"If you'd asked me this question about five years ago, I would have said this is an absolutely terrible idea," Honsal told the board. "I've completely changed my mind when it comes to safe parking because of the example Arcata House has set, as well as other models around the country. ... We do support safe parking as long as it's properly managed. This is not an autonomous zone where people get to go there and do whatever they want."

Undersheriff JD Braud also addressed the board, saying he's a "big supporter" of the program. The houseless population is diverse, he said, with a complex web of factors that contributed to their homelessness, noting that "everyone's situation is different." As such, it's important to provide a spectrum of options.

In a statement emailed to the Journal, DHHS Director Connie Beck said Arcata House's program has been "helpful in transitioning people who were not quite ready for housing into housing" and she appreciates the county's partnership with the nonprofit and the city of Arcata.

Arcata Police Chief Bart Silvers says the program has been beneficial from his perspective, giving people a safe place to park and sleep without impacting neighborhoods.

"With the program ending and individuals still in need of permanent housing, we anticipate increased calls for service regarding vehicles parked for extended periods of time," he says.

Meanwhile, the county's ordinance, now extended through January of 2026, allows any government agency, religious institution or nonprofit to open a safe parking program without discretionary review, so long as it meets basic parameters.

"This is basically an over-the-counter review and approval," Planning Director John Ford said.

But even with the streamlined approval process, not a single organization has applied. In January, Ford told the board he believed that was because many organizations were simply unaware of it. But five months later, the county still has not received an application, despite being home to one of the state's largest per-capita unsheltered homeless populations.

Spoor says it's a matter of simply dollars and cents. The county ordinance streamlines the permitting process but organizations are left to cover the costs of providing restrooms, sanitation services, security and supportive programing.

"Thanks for giving us permission to use some property but if there's no funding for the program, it can't work," she says. "That's why nobody is doing it."

It's also why the Arcata House program is closing in a couple of weeks.

Spoor says she's tremendously grateful the city of Arcata funded Arcata House's safe parking program for a year, and then the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services stepped in to pay for a second with some one-time Housing and Homeless Assistance Program funds. She says Arcata House stands ready to re-open the program should funding become available, though she understands that's unlikely with the county and state's budgets deeply in the red.

Newby says Arcata House staff is currently working to find housing for the 20 people who remain in the program but isn't sure they'll be able to, noting there simply aren't enough rental units out there and stigma is a significant barrier in housing people who have experienced homelessness.

She says a significant part of her job is spent simply trying to recruit landlords.

"I'm happy to talk to landlords. Always," she says. "I will explain the program and its benefits, and do a song and dance, if I need to."

Newby says her pitch is pretty straightforward. The voucher programs pay fair market rate, and landlords will have the added benefit of a lot of support. Arcata House staff will be in the rental units to look around at least once a month, and the tenants will have case managers helping them "be good neighbors, good tenants and good members of the community." Plus, she says, Arcata House acts as a third party landlords can call if anything comes up.

Spoor says stigma is often the single biggest hurdle in getting someone from a program into permanent housing.

"We have dozens of people who are looking for housing right now," she says. "People with financial support, people who go to work but have been homeless for a year, people who have housing vouchers, people who can pay their own rent. There's a real stigma about people who are homeless but many of the people served in this program go to work every day, their kids go to school every day, they volunteer and attend community events and churches. ... There are so many people who are homeless who have this stigma they just don't deserve."

Spoor says she's disappointed to see the program come to an end but proud of what it has accomplished, expanding the scope of models that have proven successful locally. She says she's even proud of what the program afforded the 45 percent of its clients that ultimately chose to leave, noting that every night someone spent there was a night spent safe and fed. She says Arcata House will pursue any funding it can find to restart the program, though she worries the organization will have enough trouble simply holding the line on other services with the state looking to bridge a projected $55 billion budget deficit, warning that "housing and supportive services are being eviscerated."

"We would absolutely operate this program again," Spoor says. "But if I had a choice between if I'm going to find funding for our brick-and-mortar shelter or the safe parking program? Most people would rather have a bed."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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