On the second night after his church opened its parking lot to people living out of their cars, vans and other vehicles, Glenn Nishibayashi noticed a mother and daughter using one of the spaces.

He was interested in knowing how the previous evening worked out for them, and went over to inquire.

“This was the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks,” the woman told him.

She explained that she was more accustomed to fitful nights parked on the street, staying half-awake so she could be alert to potentially being approached by strangers or rousted by police officers.

Members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church were initially concerned about the possible risks of opening up their parking lot to down-and-out strangers. But talking to the mother and daughter reassured Nishibayashi that their congregation had made the right decision to give the program a try.

“This is exactly what this program is for,” said the 61-year-old Nishibayashi, whose grandparents helped found the historically Japanese American church located in what is now Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

“It gets rid of that worry, so you can function so much better,” he said. “This told me we were doing exactly the right thing.”

In March, St. Mary’s became the first site in Los Angeles to offer a privately operated “safe parking” program to shelter some of the city’s more than 8,500 vehicle dwellers.

Nishibayashi, who considers the program a small step to address the “huge problem” of homelessness, voted as part of St. Mary’s governing board to turn their modest church lot into a refuge for people living out of their cars. They opted to make up to 10 of their parking spots available each night, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

He said part of the appeal of the program was that if a problem arose, they would be able to immediately halt it. The program is operated by the nonprofit Safe Parking L.A., which handles the security, screening process and other logistics. The group also helps to connect the program’s clients to social workers who work to get them back on their feet.

St. Mary’s Rev. Anna Olson said when she first heard about safe parking, it seemed like a feasible way for a community church without very much manpower to do their part to address a homelessness crisis that in recent years has seemed to eclipse all other problems in the city, and which has exploded from Orange County to the Inland Empire. The number of people experiencing homelessness Los Angeles rose 20 percent last year to 34,000, and by 23 percent countywide to 58,000 people.

A survey conducted by USC in the two months following L.A.’s annual homeless count found that 50 percent cited unemployment and financial reasons for becoming homeless for the first time, according to Gary Painter, director of the USC Homelessness Policy Research Institute.

“It was something we could easily do,” Nishibayashi said. “It required simply opening the gates to our parking lot.”

Some members of the faith community over the last year and half have begun working to get more safe parking programs launched, but without the high cost. St. Mary’s program grew out of efforts by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, an interfaith group that advocates for low-wage workers and communities that are economically disadvantaged. The group is hoping to encourage more churches, temples and other places of worship to offer similar parking programs.

Rabbi Jonathan Klein, the group’s executive director, said their goal is to get safe parking sites set up “anywhere and everywhere” around the city.

“This is a great opportunity to do a tangible thing to support people who are struggling right now,” he said. “There are churches all over the place with parking lots.”

He noted that such programs usually start small, and add only a few extra spots to deal with a large need, But they represents a “step in the right direction” toward creating a “culture shift” in fighting the stigma faced by people experiencing homelessness, he said.

When people experiencing homelessness are invited into a church parking lot, they are brought into a community where there are opportunities to build relationships, he said.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County is working with a homeless services and housing nonprofit, Illumination Foundation, to finalize plans for a pilot program at a church in north Orange County.

The discovery in March of a family of four, including two young children, that died of apparent asphyxiation while sleeping in their van at a Garden Grove shopping center adds a sense of urgency to the effort.

The diocese is not disclosing the exact location and other details until a meeting for parishioners at the church takes place this week. But based on existing concern about homeless people on the streets and informal feedback from church members, the diocese expects a full endorsement for the project, said Greg Walgenbach, director of Life, Justice and Peace for the Orange County diocese.

Full story at OC Register.