The last glimpse of the white van Hal and Allie Vickers lived in during one of the three years they were homeless was its bumper disappearing around a corner as their home was towed away. Everything they owned was inside it. At the impound lot, which took a while to locate, the Vickers (their real names are different) were told that that they could retrieve their belongings only by driving the vehicle off the premises. This entailed paying the fine, which soon rose from the original and already unthinkable $275 to almost $600. Even if they’d been allowed to collect their possessions from inside their vehicle for free, they would have had no place to keep items retrieved because without it they were homeless again.
This happened back in 2010, when the couple had spent several months driving from spot to spot in industrial zones along Lake Union near Gasworks Park in efforts to evade the attention of parking enforcement patrols and local business owners. Even though they’ve been living in a house since last spring, their memories of the day their home at the time was impounded are still raw. Over coffee recently Hal told me, “They took all my tools.” Allie chimed in: “My shoes, the ones I loved — I still miss those shoes, but the worst was losing all our personal papers.”
People compelled by poverty to live in their vehicles, including seasonal workers and the working poor, have often parked in Seattle’s industrial areas. Many of the parking spaces are close to their places of employment and social services. The spaces sit empty after business hours and are located at some distance from homeowners who might object to having campers as overnight neighbors.
However, the physical discomfort and vulnerability to theft and violence of living in a car or truck are compounded by the constant risk of losing everything they own, including their home and sole remaining major investment.
The city is about to try a new approach to create other, more secure vehicle camping opportunities for homeless families. As the Vickers experienced, the momentum for the past several years has been entirely against those trying to hold onto a dry place to sleep.
In 2009, community complaints prompted the city to start enforcing parking ordinances near industrial and manufacturing concerns more strictly, and signs prohibiting parking between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. appeared throughout these areas.
But the need did not go away. Last year’s One Night Count (the 2012 count will be conducted early Friday, Jan. 27) documented 506 individuals sleeping in vehicles in Seattle. Forty-three were in the Ballard-Interbay area — where 31 of the city’s 85 “No Parking 2-5 AM” signs are posted.
In mid-2011 another new law began weighing on poor people whose only home rides on four wheels: a “scofflaw” ordinance according to which vehicles with unpaid parking tickets can be booted, then impounded if owners don’t make the payments.
Now the city is helping a church open a Safe Parking area on its property at the end of the month in the Ballard area. Safe Parking at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran is the start of a pilot program in which Ballard churches will host families reluctantly making their homes in a car, truck, or RV. The idea was born in 2007, when the death of a homeless woman in the neighborhood led to the formation of the Ballard Homes For All Coalition to improve safety for homeless people living in vehicles. Two churches, Crown Hill United Methodist and Our Redeemer’s, looked into the idea of providing safe parking spaces but couldn't manage on their own the tasks of screening people and connecting them with appropriate social services.
Last year the city stepped up, urged along by Councilmember Mike O’Brien and state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson. The city has gathered $30,000 from various budgets to fund the Safe Parking pilot program, which resembles Bremerton's Safe Park project. The program will expand to a total of five different church parking lots, in each of which up to five families can live in vehicles with access to rest rooms, hygiene supplies, cell phone charging, and other amenities from their hosts and neighbors. Ballard Food Bank resources won't be far away.
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