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Vista City Council moves forward with a contract for the city's Safe Parking Program. File photo
Vista City Council moves forward with a contract for the city's Safe Parking Program. File photo
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Vista approves contract for homeless Safe Parking Program

VISTA — The City Council approved a contract with Jewish Family Services for the city’s new Safe Parking Program during its Jan. 10 meeting.

The program, similar to the one in Encinitas, will allocate $250,000 for development. Over the next two weeks, the city and JFS will work to determine a site, according to the staff report.

The Safe Parking Program will be launched in two phases over the next 12 weeks — site selection and operation costs — before the program is open to homeless residents.

“One of the things that hit me when I did the point-in-time count last year was how many people are living in cars at the library parking lot,” said Mayor John Franklin. “We had an unsanctioned safe parking lot, and we didn’t even know. So the only question is whether or not we’re going to secure it with a security officer, have appropriate trash and sanitary facilities and most importantly, conduct outreach to help people living in their cars get out of their cars.”

Councilwoman Katie Melendez brought forward the program early last year in response to the city’s crisis of people sleeping in their cars. Melendez said it’s essential to have various services and interventions available to people and would welcome the safe parking site in her district (District 3). 

While Melendez acknowledged safety and security are important, especially after hearing about backlash in other cities, she said the hostilities primarily came from neighbors of the lot, not from individuals participating in the program.

“People enrolled in these programs don’t pose any threat to the neighborhood. On the contrary, other programs have been threatened because of hostile neighbors who are unfriendly to the program participants,” Melendez said. “If someone experiencing homelessness has a vehicle, that is a huge asset to protect them from experiencing homelessness directly on the street.”

The program calls for between 10 to 25 parking spaces, site management, including case management and housing navigation, on-site restrooms, a handwashing station, fencing, lighting, and pet friendly and will be open seven days per week.

Vista received a $65,000 grant from the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities for capital improvements related to the Safe Parking Program.

According to its application, JFS began its Safe Parking Program “activities” in 2016. From 2017 to ’20, the nonprofit operated four lots — three in San Diego, one in Encinitas — serving between 490 to 2,331 individuals. 

In Fiscal Year 2021-22, JFS lots served 864 households, with 100% having a housing plan developed within one week and 29% of households entering stable housing, according to the nonprofit’s application.

“Within 72 hours of program entry, new participants meet with a case manager and complete a detailed assessment of participant needs, budget and goals,” JFS wrote in its application. “The program’s holistic approach provides personalized one-on-one support for each individual of the family to stabilize their situation and then develop an individualized plan with specific goals related to securing permanent housing.”

Safe Parking programs have come under fire in Encinitas and elsewhere from those who say it will be a homeless magnet, drawing more transient individuals from outside their city boundaries.

Franklin said he visited the Encinitas camp and was impressed with the orderly conduct and cleanliness. Although he still has concerns, Franklin said a significant number of people living in their cars in Vista need help.

“That opportunity to connect with people and get them housed is important,” Franklin said. “Make it orderly, make it clean and make it safe.”

Safe parking and camping programs are far from secure in practice, only exacerbate homelessness and misuse city resources, according to Chris Megison, president of Solutions for Change, a homeless services nonprofit in the North County area.

Megison shared these concerns shortly after the council’s approval of the lot in January 2022, stating the program represents a misguided focus on short-term solutions that look good to the public but do little to address challenges facing the unhoused.

But Contreras previously said that given the number of homeless individuals already sleeping in their cars or unlawfully camping on city property, the smart choice would be for the city to condense such activity into designated living spaces that can be effectively supervised and enforced. 

“Safe parking and safe camping is a stopgap measure, and there are just so many benefits that come from this, including being able to do outreach, to being able to reduce some of the issues we’ve seen with unhoused people who are in public places,” Contreras said. “We have residents who are in desperate need of a place to rest their heads, and this is just something that we need to do.”