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16,000 people in L.A. now live in cars, vans and RVs

Two years ago, Los Angeles began testing an alternative to homeless shelters called safe parking, giving people living in their cars a secure spot to sleep at night.

The first site was quickly deemed a success, so the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority agreed to fund nine more lots in the pilot program, with promises to expand.

Earlier this year, before the release of new data showing more than 16,500 people living in their vehicles, the authority put out a request to providers across the county to help them make good on that promise.

But the details of the request left some groups frustrated, saying the rules were too burdensome and the budget too tight.

“There were a lot of questions, particularly from the experienced folks, and that made me concerned,” said Paulina Hong of the Asian American Drug Abuse Program, a group that had planned to apply. “Does this make sense the way it’s laid out? I didn’t get the sense that it does. But LAHSA has their reasons for the way that they structured it.”

Under the authority’s new model, most lots would require multiple security guards working 12-hour shifts. While existing lots accommodate five to 10 cars, new ones would need to operate with no fewer than 25, and 95% of the spots must be full every night.

Lot operators also would be required to offer on-site case management and other services. And all of it must be done for less than $30 per car, per night — and ideally less than $20, according to the homeless authority’s plan.

“The higher of the two funding levels is relatively similar to what we pay for a shelter bed,” said Heidi Marston, the authority’s chief program officer.

But a shelter bed sleeps one person, providers point out, while a car, van or RV often rolls up with a family in tow.Rise in homeless numbers prompts outrage and alarm across L.A. County »

All told, the expansion is budgeted to yield fewer than 300 safe parking spots — roughly double the number that currently exist.

That leaves most people living in vehicles without a legal place to sleep.

“We have to start somewhere,” Marston said. “Because this is a new program, we want to get a sense of what is actually needed so we can scale.”