The big white van isn’t the home they would’ve chosen but it’s the home they have. It’s where 41-year-old Alex Alarcon, his pregnant wife and children have slept for months.
Early on, the Alarcons parked their van on a National City street each night, fearing their van could be hit by another car and weary of strangers who judged them. One woman threatened to call Child Protective Services on the family.
“They look at you like insects in the street,” Alarcon said.
The Alarcons’ story is far from isolated. This year’s annual homeless census found nearly 1,850 people sleeping in cars, RVs or other vehicles across the county, more than double the total in 2015. That represents 21 percent of the countywide homeless population.
Those who work with the homeless say that number likely undercounts the volume of San Diegans living in their cars. Many don’t want others to know their predicament and they’re often on the move, in search of a place to park where they won’t be bothered or ticketed by police. There are few safe havens for them.
The Alarcons and hundreds of others have found one through Dreams for Change, a nonprofit that runs two parking lots for homeless people living in their cars.
Each night, the nonprofit opens up lots in Chula Vista and Golden Hill and pairs those who stay there with case managers and other resources to try to help them get off the streets permanently.
But Dreams for Change recently learned it’ll need to move out of its Chula Vista lot at the end of August. The social service agency that’s now leasing out the overnight parking lot told Dreams for Change it plans to lease or sell the entire property.
That single Chula Vista lot serves as many as 350 people a year and the nonprofit’s waiting list has hit an all-time high, Dreams for Change CEO Teresa Smith said.
Smith founded Dreams for Change in 2010 after realizing during the recession that more people were staying in their cars after losing their homes – and that there were scant resources to help them.
City ordinances through San Diego County complicate matters. People who live in their cars can be cited for parking on city streets for too long or sleeping in their cars. Few public or private lots allow around-the-clock parking free of charge.
Attorneys who have represented homeless clients who live in cars say they’re often penalized for overnight parking or habitation, which means they’re using a vehicle as a temporary or permanent living space. Then they can be hit with fines or even have their cars impounded.
“They start getting tickets and then the car gets impounded and then they’re on the street, which is not better,” said Scott Dreher, a lawyer who’s filed multiple suits against the city.
Indeed, three others who are homeless and live in their vehicles – but don’t stay in the Dreams for Change lot – told me they’ve been hit with a series of tickets over the years and regularly take steps to avoid them, including moving their vehicles at least every 72 hours and parking in lots or on streets where they don’t think they’ll be bothered. Sometimes they still are.
All that work can be overwhelming, especially for families with children.
Dreams for Change has managed to move some families, including the Alarcons, to their lot in San Diego as they seek a new space.
Alarcon said he’s grateful his family won’t be forced to park on the street again.
Those who remain in Chula Vista dread what could be next.
Anita, who asked that I not print her last name, has spent evenings in the lot with her four girls since last March.
She’s appreciated the supportive community that’s developed within the parking lot and the overnight bathroom access.
Now she’s mulling where her family can safely park starting next month.
“It’s hard, very hard to realize that we’re gonna step outside this parking lot, that we’re not gonna have this,” she said.
Keva Hubbert, who’s has taken refuge in Dream for Change lots twice since 2010, isn’t sure of her next stop, either.
She’s parked in the Chula Vista lot for about a month and hasn’t told her daughter what might be next. She doesn’t want to scare her.
Instead, she’s worked tirelessly to find a landlord who might accept her Section 8 voucher. She hasn’t found one yet and is praying she’ll secure something before the end of the month.
“Hopefully we’ll be safe,” Hubbert said.
Smith said the group will do its best to bring all families with children to its San Diego lot but can’t move everyone.
“The reality is, for most of them, it’s gonna be back to the streets,” Smith said.
Finding a replacement lot isn’t proving easy.
The group’s work hasn’t always been welcomed. Vista officials ordered Dreams for Change to shutter its lot in that city in 2013, saying it violated zoning rules.
Three years later, Dreams for Change has approached multiple churches and property owners in the South Bay, hoping to find a new home. No one’s welcomed them yet.
Maya Srikrishnan contributed to this story.
Correction: An initial version of this story misstated the percentage of unsheltered people living in their cars in San Diego County. The latest point-in-time count estimated 21 percent of the region’s homeless are living in vehicles.