Faced with an uptick of people living in their cars, the city this fall will launch a safe parking pilot program that will work with faith-based organizations and other partners to provide a space to sleep at night.

The plan comes as cities across the state are seeing a rise in homelessness, including those living in their cars.

In its annual homeless count released last month, Los Angeles County saw 16,500 people living in their vehicles—a 5% jump from last year. Long Beach this year counted 119 people living in vehicles, up from 85 in 2017.

So-called “safe parking” programs have been around since at least 2004, with several cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Ventura, launching programs in recent years.

After years of discussion, Long Beach was finally able to a launch a pilot project this year through funding from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP), said Kelly Colopy, the city’s director of Health and Human Services. Colopy said funding was a challenge in previous years since most federal and county dollars are designated for more permanent solutions.

The program will start out small in September with about 20 vehicles total able to park to yet-to-be-determined lots, Colopy said. The city hasn’t yet identified the lots but it is working with faith-based organizations throughout Long Beach, she said.

Colopy said participants in the program will be connected with outreach, case management and access to services with the goal of transiting into permanent housing. The initial program will cost $220,000 for the first year and could grow the following year.

“We want to start out small to make sure we have the process right,” Colopy said.

Second District Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce said she began working on this issue in 2016 after she took office, with the goal of involving local churches.

Pearce said she partnered with churches across the city including Belmont Heights UMC, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, First Congregational UCC, Unitarian Universalist and Trinity Lutheran to develop a pilot project that would work for the community.

The churches were a big help in offering resources, she said, adding that the process took over a year. 

“We put a lot of work into this because we didn’t just want a parking lot with cars, we wanted to make sure we were connecting people with resources,” she said. 

With a small pilot project, people can more easily connect with services, she said. 

“In the 2nd District we have families with children sleeping in cars,” she said. “My hope is that they’re now able to have a safe place to sleep where they can get proper services without losing what little belongings they have.”

Councilwoman Suzie Price, whose 3rd District includes a stretch along Ocean Boulevard where many people sleep in their cars, said the pilot program can provide a safe alternative to homeless shelters.

“We know that in some shelters families are split up so that’s why they might choose to live in their cars,” she said. “We also see cases where people want to keep their pets with them, so this is a good option where we can still connect those people with services.”

Price, who works as a prosecutor for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said the city will be able to enforce its ordinance against overnight camping more consistently once the safe lots are available.

Under current law, Long Beach officers must offer alternative shelter to any individual found sleeping in a vehicle between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Officers can enforce the city ordinance if the individual refuses alternative shelter, said Long Beach Police Department spokeswoman Shaunna Dandoy.

Dandoy said Long Beach recently held a department-wide training for officers that included how to identify whether an individual is living in their vehicle.

Long Beach looked at several other cities for best practices when planning its program.

In Santa Barbara, for example, the New Beginnings Program has operated since 2004 with an annual budget of $270,000. The program has a capacity of 129 spaces on 23 different lots. The lots are a mix of faith­ based, non-profit and small businesses.

In San Diego, the privately-funded Dreams for Change Program operates on a $55,000 annual budget and provides 38 spaces on a church lot and an additional 40 spaces at a Jewish services center.