Room in the inn? For homeless in California, there are spaces in (some) church parking lots

As we enter the Christmas season (my apologies to those who celebrate Advent for skipping ahead), you may recall the biblical story of a baby born in a barn and placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

A few years ago, I wrote a Christian Chronicle story on programs such as Room In The Inn and Family Promise that — on colder nights — transform church buildings into temporary shelters for the homeless:

“Sheltering people in congregations is not as difficult as many people assume,” said Jeff Moles, Room In The Inn’s community development coordinator for congregational support. “People often think about their insurance needs, but Room In The Inn guests are covered just like any other visitors to the building.”

Most concerns about safety, security and liability disappear after a church hosts the program a few times, Moles said.

“Stereotypes are broken down,” he said, “and there is a ‘holy ground’ experience of people coming together in new ways.”

This week, I enjoyed a compelling Washington Post feature by freelancer Kimberly Winston on houses of worship in California opening their parking lots to the homeless. Yes, some people who have part- or full-time jobs and vehicles can’t afford a place to live.

That’s where people of faith come in:

SARATOGA, Calif. — In the two years that John slept in his car on the streets of San Francisco, he saw some scary things.

There was the woman beaten in the middle of the street, the drug users and dealers who slunk past his windows, the thieves who gave him a warning eye as they moved stolen electronics around his vehicle. Harassed by police and some residents, he was constantly moving from curb to curb, all while working full time to pay off the car he was living in.

“It is really a dangerous place,” John, 44, said on a recent evening as he hung blackout curtains — repurposed hair salon smocks — in his black 2015 Prius, parked in a corner of a church parking lot in this suburb an hour south of San Francisco. “But being here gives me a feeling of being settled. I don’t have to sleep with one eye open anymore.”

John, who gave only his first name to maintain his privacy about being homeless, is one of about 15 people enrolled in a new program that provides secure overnight parking and other services to Bay Area residents who live in their vehicles. Saratoga’s interfaith program, started in the spring by seven local congregations and a community college, is one of a growing number of “safe park” programs across the San Francisco Bay area, where the exorbitant cost of housing has forced many onto the streets.

Drugs and weapons are not allowed at these sites, and most provide a security guard. Most of the congregations open their buildings to their guests for a couple of hours, providing bathrooms, recharging stations and sometimes a kitchen and, as in Saratoga, a weekly meal. There may also be gas cards and gift cards to coffeehouses or retail stores.

It’s no surprise, of course, that Winston would produce a timely, colorful Godbeat story. The former Religion News Service national correspondent is the reigning queen of the Religion News Association’s annual awards, where she took first place for Excellence in Religion Reporting — Large Newspapers and Wire Services.

Besides revealing details about the parking lot ministries, Winston’s Post story offers helpful data on the extent on the homeless problem generally and in California specifically.

Plus, Winston highlights some of the NIMBY concerns sparked by such ministries:

But while those churches have been lauded, congregations in other areas that open their parking lots to those they sometimes refer to as “vehicle residents” face hurdles and hostility. Many Bay Area municipalities, including the tech centers of San Francisco and San Jose, have outlawed sleeping in a car parked on the street overnight, while neighbors speak out against having the homeless next door.

Some residents of Mountain View, 11 miles north of Saratoga and home to Google, vehemently opposed the expansion of “Lots of Love,” a safe-parking program, from two local churches to three. The opposition led the third church to bow out of the program.

And in Los Angeles, where advocates for the homeless estimate that 9,000 residents live in their cars, the faith-based founders of Safe Parking L.A. thought they would have no trouble enlisting congregations. But to date, they have only two.

“Faith organizations have a misperception about who we are attracting,” said Scott Sale, who co-founded Safe Parking L.A. with leaders from churches and synagogues. “They are people just like you and me. Ninety-nine percent of the people we work with are not criminals and never were.”

Sale now woos potential faith-based partners to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Koreatown, where 15 spaces are given to vehicle residents nightly.

“We have to go slowly,” he said.

Speaking of that Episcopal church in Koreatown, the Post isn’t the only major media outlet giving it ink this week.

That congregation figures, too, in Bloomberg Businessweek’s piece titled “The Homeless Crisis Is Getting Worse in America’s Richest Cities”:

L., who asked to go by her middle initial for fear of losing her job, couldn’t afford her apartment earlier this year after failing to cobble together enough teaching assignments at two community colleges. By July she’d exhausted her savings and turned to a local nonprofit called Safe Parking L.A., which outfits a handful of lots around the city with security guards, port-a-potties, Wi-Fi, and solar-powered electrical chargers. Sleeping in her car would allow her to save for a deposit on an apartment. On that night in late September, under basketball hoops owned by an Episcopal church in Koreatown, she was one of 16 people in 12 vehicles. Ten of them were female, two were children, and half were employed.

According to the Post, the parking-lot programs are mainly limited to California and the West Coast because folks need milder weather to sleep in their cars.

I’m curious, dear reader, what’s happening in your community in terms of houses of worship offering shelters and support for the homeless. Is there room in the “inn” where you live?

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