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For Some Seniors Without Housing, A Parking Lot Is Home

Marge Giaimo stands with her gold Oldsmobile, where she currently sleeps.
Gloria Hillard for NPR
Marge Giaimo stands with her gold Oldsmobile, where she currently sleeps.

Marge Giaimo makes her way to a picnic table under the shadow of an oak tree. Santa Barbara's trees, like its oceans and mountains, are one thing she says she never tires of here. After losing her senior housing three years ago, this table is where she does her painting these days.

"I feel very fortunate to have my car," Giaimo says. "It's a little cramped, but it's softer than cement."

Of all her once-valued possessions, today her 20-year-old, gold Oldsmobile is her most important one. It is her home, and she keeps it as neat as a pin.

"And then this is where I sleep," she says. "I have the three pillows and I have sponges under there or foam to sleep on."

In the wealthy coastal city of Santa Barbara, north of Los Angeles, the demand for senior housing is so great the wait list is now closed. After all, California's senior population is expected to grow by 50 percent in the next decade.

For the seniors left out in the cold, their only option is living in their cars.

'It's Hard To Walk Away'

"It is a hidden population and a growing population," says Cassie Roach, who oversees Safe Parking, a city-funded program at the New Beginnings Counseling Center. "And it is quite different from the street homeless."

Safe Parking has designated 115 parking spaces in church, county and city lots where people living in their cars — such as Giaimo — can park safely overnight.

Roach says many of those living in their cars have fallen upon hard times for the first time in their lives.

Among them is 61-year-old Lise MacFarlane. She is grateful for one of those Safe Parking spots.

"I'm more comfortable sleeping now," MacFarlane says.

MacFarlane says she lost the home she grew up in last December after being evicted by the new owner.

"I was sleeping in front of my house and the park," MacFarlane says. "It's hard to walk away. That's it."

She shares her Toyota Highlander with her two dogs and a very large white cat named Willie.

"They don't like being in the car all the time," MacFarlane says. "They want to be in a home."

While most people are having dinner, MacFarlane rolls into her assigned church parking lot.

"It's really hard sitting in the car watching people, watching people I know go by," she says, crying.

Safety And Support

The sun has gone down, but Giaimo's gold Oldsmobile is hard to miss. It's parked a few spaces away from a Honda CRV owned by 74-year-old Barbara Harvey.

"We support one another very much," Harvey says.

"She puts up with me," Giaimo responds.

"There is no putting up with Marge, OK," Harvey says, laughing.

In this women-only lot, friendships are forged. There are seven designated spaces, and later in the evening a lot monitor stops by to check in on them.

By 7 a.m. they will need to be gone.

The sound of a trash truck heralds the morning in this parking lot. Giaimo and MacFarlane are getting ready to leave for the day.

"It's dog walking time," Giaimo says. "Did I drop something out my trunk?"

"I think you did," MacFarlane responds.

"I can't find my brush. See, this is what we go through," Giaimo says, laughing. "Where did I put my brush?"

MacFarlane loads up her dogs as Willie the cat reluctantly makes room for them on the stacked blankets. Giaimo smiles and waves goodbye.

Giaimo's day continues with a shower at the Y. Then, she'll return to her picnic table.

The 75-year-old painter is on a wait list for senior housing in Santa Barbara. She's been told it could take another seven years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.