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Sonoma County Gazette
Santa Rosa SAFE parking lot for homeless
Santa Rosa SAFE parking lot for homeless

SAFE Nights in a Parking Lot

Jun 28, 2017


By Gillian Squirrell of Homeless With Pets, Sonoma County & Square Cube Social Impact Consulting

Don’t it always seem to go
you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

But, what happens when the parking lot is gone ?

On the 22nd June, a number of people sleeping in their vehicles in the parking lot in front of county Administration buildings came together to talk about two memos they’d received from Catholic Charities. 

If not here - whereThe first, dated 20th June, had provoked enormous reactions of fear, anger, panic and added to feelings of depression and hopelessness. The memo gave the nocturnal residents of the parking lot notice that the Safe Parking program run byCatholic Charities was to be reduced as a result of funding cuts. The temporary parking lot residents were on notice that from June 26th they could no longer park overnight. They were offered little notice and realistically could entertain only slim hopes of a move into the remaining reduced size Safe Parking program or find alternative accommodation. For many who live and sleep in their vehicles with animal companions having an animal makes accessing emergency or other shelter highly unlikely.

The second memo, dated 22nd June, distributed moments before the meeting was convened gave the overnight parking lot residents a reprieve until 17th July. It came at the end of a day had that had been a flurry of activity as a small group of people, mainly mature women, made calls to various key figures in local government, activists, press personnel and those they thought had influence and interest in helping them try to halt the disintegration of the Safe Parking program. It seemed to them that their efforts had paid off, at least so far.

Pets for Safety & Comfort

Homeless with pets - ScrabbleOne figure at the meeting was Scrabble, a 15-week old puppy, who was pressed into a therapeutic role and was petted by many of those attending. Scrabble symbolizes the realities of what it means to be living and sleeping in a vehicle. Scrabble and her littermates were the result of an accidental liaison at a storage facility just off the Santa Rosa Avenue between two dogs, Lola and Deuce, living homeless with their people.

Lola’s person brought Lola to our free clinics prior to the puppies’ birth and soon after. She was committed to doing right by Lola and the puppies despite the limitations imposed by sleeping in her car and surviving as best she could. She showed us this is a dangerous way to live. 

Six weeks ago Lola and her five puppies, riding in a blue and white stripped bag, were brought to one of our free clinics by two women who were living homeless. They were not sure what to do.

Lola’s person had been ferociously attacked by a man with a hammer. It was reported in the local press, but the focus of the story seemed to miss the point about the dangers of living homeless, sleeping in a vehicle and especially the dangers for women living without a home. The brutal attack left Lola’s person hospitalized and in a very precarious condition. Others, family members and friends had to look after her affairs, including the puppies, as best they could.

As Scrabble was rocked and petted by various people at the meeting many of the women spoke about their fears of having the leave the parking lot. For many there is a safety in numbers. There is a potential for community.  There is, in heading for the Lot in the evening, a sense of routine and knowledge that that part of the day, at least, is handled. Safe Parking makes it possible for people to get out of their vehicles, talk with others, to rest, watch a dvd or read. It makes it possible to just be quiet without being told to move on or having to sit in a vehicle and stare at signs telling people not to sleep, not to loiter and quite clearly that they are not wanted. No-one, living homeless or not, wants to be in a position of feeling ‘less than’ anyone else.


Safe Parking makes it possible to sleep without being woken by police or mall security guards or having to keep one eye open for trouble. It is possible to take a break from being on high alert about people walking close to your vehicle or wondering what nearby sounds might mean. One elderly woman spoke of several recent nights she’d passed in different retail parking lots. She’d slept two hours in one lot, three in another and a few hours in a third. She had moved to a new lot each day and been warned by police of dangers from a nearby camp. She’d quickly become exhausted, ill and dysfunctional; driving was hard, as was concentrating on what she had to do.

Safe Parking generates the potential for community, for knowing that someone recognizes you and will spot if you are missing. It is a place where people can pool resources, share information and knowledge. It can be a safety net and source of social contact. 

There are others around should someone become ill or an illness worsen. As Kerry said of having felt very ill over the weekend: “I left my car door unlocked. I knew that someone would find me in the morning” if she became much worse overnight.   

There are others around and this makes it safer. In the extreme heat vehicle windows can be left open or someone can sleep in their truck’s flatbed knowing someone is close by should any passerby cause a problem. There are others close by in the event that an early hours trip to the porta potty leads to an encounter with someone loitering around. 

Indeed, there is a porta potty. As one man said at the meeting, scattering people to sleep around the city will mean they face problems disposing of litter and finding restrooms. Do people in residential and commercial areas really want to have to deal with these consequences of displacing people from an overnight parking spot ? The financial costs of people’s displacement from Safe Parking, which will include additional calls on various emergency services, needs exploring.

For women especially, many of whom are living alone, living and sleeping in a vehicle can be unnerving and on occasions dangerous as the story of how Scrabble came to be at this meeting underscores.   

SAFE parking homeless meeting about the lot they are about to lose


Jul 2, 2017
I completely understand that terror that finding a place to be when you have already lost so much can make you sleepless but there is another group of us out here laboring to find appropriate vehicles that meet our needs disabled and otherwise, laboring yes but also wanting to move upwards towards being able to join this apparently dissolving community for the very considerations expressed quite well in this article. To both be in and out of a society at our choosing should be a freedom all of us are allowed to share. As to what comes next for all of us within and without...I am at a complete loss to say as are so very many across this country. This train of ours once headed for places so sweetly serene for anyone who applied themselves is sadly coming off the rails and there is a madman at the controls.
- Marcos Zapatero

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