20 Minutes with Anna Olson

Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but a homelessness crisis of “epic and heartbreaking proportions” in Los Angeles is bringing weary people to a Koreatown church parking lot.

Homelessness in Los Angeles is so bad that the Los Angeles Times editorial board recently asked, “How can a place with 58,000 homeless people continue to function?” Headlines about the city’s homeless people have spread around the world in the last five years, but the crisis continues to deepen. One example: last year, the city began enforcing an ordinance that prohibits people who live in their cars from parking on any residential street between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. The city’s churches, such as St. Mary’s in Koreatown, are trying to discern a way to help. St. Mary’s has responded by opening its parking lot to those in need, with overnight security and a portable restroom. The Rev. Anna Olson, rector at St. Mary’s, told Matthew Townsend about the parish’s decision to pilot this program in partnership with Safe Parking L.A.

How did St. Mary’s go about deciding to partner with Safe Parking L.A.?
We were connected to Safe Parking L.A. by an interfaith organization that I’ve worked with on many issues over the years, CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice). St. Mary’s had been looking for the right opportunity to lend a hand in the citywide effort to address the crisis of homelessness in L.A. When we met with the Safe Parking folks, they seemed to have a plan that would work for what we were able to offer and the political and community relationships to make it happen.

Have you started hosting people? How has it gone?
We have started in a low-key kind of way. So far, so good; already [there has been] some nice interaction between guests and parishioners.

The expectation is that working up to the 10 vehicles we have committed to will take some time, and that time will give us all a chance to work through any bumps. There are a lot of people who need to work together to make it all work — Safe Parking L.A., the church, guests themselves, social service providers, local police, city attorney, city and county governments, other communities that use our space, neighbors, and so on. So, we expect it to be some work to make the model a reality on the ground. That’s why someone has to go first! Hopefully each new site will learn from the existing models. We’ve already learned from models in other cities and one L.A. United Methodist congregation that has done a similar project under a different model with different partners.

Is this in response to the ordinance that effectively forbids people sleeping in their cars in residential areas?
I don’t completely understand the very complicated regulations about who can park and sleep where in L.A., but my understanding of the reality on the ground is that it is very difficult to live in a vehicle long term without accumulating citations and parking tickets, which can create an insurmountable burden for an individual or family that is already in economic crisis. I live about 1.5 miles from the church and I see daily evidence of people living in vehicles (as well as tents and in the open) in my residential neighborhood.

I know there have also been recent legal changes here that make it more possible for faith communities to provide temporary shelter either indoors or outdoors for unhoused neighbors.

How would you explain a ban on overnight parking to someone unfamiliar with the role that cars can play for homeless people, especially in a place like L.A.?
For many families and individuals experiencing economic crisis, the car is the last “indoor” space they are able to hang onto. L.A.’s mild climate makes sleeping in a vehicle viable most nights of the year and provides protection from the elements, some minimal security, and a place to store personal belongings. Many people who live in cars are employed, often using gym memberships or family member’s homes to take care of hygiene needs. Living in a vehicle can be a way to stay in the neighborhood where school and work and extended family and familiar services are close at hand. At the same time, people who live in their cars are vulnerable to crime and to both enforcement and harassment by police. Many housed neighbors do not want people living in vehicles in their neighborhoods, and trash disposal, cooking, and toilet facilities are a challenge.

At the same time, we at St. Mary’s recognize that living in a car is often the last point in an economic crisis where people retain a relatively solid chance of moving back into a more stable life without first losing everything. Living in a vehicle, with the mobility, privacy, security, and access to possessions that provides, is still far preferable to living on the street or in many shelter situations. We hope that by providing the safest and most stable possible environment for vehicle dwelling, we give people a chance to make that the “bottom” of their economic crisis, so the next step can be towards housing and stability.

What should people outside of L.A. know about homelessness there — what it’s like, who tends to be homeless, and how the church is involved?
Homelessness in Los Angeles is a crisis of epic and heartbreaking proportions. I have lived in L.A. for 20 years and had never seen anything like the past five or so years. There are people living in tents and makeshift shelters everywhere — under every bridge, on every sort of street, in every public space. I read a recent estimate of 60,000 people living unsheltered in Los Angeles County.

The recent massive increase in homelessness includes many people who are highly functional, sometimes employed, and remarkably creative about making life work on the streets. The days when most unhoused individuals showed visible signs of severe untreated physical or mental illness or substance abuse are long gone, although there are, of course, folks with those issues in the mix. There is just a tremendous mismatch between the price of housing and people’s ability to pay for it. A full-time job at $12.50/hour brings in a little over $2,000/month before taxes. One-bedroom apartments in the church’s low-income neighborhood start around $1,500. The math just doesn’t work.

Our mayor has asked every Angeleno and particularly every faith community to find a way to step up on behalf of our unhoused neighbors. Safe Parking is St. Mary’s first concrete step beyond donations of food and toiletries to local social service programs. We hope that our willingness to help Safe Parking L.A. pilot its program will inspire other faith communities to offer their parking lots as well. We are also exploring other ways that we might use our space to partner with public agencies and local nonprofits who are working in our neighborhood.

How can people pray for the homeless of L.A.?
Everyone deserves a home in this world — a place of safety, rest, love, and protection. No one wants or deserves to be endangered, exhausted, lonely, and constantly vulnerable.

I pray that we all will hang on to and find ways to act on those basic truths in the face of a world that allows far too many lives to be regarded as disposable.

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