IKAR’s Safe Parking Program for the Homeless

July 10, 2019
IKAR’s parking spaces for the homeless. Photo courtesy of IKAR

Last December, IKAR became the first Jewish community organization to participate in Safe Parking LA (SPLA), a nonprofit initiative that provides those living in their cars with a safe place to park overnight, with access to a bathroom, water and electricity. It currently provides 10 spaces in its building’s parking lot on La Cienega Boulevard. IKAR also raised over $10,000 to fund month-to-month memberships at a local 24-hour health club for Safe Parking guests to have access to hot showers. 

Most nights, the spaces are used by Safe Parking “guests” who are “assigned to the IKAR lot for the period of time they need to be until they find housing or make some other decision, like leaving town,” said Brooke Wirtschafter, IKAR’s director of community organizing. 

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) 2018 Homeless Count, 15,749 people were living in cars, vans and RVs/campers in Los Angeles County. In 2019, that number was 16,528 — a 5% increase. 

Safe Parking guests are often taking care of disabled or sick family members, suffering trauma from job loss, divorce, domestic violence or are experiencing “a whole range of human suffering that leads them to this space,” Wirtschafter said. “You wouldn’t know if you passed them on the street. They’re wearing clean clothes; some have jobs. They could be serving you coffee or driving your Uber. … It’s an opportunity for us to really think about why we have this crisis of homelessness and what we are called to do about it.” 

Overall, homelessness numbers are up. According to this year’s count, 58,936 people were listed as homeless in L.A. County — an increase of 12% from 2018. And in the city of Los Angeles, that number is 36,300 — a rise of 16% since last year.   

But what these numbers don’t show is the “inflow and outflow” of homeless, as LAHSA calls it in its report on the count. While 133 people per day moved from homelessness into permanent housing in the county, 150 people per day became homeless, said Naomi Goldman, a new member of IKAR and communications consultant for LAHSA and the LA County Homeless Initiative over the past five years. This daily homeless figure, Goldman said, is due to economic issues like “skyrocketing rents, unjust evictions and a massive lack of affordable housing.” 

“It’s an opportunity for us to really think about why we have this crisis of homelessness and what we are called to do about it.” 

— Brooke Wirtschafter

IKAR is doing its part by funding Safe Parking LA through its own fundraising, Wirtschafter said, with a $500 per month stipend from SPLA. Students in IKAR’s after-school Hebrew school Limudim program provided shower supplies for Safe Parking guests, and IKAR holds a catered kosher vegetarian dinner for them (paid for by the stipend), along with IKAR community members twice a month. Over time, Wirtschafter predicted, many IKAR members will attend dinners or otherwise connect respectfully with Safe Parking guests.

“They all have different stories about how they got to where they are but there’s a lot of isolation and it’s meaningful for those folks, beyond getting a dinner, [to have] a chance to socialize with people,” Wirtschafter said. “It’s really important and impactful for IKAR members to learn about these people, their individuality and their stories. You break down stereotypes and barriers by getting close and talking with them.”

The Safe Parking dinners are “about individual lives, not statistics,” said Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, who is on the leadership team for the dinners. She calls the dinners a chance “to experience stories instead of stats, names instead of numbers.

“We hope the moments of conversation, connection, laughter and serious sharing help them feel a little stronger, a little more supported, a little more connected. Breaking bread together helps break stereotypes, too.” 

“It is our obligation to pursue social justice and to welcome the strangers in our midst,” said Rhoda Weisman, who stepped up to chair the initiative after hearing IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous speak passionately on behalf of the program. “It was time to elevate my life and give more. I wanted to connect our guests and our community and provide a neutral space where we could be human with
one another.” 

Goldman said that IKAR’s efforts — which include offering meals at People Assisting the Homeless; a veterans’ shelter in West L.A.; Laundry Love, monthly free laundry services to low-income and homeless families; and various advocacy campaigns and trainings — “provide a moral compass and channel the outreach into direct service as a reflection of our faith. The message that it sends is enormously powerful, inspiring and motivational to others who are trying to tackle something that seems like a huge issue. You might not be able to solve the whole problem
but here is the piece where we can make a difference.”

“Our city is in crisis because we can’t help all those experiencing homelessness who need us,” Weisman said.  “But we can all do something. And many somethings can create a great change.” 

IKAR currently is the only synagogue in Los Angeles running a Safe Parking program. Leo Baeck Temple had to suspend its program after the December 2017 Skirball Fire and hasn’t restarted it, Wirtschafter said.

IKAR will begin construction on its new building in a few years, including the parking lot where Safe Parking LA guests are staying at this time. 

“We are definitely thinking about how to incorporate some form of housing and direct service in what will become our permanent home,” Wirtschafter said. “We are hoping to be YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard). The community is moved by and cares about this effort and opportunity and wants to be a part of it.”  

To learn more, visit the Los Angeles Homeless Outreach Portal, a mobile-friendly web platform that empowers members of the public, first responders and service providers to provide information on homeless persons on the street and request outreach.  

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