14-year-old Thomas Jessop stands in front of the Capitol as his final destination in his cross-country voyage to lobby Congress to create safe parking programs for the homeless. Photo by Thomas Jessop.

Starting this past June, Thomas Jessop, 14, rode his bike from Santa Barbara, California to Washington, D.C., a journey of 4,500 miles. The trip was in itself a life-changing adventure, but Thomas also had a higher mission: to raise awareness and support for an innovative program that he credits with helping his family and other people Thomas likes to call “half-homeless.” Santa Barbara’s Safe Parking Program allows people who have lost their homes to stay in their vehicles, which they are permitted to park in unused parking lots each night.  

The program, operated by the New Beginnings Counseling Center, provides space in 21 different parking lots, made available by local churches, non-profits and government agencies. Currently over 100 people participate in the program, which has allowed Thomas, together with his younger brother, David, and his father, Jess, a disabled Navy veteran, to live in their vehicle, a sky blue, converted school bus, for the past six years. Other beneficiaries of the program are also disabled, or working low-wage jobs, living in their trucks or cars, struggling daily.  

“People don’t realize that average, good normal people are being forced into this situation right now,” said Thomas in an interview. “They don’t realize that these are friends and neighbors.”  

The cross-country ride to help the Safe Parking Program grew out of an IronKids competition that Thomas participated in back in May, and a conversation with his dad.  

We decided that we wanted to make a difference and try to do something good while we’re at it,” said Jessop. “We wanted to help this program.” So in June, they were on the road. With his dad and brother closely following in the bus, Thomas rode his bike from four to 10 hours a day, six days a week.  

Since he got to the Capitol, Thomas has lobbied Congress to pass a National Safe Parking Act that would require cities that now prohibit sleeping in vehicles to institute their own Safe Parking Programs. Thomas met with Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and has had meetings with Nancy Pelosi’s legislative directors. He is working on meeting with other officials but admits it is a challenge.  

Jessop’s father and brother rode behind
him the entire 4500 miles, stopping in little
towns and major landmarks. The trip lasted five months and was to raise awareness for a Safe Parking Program. Photo by Thomas Jessop.

“The hardest part has been getting through to the congressmen and senators themselves to let them know about this issue,” said Jessop. “People can help by calling their representatives so they’re aware of us and will meet with us.”  

Thomas, who has had his high school diploma for two years and hopes to start college next year at University of California, Santa Barbara as a biochemistry major, hopes that his work will help speed the process of creating a national law that requires cities to provide a Safe Parking Program. While getting people to listen to him on Capitol Hill has held challenges, he has found lots of other receptive and enthusiastic audiences along the way.  

“I found the passion in Florida when we were there on October 3,” said Thomas. “There’s where we decided that it’s a national issue. It would be a slow, painful process to change one city at a time and it wouldn’t help the people in a timely matter,” said Thomas.  

And on his adventure, he had realizations that not all 14-year-olds have. “One thing that’s been truly amazing to me through this whole experience is if you look at it as taking one step at a time, the steps are actually doable. But if you look at it as a journey, it seems impossible,” he said. “You may think you’re just one person trying to do something, but every single major change started with one person standing up and saying this isn’t right and I’m going to make a change.”  

Thomas truly believes that every person has the ability to make a difference when they find their passions. His wisdom reaches far beyond his years. The 14-year-old offers some advice, in words that not even young teenager might come up with.  

“Find something that you really believe in. Find something you can be driven about, that you’d be happy to do no matter what,” said Thomas. “Something that calls on every part of you to make a change. You have the raw potential and it’s your choice what you want to do with it.”