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California's senior population is expected to grow by 50 percent in the next decade, but many seniors are experiencing economic hardship now. In the city of Santa Barbara, demand for senior housing is so great that the waitlist is now closed. Gloria Hillard reports that for some seniors, the safest option is living in their cars.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: As with so many who call Santa Barbara home, Marge Giaimo says she never tires of the beauty of this wealthy coastal city - the ocean, the mountains, the majestic oak trees.
MARGE GIAIMO: I'm in the shade up here.
HILLARD: Marge looks younger than her 75 years. There are no telltale signs of homelessness. Her silver-blonde hair is pulled back in a neat ponytail, and she wears earrings and a necklace from better times. She makes her way to a picnic table under the shadow of an oak tree. After losing her senior housing three years ago, this is where she does her painting these days.
GIAIMO: So I feel very fortunate to have my car. It's a little cramped, but (laughter) it's softer than cement.
HILLARD: 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.
GIAIMO: And then this is where I sleep. And I have the three pillows, and I have sponges under there or foam to sleep on.
CASSIE ROACH: We do have quite a few seniors.
HILLARD: Cassie Roach oversees a program called Safe Parking at the New Beginnings Counseling Center. The city-funded program has designated 115 parking spaces in church, county and city lots where people living in their cars can park safely overnight.
ROACH: It is a very hidden population, and it is a growing population. And it is quite different from the street homeless.
HILLARD: Different, Roach says, in that 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.
LISE MACFARLANE: So I'm more comfortable sleeping now.
HILLARD: MacFarlane says she lost the home she grew up in last December after being evicted by the new owner.
MACFARLANE: I was sleeping in front of my house and the park. It's hard to walk away. That's it.
HILLARD: She shares her Toyota Highlander with her two dogs and a very large white cat named Willy.
MACFARLANE: It's been a - you know, they don't like being in the car all the time. They want to be in a home. It's really hard sitting in the car, watching people I know go by.
HILLARD: While most people are having dinner, Lise rolls into her assigned church parking lot. The sun has gone down, but Marge'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.
BARBARA HARVEY: We support one another very much and...
GIAIMO: ...And she puts up with me.
HARVEY: There is no putting up with Marge, OK (laughter)?
HILLARD: 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. Marge and Lise are getting ready to leave for the day.
GIAIMO: This is dog walking time. Did I drop something out of my trunk?
MACFARLANE: Oh, I think you did.
GIAIMO: I can't find my brush. See, this is what we go through. Where did I put my brush (laughter)?
HILLARD: Lise loads up her dogs as Willy the cat reluctantly makes room for them on the stacked blankets.
MACFARLANE: OK, kids, let's go. We've got to pack up the car.
HILLARD: Marge Giaimo smiles and waves goodbye.
GIAIMO: There she goes.
HILLARD: Marge's day continues with a shower at the Y, and then she'll return to her picnic table. The 75-year-old painter is on a waitlist for senior housing in Santa Barbara. She's been told it could take another seven years. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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