Safe Spaces Available for California’s Homeless

Monterey County’s Tia Fechter launched One Starfish to provide overnight parking and social services to people living in their cars. Five years later, more cities across California are offering similar programs.

One Starfish founder Tia Fechter and her daughter on a visit to the organization’s safe-parking site in Marina, California.
One Starfish founder Tia Fechter and her daughter on a visit to the organization’s safe-parking site in Marina, California.

When she first moved to Monterey in 2012, Tia Fechter volunteered with a street ministry, serving hot breakfasts on Sundays to local people in need. She noticed that a certain population of women, in their 50s and older, were living out of their vehicles. They kept their homelessness a secret, dressed well, and attended church services. But at night, they drove from place to place, looking for a safe location to park, worried about being harassed by the police or worse.

It was clear to Fechter that their cars were the last thing keeping these women from the black-hole spiral down to life on the street—and that they were often just one parking ticket away from having their vehicles impounded. Across the country in Maine, Fechter’s own mother had bounced in and out of housing for several years after a bad divorce that had left her couch surfing and living out of her car. Fechter and her husband, Michael, had recently secured low-income housing for her. It was what finally stabilized her situation.

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After attending a Monterey City Council meeting on homelessness issues in 2013, Fechter found that she couldn’t sleep. So she wrote a proposal for a safe-parking program called One Starfish; its name was inspired by “The Star Thrower,” an essay by Loren Eiseley that describes a character who, one at a time, saves starfish washed up on a beach. The program would allow people to sleep in their vehicles in locations that were typically underutilized overnight—church parking, for example, or the vast lots outside government offices—with the permission of the property owner and with adequate bathroom facilities. She looked up how other such programs were operating around the state and described how safe parking could work, showing how it could lead to a reduction in emergency care costs, police intervention, and disruption to communities. The city council balked at funding, so Fechter contributed $1,000 of her own money and received donations from a group of residents who wanted to take action to help homeless women specifically. They heard about what she was trying to do and gave her $25,000 from a chili cook-off. She used it to pay a caseworker so she could start what would otherwise be an all-volunteer pilot program.

“Our first guests included a family—a 20-year-old college student living in an RV in Pacific Grove with her parents,” Fechter told me recently when I visited her at the house in Seaside that she shares with her husband and their two-year-old daughter. At 37, she is a serious woman with long blond hair and pale blue eyes who doesn’t look much older than a college student herself. “The mother was dying of cancer, and they parked in one of our lots so that they had the mailing address to get hospice care.” After the mother died, the father moved to Arizona for a job; One Starfish helped the daughter obtain housing so she could finish her degree in criminal justice at Monterey Peninsula College.

One Starfish guest Tom Mitropolis and his dog, Buster, stand outside their 1996 Chevy Suburban, where they sleep and eat.
One Starfish guest Tom Mitropolis and his dog, Buster, stand outside their 1996 Chevy Suburban, where they sleep and eat.

Five years later, One Starfish is an established nonprofit that runs several sites on the Monterey Peninsula through its own social services program and a separate one for Monterey County, started two years ago; at press time, they had collectively served more than 300 guests and helped nearly 1,000 applicants find other resources. There are now two dedicated social workers, and Michael Fechter directs the programs. Tia, who works full-time for the Department of Defense, continues as a volunteer. One Starfish keeps solid numbers on its guests, who must be existing residents of the area. One hundred percent see improved health as social workers guide them to medical and other caregivers; 75 percent see an increase in income through work or social benefits they didn’t have before; 50 percent are rehoused within a year. The lots operate at capacity—there are roughly 40 parking spots in total, with more than 30 of them dedicated for women. The number of guests depends on the number of additional social workers One Starfish has the resources to hire.

There are firm outlines to the program: guests must want to be housed and must be willing to take any housing available, including shared; they must be drug- and alcohol-free; their cars must be insured and registered, with no outstanding warrants. One Starfish helps finance the latter. Guests meet with One Starfish’s social workers regularly, and a lot manager keeps the sites secure. Applicants with severe mental illness or substance abuse issues are referred to outside agencies. “It’s housing first, paired with the case manager and other support to help them stay housed,” Tia Fechter says. “And we know our limits. That’s essential to our success.”

In 2018, Fechter represented the Central Coast at the Jefferson Awards for Public Service in Washington, D.C. The safe-parking movement is growing: it is now a recognized safety net for those who might otherwise become chronically homeless. She and her husband have helped a group in Santa Cruz develop a similar program, and they have talked with authorities in Richmond about how to start a city-based program there. In September, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to build a safe-parking facility for homeless people near the city’s Balboa Park transit station. In Berkeley, a safe-parking site for RVs is slated to open soon.

One of the guests in the Monterey County lot is Tom Mitropolis, 63, a chatty, genial man with a gray ponytail and a meticulously tended white beard. “You know that Civil War general, Burnside?” he asked me. “I added a jazz patch.” Mitropolis worked as a bartender for decades and was employed at a high-end steakhouse in Carmel when his sister’s breast cancer came back. He quit the service industry to help with her doctors’ appointments and treatment and to run her jewelry business on Cannery Row. After she died, in 2010, he inherited her home and her store.

A couple of years later, he went to the hospital suffering from what he thought was a heart attack. “They found a tumor in my chest the size of a chicken egg,” Mitropolis said. A diagnosis of lung cancer set off a chain reaction: surgery to remove most of his right lung, then chemo, followed by a long recovery period during which he couldn’t work. He fell behind on house payments. In January 2019, he lost his home. He packed his belongings, rented the biggest storage space he could afford, and moved into his 1996 Chevy Suburban.

Overnight visitor Shasha “Queen” Sage greets people from the door of her RV.
Overnight visitor Shasha “Queen” Sage greets people from the door of her RV.

“We all know there is a homeless problem,” he said. “Until it happens to you, you cannot fathom the diversity of people it can happen to. You have the mentally ill. You have those who want to be free from society’s bounds. Then you have people like me. I chose to smoke cigarettes all my life. I take responsibility for that. But it says something about this world that I was $40,000 away from paying off my house, and I had it taken away because I got sick.”

Michael Fechter takes pains to point out that, like many guests in the safe-parking program, Mitropolis had savings. “Many are working poor thinking they are doing OK but living month to month,” he said. “They can end up homeless very fast.”

Mitropolis’s case manager, Dorian Manuel, helps with everything from truck repairs to paperwork, and Mitropolis is now on the short list for a new low-income housing development in Marina. He gets choked up when he talks about Manuel and One Starfish. “I’m surrounded by angels,” he said. “This truck is my lifeline, and so are they.”

Mitropolis spends a lot of time at libraries. Recently, he browsed the offerings at a sale at the Marina library and stumbled on a 1965 recording of Duke Ellington in Paris and a three-disc set of Miles Davis albums.

“I bought ’em,” he told me, his gravelly voice catching. “I don’t have a house. That’s optimism, right?” 

Bonnie Tsui is the author of the award-winning American Chinatown; her next book, Why We Swim, will be published by Algonquin Books in April 2020. She wrote about fighting California’s wildfires from the sky in Alta, Summer 2019.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of Why We Swim, a Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times bestseller that also was named a best book of the season by the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Outside, Discover, Amazon, Buzzfeed, and more.
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