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Seattle homelessness pilot hopes to finally reach those living in cars

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How Seattle is trying to get safe lots—programs that provide space and services for those sleeping in their vehicles—right

A scattering of tents are visible under a curvy freeway bridge, leading to a dense urban center full of skyscrapers. Shutterstock

Seattle has long had a major homelessness crisis on its hands. In the midst of skyrocketing living costs, the city has been in a state of emergency over homelessness for four years. In 2019, there were at least 3,500 people living unsheltered, according to King County’s 2019 one-night count of people experiencing homelessness. But one significant subset of this population has very specific needs: people living out of their vehicles.

City officials are working to help this specific group, which accounts for more than one-third of the city’s unsheltered, by launching the Safe Parking Pilot, the latest in a string of targeted outreach attempts. The program aims to provide 30 parking spots for the many people who have turned to their cars for affordable housing, and unlike previous safe lot attempts, the pilot places those spots in collaboration with multiple faith communities.

With hundreds of people living in their cars, the pilot is merely a drop in an extremely large bucket—but here’s the plan.

What Seattle’s new safe lot program does (and doesn’t) do

The city’s plan is to distribute dozens of parking spots in faith communities across the city. The idea is that each individual or family offered one of these spots will have a safe place to park their car (RVs are not allowed) and sleep. They’ll likely have access to the faith community’s bathroom, kitchen and even laundry facilities, along with case management, including personalized guidance and even financial assistance to help them transition to more permanent housing. The city set aside $250,000 to fund the pilot, but officials are still trying to work out where all of the parking spots will actually go.

Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in the Ballard area has signed on to the pilot and is expected to host seven parking spots. The congregation has actually had its own safe parking program since 2012, which has proved successful: In just the past six months, it has served nine households, and each one successfully moved on to permanent housing. Through the pilot’s funding, the church has even been able to add a few new caseworkers.

“So many people come in and they’re just so relieved to have a place to just take a shower, and some place where they can sleep until they get themselves together,” said Shannon Parks-Beck, social justice coordinator for the congregation.

A large handful of other congregations have also expressed interest, but after a few months of meetings and conversations with religious groups, officials say they are still looking for additional faith communities. Lily Rehrmann, spokesperson for Seattle’s Human Services Department, says the city expects to finalize which communities will house the rest of the parking spots by September.

The program builds on—and learns from—previous efforts

In 2016, officials created a safe lot for RVs, but the expensive operation, which housed 25 vehicles and featured round-the-clock security, but it closed after only a few months. Former Mayor Ed Murray opened another lot in Sodo, but at least three residents died there last year, according to the Seattle Times. It closed down this past spring.

Earlier this year, the city was also considering putting all 30 safe parking spots in this pilot in the Genesee Park lot in South Seattle, with the Low Income Housing Institute providing on-site services. But the plan received a lot of pushback from locals. During a community meeting in March, attendees expressed their concerns about the location and the city not communicating adequately about this idea and what it would entail. The city ultimately opted not to move forward with the idea.

By spreading these parking spaces out and only allowing people living in cars (rather than RVs, whose residents are sometimes more resistant to outreach), Seattle officials expect their new plan to run much more smoothly.

Safe lot programs exist all along the West Coast

With rapidly rising rents and affordable housing shortages, more cities across the West Coast have been implementing programs in an effort to help the many people turning to their vehicles for shelter. The programs, in cities such as Los Angeles, Eugene, Oregon, and San Diego, have had some success with giving people a safe place to park and helping them transition to more permanent housing.

One of the most established safe parking programs, the one that first inspired the parking pilot in Seattle, was created in Santa Barbara, California in 2004. Today, it includes 136 spaces in 24 parking lots and hosts about 150 people each night, according to Kristine Schwarz, executive director for New Beginnings Counseling Center, which runs the parking lots program. She says they’ve had a lot of success keeping residents safe and helping them find more permanent places to live: Each year they connect about 75 people to housing.

Why people living in their cars need their own dedicated programs

People living in their vehicles have a unique set of needs that often don’t fit well in more traditional homeless outreach programs, like shelter beds. They may also be only recently homeless and not comfortable with the idea of living in a traditional shelter—and if they’re employed or in school, it can be hard to make shelter curfews. But the most important element that sets them apart: They still have one very important piece of property containing their belongings, which they may not be able to store safely if they slept in a shelter.

Cities tend to have strict parking laws to prevent loitering, which can make living in cars difficult. In Seattle, for example, vehicles cannot park on a city street for longer than 72 hours, and at night, RVs can typically only park in the city’s designated industrial areas. These lots would remove these parking barriers—albeit, only for cars—while maintaining safety in numbers.

“It’s so much safer for them than to be hiding on some street under a dark tree, hoping that nobody finds them, because if there are people who are going to prey on vulnerable people they’re going to go after the people who are isolated,” said Schwarz. “They’re not going to go after the people who are protected.”