The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

There’s a lot more than parking and riding going on in King County Metro park-and-ride lots.

At least, that’s what Tina Lewis has found. There are student drivers slowly navigating the spaces, kids rollerblading between traffic cones, even cookouts and car clubs that leave tire marks on the pavement.

But Lewis is looking for more subtle signs of life: missing license plates, rusted windshield wipers, condensation on the glass, broken taillights or expired tags. Signs that someone is living in the vehicle.

King County estimated that between 2,100 and 3,300 people lived in cars on any one night over the four years before the pandemic, though this population is one of the hardest to count because of its ability to evade the public eye.

Cities and even charities have devoted few, if any, resources to the car-dwelling population because of this invisibility. The residents are usually seen as more able to help themselves and they usually haven’t been homeless as long.

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But in recent years, it’s become clearer to budget makers that parking lots like these are teeming with people who could become chronically homeless without intervention. If their poverty can be curbed quickly, the government can save lots of money in 911 responses, hospital visits and camp cleanups in years to come.

That’s where Tina Lewis and the program she works for, Salvation Army’s Street Level, come in. These programs are proliferating and spreading into new parts of King County this year and being copied around the country.

It’s a fairly simple approach: A Salvation Army outreach worker like Lewis knocks on a car window, talks to the person, and helps with anything from getting a new ID to fixing vehicles to getting a phone.

Lewis comes back each week to check on them, eventually helping secure housing and a job, or welfare benefits.

In 2019, Street Level’s first year of operation, Lewis and her team housed 142 people, more than six times the 21 they’d guaranteed, with a return-to-homelessness rate of zero that first year.

King County funded staff for two more vans last year, which deploy this month. A fourth will hit the pavement in June.

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Lewis is currently training new staff and scoping out new territories to explore in North King County.

If there’s a secret sauce in this approach, it might just be Tina Lewis herself — because she knows what it’s like to live out here.

“A lot of people like to ask what drives me,” Lewis said on a recent Wednesday, driving through South King County. “A lot of what drives me is the fact that if I had just one person come to me and do what I’m doing for all these folks out here, then I probably would not have gone through all the things that I went through in my life.”

Caravan rolls in

The Auburn Park-and-Ride is unusually quiet on this gray Wednesday morning. It’s not yet lunch hour, when workers from the aerospace parts factory or casino next door come to sit in their cars and watch small planes take off from the Auburn airport, and it’s the beginning of the month, so there aren’t as many homeless people around as usual. The people who have Social Security or welfare checks are likely renting motels nearby; they’ll be back as the month drags on and the money runs out. 

The Salvationists roll in with a caravan: two King County Metro sheriffs in their patrol vehicles, then Lewis in her black Ford Explorer, then the branded “Street Level” van full of supplies like socks and clothing, a Wi-Fi hot spot, a printer, a scanner and even a fax machine. Lewis jumps out wearing all black, a red “Salvation Army” shield on her shoulder and a red mask on her face.

Her Wednesday was off to a productive start. Earlier, Lewis met an undocumented man who had been living for eight months in a white Ford sedan with no license plates. Lewis and her crew got him a new ID and connections with a landlord she knows who doesn’t ask about citizenship status.

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The Street Level program developed from work by Maj. Phil Smith, who began taking a backpack-shaped coffee dispenser out on the streets of Seattle in 2017. Smith thought it would be better to bring caseworkers to people on the street rather than ask people on the street to come to the caseworker.

“As it grew we were realizing we need to get case managers out here and we need to get people out into the areas in the county where people in vehicles tend to congregate,” said Lt. Col. Cindy Foley. “What if we designed a vehicle that had everything a case manager needed right on the spot?”

Even when there aren’t people around but there are cars that look lived-in, Lewis will drop off her card. Her cellphone is constantly ringing — the ringtone is the theme song to her favorite movie, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” — and many of the callers are new people in need of help. 

In this lot, some of the people already know Lewis. She has secured jobs already for one couple living in a truck who just need to get the truck fixed so they can get to the job.

“A godsend”

The approach appears at first like a vehicle-focused version of Seattle’s now-defunct Navigation Team, which used police alongside outreach workers to clear tent encampments.

The Metro sheriffs’ officers are responding often to complaints from commuters or neighbors of the parking lots and sometimes tell people who don’t want help from the Salvation Army to leave. But Lewis’ approach is far less focused than the Navigation Team’s was on getting people referrals to shelters. She also doesn’t use the county’s slow waitlists for supportive housing, just her own connections with landlords who have cheap apartments or sometimes even just rooms in shared housing for rent.

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The Navigation Team was defunded in 2020 by a Seattle City Council that had always largely been skeptical of its effectiveness at getting people sheltered. The council has since replaced that team with only outreach workers, though the police still show up at encampment removals.

Lewis sees local police and county sheriffs as a key part of her outreach: They’re often the ones knocking on windows first.

“By far, this is the most successful outreach program that we’ve worked with,” said Officer Bryan Rose, who goes with Lewis every week. “These guys have been a godsend.”

Rose introduced Lewis to a new face in the park-and-ride: Christiano Reyes, 22, who slept in a parking space last night, but not in a car — just by his shopping cart with his clothes and food, on the ground. He has been homeless since he was 12, and even though he seems resolute and even a little chipper as they talk, it’s obvious he’s jaded.

“The homeless community — it’s changed a lot, actually, over the years,” Reyes says. “We looked out for each other, you know? We made sure that we all had what we needed. It’s changed so significantly now. It’s like you can’t even fall asleep anywhere. So I’m at the park-and-ride because you can’t fall asleep anywhere else.”

Lewis nods. 

“I was out here once upon a time, too. And you’re totally right. It’s different now,” she says.

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Lewis grew up between Chicago and a Seattle Housing Authority development in Northgate called Cedarvale Village — although the residents just called it “the Village.” She went to high school at Nathan Hale, where she fell in with the wrong crowd, she said, and ended up doing crack cocaine at a party.

Today, Lewis has a long list of drug-related felony convictions and spent years in and out of jail and prison. After losing her children to the state in the late ’90s, she went through the process of regaining custody while in prison, learning how to work the complicated legal system and eventually getting a job teaching workshops for other parents on how to do it.

She believes it was all preparing her for the day in 2018 when the Salvation Army called, asking if she wanted to help spearhead a new program.

Growing role

The Salvation Army has had a presence in Seattle since its infancy. They had “a large following” in the area in 1895, according to early issues of The Seattle Daily Times, and they and other “religious workers” were key in “the relief of the needy.” In the decades since, the Salvation Army has served as a vertebra in Seattle’s social services backbone.

The religious nonprofit’s William Booth Center in Sodo, perhaps the city’s most prominent shelter for veterans, is named after the English evangelist William Booth, who founded the organization in London in 1865 on the vision of a Christian army whose primary fight is relieving poverty and ending vice.

Despite attacks over the years from LGBTQ+ advocates that the Army discriminates against queer people, the Army has grown the most under Seattle’s last two mayors, both of whom were gay. In 2010, the Salvation Army had only about 150 publicly funded shelter beds in King County, according to the federal Housing Inventory Count. In 2020, right before the pandemic hit, they had almost 500.

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The most attractive facet of the organization for grant-makers and the government is the ability to “make a nickel scream,” according to Art Langlie, who sits on the board of the local Salvation Army and whose father and grandfather, Washington’s 12th governor, were also involved in the Salvation Army going back to 1922.

When Langlie saw how many people the Street Level program housed in the first year, he got on the phone. He said he was able to raise $300,000 in less than two hours for the program.

The vans have been noticed by other Salvation Army branches and nearly two dozen have been deployed across the West in places such as Los Angeles.

Of course, connections can still be made the old-fashioned way. Genna Walker, 41, was at a day shelter in Seattle last year when someone gave her Lewis’ number. Walker and her three kids had come to Seattle in November to get out of Fresno, California, where she’d struggled with drugs, and to live near her father, who had exited prison and was living in a halfway house.

Lewis and another Salvation Army staffer got her connected to a job unloading trucks in a warehouse two days later, and into a new three-bedroom apartment — with a voucher for the first month’s rent before Christmas.

“That’s when everything started to work,” Walker said. “That’s when everything started coming together.”

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