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May 29, 2022, is a date etched in Tami Grobarek’s memory. It’s the day she became homeless.
The 48-year-old and her fiancé, William Pendarvis, lived in a garage-turned apartment near Lake Jennings for almost four years. They moved out in May after a dispute with their landlord. They did not have enough money to rent an apartment, so they started sleeping in their car with their two dogs, Rags and North.
A car though, is not a home. While Pendarvis went to work, Grobarek would sit in the car with the dogs. She can’t drive because of a health condition. The threat of someone calling to tow the car increasingly weighed on her as time wore on. Sitting in a hot car all day was not comfortable.
She started calling homeless service providers and researching assistance programs. In August, the county referred her to a safe parking program in El Cajon along Magnolia Avenue, and they enrolled. They felt a sense of relief on their first time at the parking lot. The program offered not only a safe place to park at night, but also stability.
“It felt hopeful,” Pendarvis said. They figured they would be in the lot for a few months, and then move into an apartment.
But that did not happen. Instead, the couple’s situation worsened.
Their story is not unique, or perfect, but it is an illustration of how some homeless people experience the complexity and bureaucracy of systems created to help them. They deal with the chaos of life outside or living out of a vehicle – all while trying to get the necessary documents, referrals or appointments to access services. Throw in a housing crisis that limits homeless service providers’ ability to move them permanently off the streets or out of their cars.
Safe parking lot programs offer a place for people who live in their vehicles to park at night. They vary in the services and assistance they offer, and the model is still relatively new.
The County of San Diego opened the Magnolia lot last August. It’s the county’s first-ever safe parking program.
The nonprofit Dreams for Change runs the lot and provides case managers to assist clients with housing and connect them to resources. It also offers a safe place to park free from fear of tickets or clashes with area residents or business owners who want them to move on.
Twenty percent of people who departed the lot have moved into permanent homes, and 30 percent into temporary housing, in the nine months since the program began, the county reports. Nearly 53 percent have returned to living in their car elsewhere, or left without returning or informing Dreams for Change of their next destination.
Mirle Rabinowitz-Bussell, a professor and director of undergraduate studies at UC San Diego’s urban studies and planning department who has studied safe parking programs including local lots operated by Jewish Family Service, said given the newness of the model, best practices and outcome targets aren’t broadly agreed upon.
“It’s really hard when we’re talking about the efficacy of safe parking programs,” Rabinowitz-Bussell said. “What does efficacy mean?”
The lack of clarity speaks to the variation among the programs nationwide that existed as of UCSD’s 2022 research. Some programs accommodate more than 100 vehicles while some welcome just a handful each night. The majority provide housing assistance, meals, internet access and showers. Some provide childcare or only serve families or veterans.
The outcome that Grobarek wanted was to get out of homelessness.
Grobarek and Pendarvis started staying at the Magnolia lot in El Cajon in fall 2022.
Pendarvis worked in North County. They’d drive up in the morning, and Grobarek would sit in the car with the dogs, before they would rush back to El Cajon at night. Sometimes they wouldn’t make it back before staff locked the gate and would have to park somewhere else.
Still, they were grateful to have somewhere safe most nights.
“When we first got there, we were hopeful, it was a relief, we finally felt we could breathe for a minute, we can start getting off the street,” Grobarek said.
But that hopefulness went away three months into the program.
“Whenever I would go to them, they wouldn’t know what I was talking about, and I had already talked to them about it,” she said. “We were trying to get assistance from flex funds for the car and I had to keep giving them the same information over and over again and just could never get anywhere about the status of it.”
Grobarek wanted flexible spending money from the county to pay for a motel while their car was in a repair shop. The car’s registration was up to date but needed to pass a smog check. The state approved the couple’s request for funding from the state’s Consumer Assistance Program, which pays for a portion of emissions-related repairs.
But taking the car to a shop meant they would need somewhere to stay at night. That’s why she reached out to the lot’s staff for help.
“I kept waiting and asking them ‘OK, well what dates can we do this?’” Grobarek said.
In October, a staff member gave Pendarvis a list of housing and emergency shelter resources that they could apply for while their car was repaired. The couple didn’t want to go to a shelter because of their dogs. They also didn’t want to be separated. They asked for help getting into a motel.
Then a program coordinator emailed Grobarek on Nov. 28 to follow up on the funds she needed for lodging and to repair the car. They were down staff so there had been a delay on her request, she was told.
But it was a little too late.
The state’s emission repairs funding has a 90-day expiration date, so Grobarek lost the aid. She had to apply again.
For several days, Grobarek and staff communicated over email about documents and quotes she needed to provide to receive county funding. Staff members tried to coordinate a day to meet at the lot.
Grobarek said she didn’t hear back from staff until March. By then the deadline passed and her tags expired. That made her ineligible for the state program.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” she said.
Grobarek said staff at the lot were unorganized. Dreams for Change’s paperwork indicated they enrolled in the safe lot in September, documents she provided Voice of San Diego show. But Grobarek said they entered the lot in August.
The discrepancies continued. Aside from that, she said she felt staff lacked empathy toward clients, and it often felt like they were simply herded up like cattle and locked in for the night.
A spokesman for the county said it’s using best practices.
“This includes providing secure places for people sheltering in their vehicles to park and sleep overnight, sanitary services, and connecting individuals to a range of social service and housing solutions,” wrote Tim McClain, county spokesman, in an email.
He said the county and the contractor strive to help all people in the program with services and resources. Despite this, some people may return to homelessness for a variety of reasons.
Dream for Change CEO Teresa Smith said she could not speak to the couple’s plan of action, a client-specific document prepared to evaluate how much help they need and what housing options are appropriate.
Smith said staff members struggled to communicate with the couple, as they were not at the lot when staff needed to speak to them.
“That was the biggest issue, we were continually trying to chase them down,” Smith said. “That’s kinda where it is frustrating.”
Smith said the couple brought in the required estimate of the repairs the car needed, but the nonprofit redirected them to a different shop. The state program requires a CAP-approved auto repair shop.
Smith said that’s likely where the disconnect happened. Then they didn’t hear from the clients.
On May 2, sitting outside a coffee shop with Pendarvis and their two dogs by her feet, Grobarek said, with absolute certainty, “We are losing our car. Period. We are going to lose it.”
Then, three days later, her worst fears became a reality.
“Well, our car broke down and we are on the side of the road,” she texted a Voice on May 5. “We are officially on the street with our dogs. This is what I was afraid of happening and it has.”
When their car broke down, the couple towed it to a mobile home park where a relative lives. They left the car there and at night, they would hike into a grassy hill area nearby and sleep in a tent. They couldn’t sleep inside with their relative because of their dogs.
“Last night it rained well poured for a short time. It was awful,” she texted on May 10. “Woke up with a night terror gasping for air. My nerves are shot especially having to be out in a tent. With coyotes and spiders. OMG … Scary … But we got through it.”
Grobarek told the staff what happened. They asked if she could share the quotes from the repair shop.
We covered their story on May 7.
A few days later, Dreams for Change towed the car to a repair shop and got a motel room for the couple and stocked them up on groceries. The costs to repair the car now are up to at least $8,000, Smith said.
She said case managers try to help clients navigate a system that is constantly changing.
“The system in itself is a nightmare it always has been,” Smith said.
She said everyone is trying to do the best they can, but in many ways, it boils down to housing availability.
“It wouldn’t be as complicated if we had somewhere for people to go into in the back end,” she said, “There’s an assumption that there is a unit and keys ready to hand over and unfortunately, that’s not a reality in San Diego.”
Grobarek and Pendarvis have been staying at a motel in El Cajon. Grobarek said she feels anxious because she’s out of her comfort zone and because Pendarvis isn’t working since they don’t have their car.
“On one side, it’s good, but it’s only temporary,” she said.
Andrea & Lisa, thank you both for documenting what goes on all the time. There are good people out there trying to help but the government bureaucracy gets in the way.
That kind of Merry-Go-Round is happening right now. The City announced new Safe Camping sites to great fanfare. Unfortunately they won’t be ready for months. The City has already started rousting the homeless off the streets, but they have no place to go, so they are scattering. This makes it very hard for their case managers to find them, which in turn means they can’t get off the street, or get an ID, or a Social Security Card, which also makes it hard to get off the street.
There appears to be no one who is in charge of coordinating the city’s homeless response with all departments. As a result one department’s progress is completely undone by another’s actions. This might be why we keep setting new homeless records for people living on the street.
Totally agree, Bruce! And thank you for your thoughtful comments. I enjoy reading what you have to say.
This comment sounds like you haven’t left your home in 3 years. Record drug camps because the city bureaucracy isn’t competent at case management is an absurd suggestion.
Why didn’t Tami & William move to a cheaper location to live? People have been leaving San Diego for years to more affordable communities.
Maybe they can’t afford to move, esp. now without a car. Moving is expensive. Just saying.
While it comes as no surprise that any service provided by the Government is inefficient, uncoordinated, and slothlike (try Obamacare!) , it’s tough for me to dredge up sympathy for this couple. They got free food, free hotel, free parking lot, got their car repairs paid …and still have no jobs, but plenty of money for 2 dogs. Pretty sure I can guess what the “dispute with landlord” was , but that doesn’t fit the narrative of the “reporters”.
Let’s count how many times they put the needs of two dogs before their own but still blaming the system for letting them down.
If you don’t want to live on the street, you need to adopt out your dogs They limited a lot of options, including the woman getting a job Don’t want to get rid of the dogs, then stop whining. I mean seriously, there’s a big lack of common sense here
A lot of wanting but very little doing here. Dogs or housing, pick one! Car fixed or shelter, pick one! This article documents two people making extremely poor choices and wanting the system to accommodate their wants. Now $8,000 is going to fix a car that sounds like it’s worth $500. If they got a local job, and yes there are jobs in El Cajon and east county, they wouldn’t be driving to North County spending so much on gas. Speaking of North County why did they not drive up and stay there? Services are offered there too. This seems like a couple who made bad choices and continue to do so while wanting others to support them.
Thank you Voice of SD for writing another story on the subject documenting a life style of bad choices, like this on dealing with dogs and a long commute normally it’s the unhoused drug addicts.
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