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Families living in vehicles need ‘Safe Parking’

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.

Funds from the city will pay for screening and case management by Compass Housing Alliance and for safety oversight by police and parking enforcement. Ordinarily the city pours available resources into permanent housing and won't support temporary expedients that don't include putting a roof over people's heads. But the urgent need to shelter families safely when such housing is in short supply led to this relatively low-cost exception, said Pastor Steve Grumm of Our Redeemer’s. Also persuasive to the city was the prospect of finding ways to move homeless children indoors more rapidly than would be possible without direct, ongoing contact with their families, Grumm said.

The goal of pre-screening will be to admit only families Grumm called “high-functioning, with low barriers to stability.” Anyone with a history of sex offenses or violent crimes will be excluded, as will those making a lifestyle choice of urban camping. Safe Parking refuges will be temporary; families will move into housing as soon as possible.

At a Jan. 6 public meeting held at Our Redeemer’s for residents of the surrounding community, O’Brien described having gone out with Heroes for the Homeless on one of their twice-monthly missions to talk with homeless people around the city and deliver sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, hot chocolate, and warm socks. “It was eye-opening,” he said. “I didn’t see a single ‘chronically homeless’ male. I saw my parents. I saw people who had lived one medical disaster or job loss away” from losing their homes —  before catastrophe hit.

People he met who were living in their vehicles were “hanging on to the last valuable thing they had,” O’Brien said, “but constantly worrying, 'Will I get ticketed? Towed? Is it safe here?' " Safe Parking will “take away a couple of stresses so they can get back on their feet.” O'Brien praised the city's civil rights and land use offices, among others, for patching the funds together, and applauded Seattle police and parking enforcement for “going out of their way not to just do their job but solve the problem.”

An audience of about 60 at the meeting heard O'Brien and others speak. Neighbors stepping up to the microphone recalled the satisfactions of spending time getting to know individuals in a tent city once located nearby. Their main interest with regard to Safe Parking, besides ensuring that families would be pre-screened for community security and suggesting edits in a code of conduct for future parking lot residents, appeared to be in how best to contact their coming neighbors personally and offer assistance. Pastor Grumm told the audience that several people had already phoned the church, one to say he’d like to work with vehicle owners on engines needing tune-ups or repairs, and another who looked forward to reading to children.

The watchword at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran is hospitality, said Grumm. The church already provides a rest room 24/7 for Metro drivers whose routes pass their building. Church youth are planning to erect a light canopy in the Safe Parking area that will let residents sit outside their vehicles and socialize. With greater security, access to resources, and neighbors in a community that cares, Grumm said, “people can move on to lives that have more choices.”

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