A safe parking lot run by Jewish Family Service in Kearny Mesa. / Photo courtesy of Jewish Family Service
A safe parking lot run by Jewish Family Service in Kearny Mesa. / Photo courtesy of Jewish Family Service

North County’s second ever safe parking lot is coming. 

The city of Vista on Tuesday approved its first safe parking lot, allowing homeless individuals and families to safely stay in their vehicles overnight. The only other option for safe parking in North County is in Encinitas. 

Vista had North County’s third largest unsheltered population during last year’s Point in Time Count, with 76 unsheltered people, including people living in their vehicles. 

That number is likely higher now, driven by countywide increases in first time homelessness

The new program is significant for Vista’s homelessness prevention efforts because, until now, homeless people had limited options for safe overnight parking. And for those experiencing homelessness for the first time, safe parking programs are often what they turn to. 

Vista is contracting with nonprofit Jewish Family Service to operate the program, making it the organization’s fifth safe parking lot in San Diego County, including the one in Encinitas. 

Chris Olsen, chief of staff for Jewish Family Service, said they believe safe parking programs are a critical piece of homelessness prevention.

“It reaches people who, for the most part, are experiencing homelessness for the first time,” Olsen said. “We’re able to intervene and deliver services before folks experience further decline into the spiral of homelessness.” 

Data from a two-year evaluation of Jewish Family Service’s existing safe parking programs found that 69 percent of program participants were experiencing homelessness for the first time over the prior three years. 

A homeless resident staying at a Jewish Family Service’s Safe Parking lot in 2020. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The participants also ranged in age, with 44 percent over the age of 50, 27 percent aged 60 or older and 14 percent under the age of 20, meaning older adults are the largest demographic in the program and the most quickly growing demographic in the program. 

“It speaks to the fact that for the majority of folks in safe parking, I think it’s safe to say there was an economic circumstance that happened that led to the loss of housing,” Olsen said. “Anecdotally, it could be the loss of a partner, or the reduction in income from either work or social security, or just the rising cost of housing in the region.” 

Olsen said he’s expecting high demand for Vista’s program. 

“Based on our experience operating the program in Encinitas, there’s definitely a strong need in North County,” Olsen said. “The Encinitas site has been consistently used, and we’ve seen consistent positive outcomes, so we fully expect the new site in Vista to have strong interest, as well.” 

The County Sheriff’s Department, which has a station in Vista, told Voice of San Diego that sheriff’s deputies “generally” do not give out citations to people found living in their vehicles in Vista. 

Deputies with the department’s Community Oriented Policing and Problem-Solving Unit, or COPPS, assist with Vista’s unhoused population. These officers address issues such as homelessness and aim to deal with situations using a community-based and problem-solving approach. 

“When unhoused people are contacted by those deputies, services are offered, and the deputies coordinate with a social worker to get the people the resources needed,” a representative from the County Sheriff’s Department said.  

In addition to overnight parking, Vista’s program will provide bathrooms, handwashing stations, hygiene supplies and food. Participants can also meet with case managers to connect them with stable housing options, and security guards are present through all hours of operation. 

In Encinitas, 67 percent of people who left the program moved into a shelter, subsidized housing or a market-rate home. 

Despite the approval from Vista’s City Council, Jewish Family Service has not yet found a location for the city’s first parking lot. Once a location is found, Olsen said, it will take about three months before it can open. 

The program will accept up to 25 people or households, and participants will only be allowed in the lot during the night. They’ll have to vacate the lot each morning. 

The city of Vista is providing $250,000 for the program’s first year of operations, using excess revenue from its cannabis tax, and $65,000 of additional funding will come from San Diego County’s recent homeless grant program.  

The city is working on identifying a funding source to continue the program after the first year, said Homeless Services Program Manager Jonathan Lung. 

In Other News 

  • ICYMI: Del Mar Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland is leading an effort to stop the SANDAG board’s use of the weighted vote practice. Gaasterland and nine other SANDAG board members representing San Diego’s smaller cities plan to ask SANDAG’s larger jurisdictions to stop using weighted voting, arguing that it has created an imbalance of power. (Voice of San Diego) 
  • Recent inclement weather has, once again, delayed repairs to the railroad tracks at San Clemente until March. Passenger service between Orange County and San Diego has been suspended since September because of recurring landslides. The cost of stabilizing those landslides has already cost about $11.5 million. (Union-Tribune) 
  • Recent Encinitas mayoral candidate Jeff Morris was arrested on Christmas Day and has been charged with misdemeanor domestic violence offenses. He has pleaded not guilty. (Coast News)

Correction: This post has been updated to correct that Chis Olsen is chief of staff for Jewish Family Service.

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