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Living in cars

One of the Safe Parking participants grateful for the program

TEXT OF STORY

SCOTT JAGOW: The rent's due tomorrow and a lotta people just can't afford to pay it. In one survey of 75 cities, the average cost of an apartment hit $978 last quarter. That's four percent higher than a year ago. In some places, we're talking $1,500. The Low Income Housing Coalition says a full-time minimum wage worker can't afford an average one-bedroom anywhere in the U.S. So, that's left some people with no choice but to live in their car. Lisa McRee reports.


LISA MCREE: Tiana Tonkins spends her days collecting parking fees at a beachfront parking lot in Santa Barbara, a city where it now takes a million dollars to buy a median-priced home.

And like many of Santa Barbara's working poor, she also spends her nights in a parking lot.

Tonkins, a youthful 47-year-old, has been living in her 1987 Mazda for six years. She says ever since she had a run of bad luck including an earthquake that damaged her house. She tries to keep her spirits up but says she never gets used to how hard it is.

TIANA TONKINS: Everything is a huge effort. It takes about an hour just to go brush your teeth, get some milk and I get ice, or just to take a shower, you know just hop in the shower.

Tonkins says she'd be in even worse shape without the help of a local program that gives her a little breathing space.

Shaw Talley of New Beginnings, a non-profit that works with the homeless, hands out monthly permits to people who are in what's called a safe parking program. It gives them a place to park from 7 at night until 7 in the morning.

As long as they have their car registration, proof of insurance, and a driver's license, anyone can apply for one of about 50 spaces in the parking lots of government buildings and non-profit agencies.

Talley says it's a solution that doesn't cost a dime and just makes sense.

SHAW TALLEY: The beauty of this program is that the parking lots are empty at night. No one's using them and it does work.

Without Safe Parking, most people who live in cars may move several times a night to avoid being hassled by both criminals and the police. With this program, they have some stress-free time to figure out how to change their lives so they can find a real place to live.

Tiana Tonkins says it even goes beyond that.

TONKINS: For now, I have a safe parking program that helps keep me sane, really it does.

Eugene, Oregon may be the only other city with a program like this. Living in cars is still illegal in most places, and some communities have stiff penalties that can include a $1,000 fine and three months in jail.

In Los Angeles, I'm Lisa McRee for Marketplace.

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