Profile: The Founders of Safe Parking LA Speak About Helping the Homeless

25% of the homeless population in Los Angeles are vehicle dwellers. Safe Parking LA is an organization that provides restroom facilities, security guards, access to social service resources and lots for these individuals to stay in every night. This program makes it easier and safer for vehicle dwellers to comply with local laws that may prohibit street parking at night. 

The UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council recently passed a proposal asking UCLA to offer safe parking services for students sleeping in their cars, which was endorsed by the North Westwood Neighborhood Council.

Her Campus at UCLA interviewed the founders of Safe Parking LA, Emily Kantrim and Scott Sale, about their work, goals and advice. 

HC: How did you get started with Safe Parking LA?

EK: I'm very proud to be the first employee at Safe Parking LA. I had volunteered and served on neighborhood council and a homeless coalition with one of our three founders, so when they decided to shift from advocating on the subject of safe parking to creating the organization Safe Parking LA, I was introduced to the other founders and the conversation escalated very quickly from there. 

SS: A Homeless Task Force which I started at Leo Baeck Temple was contacted by City Councilman Bill Rosendahl in 2010. He wanted our group to host a Safe Parking program and asked that we learn about Safe Parking from the people in Santa Barbara who had started the concept. By 2016, the LA City politicians becoming more amenable to the idea of Safe Parking prompted me to buy the website, SafeParkingLA. 

HC: What does an average day at work look like for you?

EK: I typically have two to four meetings and conference calls per day which could range from a report to a committee at City Hall, problem-solving among a table of service providers for patrons with high needs, to workshopping with our own staff and volunteers on a new resource that we are able to share with our patrons and what documentation is required. Three nights a week I do community events in the evening, speak on a panel or give a presentation at a neighborhood council or have dinner with our patrons at one of our eight programs in the city. We have an emergency on-call line and we rotate the responsibility for answering these calls. While I don't get many true emergency calls in the middle of the night, I am always afraid that I will sleep through the ringer!

SS: I spend 4-6 hours every day helping to advocate for our program, managing patron issues like a Case Manager would and dealing with all of the financial issues related to our agency. I work with the Grant writer while raising monies for our work. I also help strategize for the growth of the organization re: more staff needs and more lots.

HC: What is the most fulfilling part of working at Safe Parking? 

EK: When we as a community started to see parking lots which aren't used at night being offered up to provide safety and protection for our neighbors, other groups started to step up and offer non-traditional solutions. At Safe Parking LA we now have a corporate sponsor for vehicle insurance and a corporate sponsor for help with vehicle registration. These are groups who would not necessarily have known how to participate in addressing homelessness and this all helps neighbors see that everyone is pitching in. This is most evident when a patron is coming onto the lot for the first time and, rather than feeling as though they have to hide from the community, they are surprised to know that their neighbors voted to bring a safe parking program to the area- that they are being valued and respected, and that people they have never met want to invest in their future. I am incredibly grateful for wonderful city partners who have tried to open every imaginable door and many doors we hadn't yet envisioned.

SS: There are two areas that excite me: one is hearing about a patron who has moved back into stable housing and the other is getting calls from new organizations who want to be Safe Parking partners. 

HC: The most challenging part? And how do you get through these struggles?

EK: My biggest struggles are nothing in comparison to the struggles that get shared with me every day. Struggling with the weight of problem-solving those situations are not the same as internalizing the trauma that the family is experiencing. We do not do this work tirelessly and we do not do it alone. I am bolstered and supported by an entire network of peers who have skills as clinicians and medical practitioners, community advocates, my colleagues with lived experience, and my staff who are constantly helping to shift the perspective just as much as the workload. 

SS: Dealing with difficult clients and having to tell them NO is very difficult. Conferring with the SPALA team and coming up with a plan is very helpful. 

HC: How are you looking to expand Safe Parking LA in the future?

EK: I'm really interested in demystifying the operation of a safe parking program so that other organizations can participate on their own behalf. Safe Parking LA is the only organization to operate programs on private office lots, faith communities, city, county, and federally-owned property. While I don't want to operate every safe parking program, I want there to be a safe parking program in every type of lot in all neighborhoods and cities across the county so that we actually have a way of making people safe and connecting them with services before they lose their vehicle and fall further into homelessness. 

Community colleges, LAUSD, and universities, particularly UCLA, need to figure out how they will offer the pavement they already have to the people they already serve to make the meal services, medical services, gym/shower facilities more efficacious, to ultimately make their students safer, healthier, and propel them into the better future that they show up everyday already asking for. Most educational entities can run these programs internally. I want them to know how easy it is. 

SS: In the ideal world, we need 300 lots in LA county to manage the over 15,000 people currently living in their vehicles. But before we expand from our current 9 lots to more, we have to have a 1 year, 3 year, and 5 year plan and conceptualize where there is a need and make sure that LAHSA [Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] concurs with our ideas. Why LAHSA? Because they are responsible for the bulk of the funding for Safe Parking lots. 

HC: What kind of work did you do before Safe Parking? What were your career plans when you were in college? 

EK: Before Safe Parking LA, I managed an archaeological research program and ethnographic archive at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. As a society, we tend to think that skills do not cross sectors, but I can assure you that if you know how to have everyone come to the table to work on the same issues with the same desired outcome, you can work in archaeology and you could work in homeless services. You need patience, appreciation and you need to think that all people, regardless of identity, circumstance or location, are deserving of respect. 

I always knew that I would have a non-traditional career path. I did not attend college until after I had worked as a project manager in real estate, interior design, construction and had worked for a delightful buyer in a very small boutique department store. I studied Latin for six years and transferred from city college to UCLA. I have a degree in Classics and specifically was interested in the influence that the architecture of the Roman Empire had on the aesthetics of Fascism under Mussolini.  

SS: I am a retired General Medical Practitioner which I aspired to while in college. I started doing charitable work in the homelessness arena back in 2004 when I volunteered helping homeless veterans, then homeless families and now dealing with people living in their cars. 

HC: Do you have any advice for students looking to get into careers in the nonprofit industry or that are struggling to find their passion?

EK: Being in search of passion alone does not tell how you are in service to that issue that you are passionate about. Explore your skills, build partners among your colleagues and friends and consider how you will be able to best participate in the issues that you care about. There is room for tech specialists in homelessness, there is a need for people who can teach arts and crafts to participate in homeless services. So don't ever think that what you have to offer isn't valuable. But it might take a stronger connection to the people doing the work in your neighborhood for you to figure out how your skills fit into the continuum. Wanting to pick up the phone every day to hear someone's heartbreak and fears borne into reality is difficult but it would be impossible if I hadn't amassed the skills to be able to listen, help direct, connect and comfort the person I'm talking to. I am passionate about doing it every day and learning how to do it better because I know it is compassionate, necessary, and builds the world I want to live in. 

SS: I would dig deep into what “burns” you or keeps you up at night. I would also start slowly and try many different nonprofit agencies, volunteering a couple hours per week.

Thank you to Safe Parking LA for chatting with us about all the work you do!