Santa Cruz RV safe parking program launches

SANTA CRUZ — Pamela Bright has been living without housing on and off, “quite a lot” since she returned to her native Santa Cruz from Boise, Idaho to take care of her ailing mother in 2014.

“I never wanted to come back,” Bright said of her return to Santa Cruz. “Because if I wanted to be homeless, I would have stayed here to begin with.”

Most recently, when Bright’s mother died in 2018, Bright said she found herself without housing, again.

To navigate the change, Bright began living in her recreational vehicle, doing her best to keep the area around her vehicle cleared of debris and regularly relocating, she said. Despite her efforts, Bright said people associate her RV with homelessness, setting up strangers to throw eggs, a frozen bottle of water and even oranges at her vehicle. Bright thinks she has gotten off easy, even if people make snap decisions without knowing her story, she said.

“I’d pack up everything every day. Some people, they like to just stay there,” Bright said. “I’m not one that likes to do that. I try to move every three days and if I can’t, I try to keep it clean where I’m at and not a lot of people coming and going — stuff that attracts attention that I don’t need.”

The RV was a step up from her days pedaling a bicycle and attached trailer — or two — with her dog in tow. Especially when Bright has needed at times to provide a safe living space for her grandson.

New program launches

Beginning last month, Bright was among the first participants in the City of Santa Cruz-sponsored recreational vehicle safe parking program, considered the highest “tier 3” effort spelled out in its 2021 Oversized Vehicle Ordinance. As of last week, 13 of the 14 parking spaces for the large vehicles were filled in the parking lot outside the National Guard Armory in DeLaveaga Park. Another 37 “households” living in RVs or smaller vehicles were on the waiting list. Nonprofit service provider The Free Guide is managing the program, with information available by emailing or by calling 831-515-8665.

The safe parking program differs from the Salvation Army-run Overlook tent encampment and indoor Armory shelter nearby. It also takes inspiration from the Association of Faith Communities’ SafeSpaces parking program, an effort that launched formally in 2019 and which draws in faith institutions throughout the county to offer up their parking lots for overnight vehicle parking.

The RV Safe Parking program is still a work-in-progress, launched Aug. 25, according to Program Manager Maile Earnest and The Free Guide Executive Director Evan Morrison.

“There are folks that, even in the last couple of weeks, are starting to get job interviews, deal with some of their legal history that they need to rectify,” said Earnest. “One lady, she got notified by the Housing Authority to get her voucher. This gives her a place to print her voucher application and fill that out. That’s what it does for folks. I’ve talked to people who have never faced this situation and I ask them, what does your house do for you?”

Street-level impacts

Westside resident Peter Cook said he is supportive of an RV parking program with site security, waste-dumping facilities and a focus on housing support. He has been among members of the Westside Neighbors group who have spoken out before the Santa Cruz City Council in recent years with concerns about the impacts of long-term overnight parking on city streets. Asked this week if he had seen an improvement in his neighborhood’s conditions, Cook attributed a small improvement to street clearing that took place in time for last weekend’s Ironman triathlon.

“There’s been a very marginal improvement, but not anything substantial, unfortunately,” Cook said. “It’s the same people in the same vehicles parked in the same spots.”

The enforcement aspect of the city’s Overnight Vehicle Ordinance has been on pause this year, as an appeal to the California Coastal Commission wound its way through several stages. The city’s ordinance remains pending before the commission.

Reducing anxiety

Before joining the new parking program at the Armory, Bright took part in lower-tier overnight-only safe parking programs. She said her biggest anxieties of living in a vehicle were daily efforts to locate bathrooms and showers, as well as avoiding traffic tickets.

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