SANTA BARBARA — Two or three nights a week, a 29-year-old ex-Peace Corps volunteer named Shaw Talley rolls through the parking lots in his old Volvo wagon, offering help where he can. In spaces where others see a handful of battered RVs and vans, Talley sees lives playing out, for better or worse.
Here, a Vietnam vet suffers from war wounds that keep him in constant pain. There, a man in a van plays classical music on his violin. Here, a diabetic gives himself an insulin shot under the dim glow of his dome light. There, a quiet middle-aged woman eases into her old Lincoln for the night, resting up for another day in customer service at a big-box store. In the glare of a street lamp, she relaxes with a book before closing her eyes.
All are beneficiaries of the city-sanctioned Safe Parking program, which allows people to live -- sometimes for years -- in cars or RVs in about a dozen parking lots that belong to the city, the county, churches, nonprofits and a few businesses in industrial areas.
In the course of a week, Talley, a caseworker for the program, checks in with most of his roughly 55 charges. Some need doctors, some need jobs, some need car repairs. On top of such daily concerns, Talley helps them through the laborious process of applying for low-income housing, though a few prefer a more-or-less permanent berth on the asphalt.
"It's not my job to judge them because they might want to live in their vehicles," said Talley, who volunteers at a hospice during his off hours and plans to attend graduate school in social work next year. "I'm here to give them options."
The five-year-old program, administered by the New Beginnings Counseling Center, is one of just a few across the United States. It is being considered as a possible model by neighborhood groups in the increasingly costly Venice area, where parking on congested blocks has been made even tougher by an influx of street campers.
"The streets aren't meant for living -- it's not acceptable," said Mike Newhouse, president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, which, with Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, is studying the Santa Barbara program. "And most folks here think it's not acceptable that anyone should be forced to live in a vehicle."
In Santa Barbara, a place of legendary affluence where fixer-uppers can cost more than $1 million, nobody knows just how many people are living illegally on four wheels. Last year, Talley took it upon himself to do an informal census, driving around one evening looking for telltale signs of vehicular habitation: towels draped over windows, condensation fogging windshields. Within hours, he counted 249 makeshift homes.
"Mostly, they try to stay invisible," Talley said. "They don't want to get hassled by the police. They don't want to be victimized by thugs."
Talley, who has the sunny good looks of an extra in a surf movie, is unrelentingly positive. He speaks of "the higher self" within everyone and draws on his Peace Corps stint for inspiration: "When I go up to a vehicle, it's like going to some hut in Paraguay and clapping my hands before I enter, saying, 'Hey, I'm here!' "
Still, the job drains him. In his closet-size office at the Salvation Army in Santa Barbara, he sometimes cringes at the stories he hears. "They're crying in front of me, they're telling me about being raped on the streets, about all sorts of things -- and a little piece of me dies," he said.
On the wall hangs a license plate, an artifact from the ancient Volkswagen bus that one of Talley's first clients lived in for years. Talley helped place the man -- an ex-lawyer who had attended West Point -- in low-income housing. He drove him to a Los Angeles VA hospital for knee replacement surgery. He even got him a $1,000 check from a state program that pays motorists to scrap polluting vehicles.
"I just kept thinking that this guy could be my grandfather," Talley said.
Addicts show up from time to time, asking for a parking permit. One man was obsessively picking at himself -- the mark of a meth user. When Talley told a couple to wait while he fetched a drug-testing kit, they vanished.
"If they're not taking themselves or their hygiene seriously, I'll pass them on," he said. "I'll say, 'You need to go to detox. We're not going to help you hurt yourself.' "
New Beginnings runs the program on an annual budget of about $105,000, drawn from city and county funds as well as private donations.
It does not cater to the poorest of the poor. Participants must have auto insurance, driver's licenses and vehicles sound enough to drive off the lots during daylight hours. They must also agree to rules: no loud music, no alcohol, no drugs, no overnight visitors, no cooking outside the vehicle.