Many congregations have parking lots, but most don’t put them to use as havens of care and human dignity, as does Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Saratoga, Calif. Since June 2018, the congregation has been addressing homelessness in its community by leading the Rotating Safe Car Park (RSCP) ministry.
Prince of Peace had been part of a program that operated a rotating men’s shelter, but that shut down in 2017. Sara Pearson, a pastor of the congregation, said passionate members started looking for a way to fill the void.
Saratoga is a suburb in Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest areas in the world and home to such tech giants as Google and Apple. The Financial Post has called Silicon Valley the most expensive housing region in the country, and U.S. News and World Report found that Santa Clara County has the fifth-highest level in the nation of people experiencing homelessness.
“[Members] did a lot of research into understanding the idea of the safe park model, which is essentially when a business or church provides a safe space for people who live in their cars to park overnight,” Pearson said.
A significant decision in starting the program was that it would rotate. “We developed a network of hosts and volunteers,” said Norman Puck, a member of Prince of Peace and the RSCP leadership team. “That way we can draw upon more people to contribute and create a framework that our whole community can join.”
The RSCP team also connected with social service agencies, which provide referrals and background screening of all guests, as well as case management and other supportive services. There was only one problem—the city of Saratoga’s municipal code prohibited vehicles being used as living or sleeping quarters.
The RSCP team explained its plans to city officials and the sheriff’s department, who all embraced the idea. City officials granted the program a six-month probation, which ultimately went well and resulted in their partnering with the Prince of Peace group to create legislation for the city council’s approval. “From there,” Puck said, “it really started to grow.”
The ministry currently has 11 hosting and volunteer partners—a college and 10 houses of worship. Other community partners provide different kinds of support; the YMCA allows RSCP guests to use its showers.
“We have theological differences with some of our partners, but we all share a common understanding of caring for our neighbors who are in need,” Pearson said. “I don’t know how else the world will change for the better unless we find common ground, and this is one of those things. It’s been wonderful.”
Karen Hauschildt, a member of Prince of Peace and the RSCP leadership team, said guests rotate to a new site at the beginning of every month. The 10 to 15 guests are logged every evening and morning so the hosts know that only screened guests are using the lot. This ensures the safety of everyone who parks overnight.
“All they want is quiet and a safe place to be.”
At Prince of Peace, volunteers host a hospitality time for an hour each morning and evening, with food, drinks, pantry items and other staples for the guests. Once a week volunteers provide a full evening meal. The hospitality time varies with the host site, but it’s a cornerstone of the program. It gives hosts a chance to welcome guests, get to know them a bit and possibly learn about specific needs they might have. Prince of Peace uses a portion of its RSCP budget to provide small grants to guests for such things as a new tire, a tank of gas or help with a medical expense.
“We have found that once volunteers get connected, they really become strong advocates for the guests,” Puck said.
Ulrike Hoehler, a member of Prince of Peace and the RSCP leadership team, said, “Interesting conversations develop between volunteers and guests, and their lives are actually very similar. When [guests] tell us about their workday, it’s hardly any different. It’s really just how they spend the night that is different.”
The guests also monitor security at each host site, counter to some original assumptions people had about the program. “They’re the first to let you know if there is a problem at your site,” Puck said. “All they want is quiet and a safe place to be, and so they help make it safe.”
A sense of community flows in many directions. Members of the RSCP leadership team said they’ve gotten to know their fellow parishioners better through volunteering with the program. The guests can also form strong bonds, especially if they spend several months utilizing the different sites together.
“They look out for each other, make sure each other is taken care of, and we receive questions about how they can give back,” Hoehler said. “It’s just the most beautiful thing for me to see that they are feeling that building of relationship and community.”
Santa Clara County now incorporates safe parks in its efforts to address homelessness, and Hauschildt reports that RSCP has also impacted local social service agencies: “We have heard from them that sometimes people go to them and need help, but then they lose track of them. But when [guests] are in our program, they can keep up with them. And that is so important, because a goal is to make sure guests ultimately get into the housing system.”