Each night in Seattle, the most common place for a homeless person to sleep isn’t in a park, or a doorway, or on a bus. It’s in their car.
About a third of the homeless tallied in the annual One Night Count are vehicle campers. But until recently, outreach and shelter programs mostly skipped over this population.
That’s changed, with a small but promising effort to open church parking lots in Ballard at night to homeless car campers. Called the Road to Housing (formerly Safe Parking), the Seattle City Council will be weighing a $197,000 budget request to expand the program city-wide.
It’s one of those ideas that, once you hear it, you wonder why someone didn’t think of it before. It takes homeless car campers off city neighborhood streets, which often ban long-term stays (resulting in tickets for the homeless and complaints from homeowners). It taps the compassion and resources of faith organizations, which merely have to open their little-used parking lots and provide an overnight bathroom.
And, because it includes re-housing specialists who work with the car campers, it offers a front door to the social services system for people with resources (i.e., a car) to avoid full homelessness. A survey of the 52 people helped by Road to Housing (since its launch in March 2012) found that 71 percent were homeless for the first time.
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who has championed the Road to Housing, said the program was good at getting people “back into housing before they become part of the homeless system. We’re saying, ‘We’re going to give you a few more tools, but we’re going to rely on your resiliency.'”
The program has steadily grown, from just two Ballard churches last December (when Seattle Times’ Lynn Thompson wrote about it) to five North Seattle churches today, with another on the way. O’Brien is hoping that suburban cities, including Bellevue and Auburn, will copy the the model.
There appears to be enough council support to take it citywide. But the council should also hear, from advocates like Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, headaches caused by the city’s “boot” program to immobilize cars with unpaid tickets. Parking ticket amnesty for people participating in Road to Housing would be a good place to start.