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Safe Program extends helping hand to Seniors living in their cars

There is a growing, but hidden population in Santa Barbara-homeless senior citizens living in their cars.

The Safe Parking Program run by New Beginnings Counseling Center in Santa Barbara is giving seniors a safe place to park overnight while connecting them with housing and other services.

The program started in 2004 with just a few spaces and lots.

“Currently, we have 21 lots and 120 spaces which accounts for 150 or more people per night seeking shelter,” said director Kristine Schwarz. “About 20% of our total client population is represented by seniors.”

One of those seniors is 75-year-old Marge Giaimo. She was evicted from her apartment five years ago. The former caregiver lives on Social Security and SSI, but it is not enough.

“Without Section 8, there is nothing that I could afford in Santa Barbara,” Giaimo said.

Giaimo said she never imagined she would spend her golden years this way.

“It’s not gonna end this way. But, no I never would have thought this would happen,” Giaimo said.

Schwarz said many factors are causing the problem; the baby boomers generation is aging and many are living in fixed incomes and are too old to start working again.

“They’re sort of betwixt and between. They don’t have an ability to get assistance and yet they don’t have ability to increase their income so they are essentially forced to live on a very fixed income for the remainder of their lives,” Schwarz said.

Once seniors lose their housing or get evicted, they fall victim to the city’s rental crisis.

“There currently is less than a .5 % vacancy rate and we have a tremendous number of social services agencies competing for units,” Schwarz said.

Many of these homeless seniors languish on waiting lists for affordable housing.

“We have clients who have waited up to 7 years or more to get into housing, some are still waiting,” Schwarz said.

Giaimo said her faith helps her to stay positive.

“We don’t know what God has in store for us. So I just go with the flow and you just got to keep your faith that god is guiding you and will bring something wonderful in your life,” Giaimo said.

Schwarz said there is a dire need for more landlords to accept Section 8.

“Unfortunately, this population doesn’t have as much time to wait and the older they get, the more difficult it is to live in their vehicles and the more infirmed they become at that age,” Schwarz said.

Schwarz said she is working on getting the Safe Parking Program designated as a shelter so it can become eligible for funding, but if the problem is not addressed, more seniors will end up on the streets.

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