As municipalities across the United States consider acquiring and converting parking lots into homeless encampments with social services, some oppose the programs, citing high costs and poor safety, while others promote them as better than sidewalk encampments and a stopgap measure as more overall housing is built.
In California, whose homelessness programs serviced 315,487 different individuals in 2022, faces a 4.5 million home shortage and is adopting alternative housing options that states and local governments across the country are now considering and implementing on their own. One such program is the conversion of parking lots to homeless housing options, whether so-called “safe sleeping sites” where homeless can park their cars or set up tents and receive services, or more involved accommodations such as city-provided RVs.
The RV option, while popular among the homeless, is expensive — in San Francisco, one government-managed parking lot costs taxpayers $12,000 per month per RV to operate, while just miles away, $700 per month fully-furnished dorm-style housing is available at scale for tech workers.
“Safe parking” encampments, meanwhile, bring challenges of their own. First piloted in 2004 in Santa Barbara, safe parking has been most widely adopted across the West Coast due to the area’s milder climate, and the fact that 30 to 50% of homeless individuals in West Coast Cities use their vehicles as their primary source of shelter. All safe parking sites provide bathrooms, while the vast majority also provide showers, meals, internet and electricity.
While many wonder whether building more sustainable alternatives than temporary structures or encampments, some experts say they’re a functional-enough stopgap measure until more long-term housing can be built.
“Of course, the long term solution to this problem is to build more housing. But in the near term, we have many thousands of people living out of cars,” said Nolan Gray, city planner and research director for California YIMBY, a pro-housing organization. “They can either do that in a dedicated lot that has security and sanitation facilities, or they can do it on the street, disrupting communities and putting themselves at risk of crime. In a no-perfect-solutions policy space, safe parking offers a meaningful improvement.”
While safe parking sites are easily able to find willing inhabitants, it’s also worth noting that the programs achieve similar rates of getting people into more permanent housing — 40% — to reaching out to individuals who live on the streets, suggesting safe parking programs are not necessarily a direct pathway to success. However, bridge housing — that is, shelters aimed at getting individuals directly off the streets — seem to result in even lower rates of getting individuals into more permanent housing, with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s signature bridge housing program having a 15% permanent housing placement rate.
Safe parking programs can be expensive but do cost less than many other options. San Jose’s pilot program cost $250,000 in its first year and was built to serve 17 cars at a time, but only hosted 4 or 5 each night on average.
In Seattle, a similar program, with another $250,000 in funding, faced significant pushback from nearby residents, who “don’t trust the city to use taxpayer dollars wisely” and feared it would attract “drug users.”
Now, safe sleep sites — parking lots where many homeless individuals sleep in tents, not their own cars — are proliferating as yet another parking lot option, with new lots opening from Long Beach to Chicago, which is notorious for having rather cold, windy winters.
Meanwhile, some leaders prefer building more long-term housing over temporary structures or safe parking.
“I’m highly disappointed by the City’s intention to move forward with plans to erect a temporary asylum-seeking shelter on 115th and Halsted, despite community concerns,” said Alderman Ronnie Mosley, who represents Chicago’s 21st ward, in a public statement. “We need a full commitment to break ground on the Morgan Park Commons [the city-acquired former grocery store and parking lot the city is using for tents) housing development in 2024 at the same site of the proposed shelter.”
“I haven’t been given timelines about what this looks like, when they’ll be on the site, how long they’ll be on the site, what this means for safety for our community, what this means for our schools. There are just multiple questions that I don’t have the answers for,” Mosley said.