Seattle’s longtime efforts to create a “safe lot” program for people living in their cars might finally be gaining some momentum.
Human Services Department acting director Jason Johnson alerted the City Council to a new development late Friday afternoon: A second church had formally signed on to host spaces for people to stay in their cars overnight, and one more group was in talks to do the same, potentially bringing the total number of available spaces to 17.
More than 2,100 people in King County were sleeping in their vehicles last January, according to the county’s 2019 one-night count of homelessness, but Seattle’s efforts to set aside safe spaces for those people and connect them to housing have sputtered over the last decade. Last year, Seattle officials dropped a plan for a 30-vehicle site near the Genesee Park and Playfield after neighbors protested.
So the city shifted its approach. Instead of creating one big lot, it would expand the pilot program to 30 spaces at small sites scattered throughout the city and partner with faith-based institutions, similar to a model used in Santa Barbara, California. These spaces would be exclusively for cars, not RVs, and participants would be required to work with Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle case managers.
The challenge that came next was finding faith-based partners interested in hosting sites. In 2019, Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in Ballard, which had already hosted a safe lot on its property since 2012, signed up to host seven spots. The city had hoped to get to 30, with more faith partnerships, by that fall. That didn’t happen.
Fourteen households have since utilized the Our Redeemer’s site, according to the Human Services Department, and two have gotten permanent housing.
Meanwhile, in the fall the City Council approved an additional $158,000 in funding for a new safe lot at a site that wasn’t required to be religiously affiliated.
Now, West Seattle’s Our Lady of Guadalupe has signed onto the city’s plan with the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, the city’s contractor for vehicle-site case management, according to Johnson. Our Lady of Guadalupe plans to host three to five spaces for cars beginning this month.
The Urban League, University Temple United Methodist Church and University Heights Center are also in talks to host five cars overnight starting in March. No agreement has been signed, but Johnson said community organizers were discussing a possible community forum next month.
Linda Taylor, vice president of housing and financial empowerment at the Urban League, added that Temple De Hirsch Sinai on Capitol Hill was “ready, willing and able” to host a safe-lot site, pending community input.
Taylor said she’s continuing to knock on doors to look for more faith partnerships in the program. The main question most organizations have is about safety, Taylor said.
“We haven’t had any safety concerns,” at the current Our Redeemer’s lot, Taylor said, “because most of the people that come, we get them in and get them out. Three weeks is the most anyone has stayed. Most of the people work.”
As an example of those concerns, Taylor recalled that a member of one church the Urban League spoke to expressed concern about the possibility of needles in the parking lot in the morning. Then the custodian piped up.
According to Taylor, the custodian said he picked up needles every morning anyway, without the safe lot.
In his email to council members, Johnson stressed that “the success of expanding this pilot program depends on finding more faith partners to host parking locations.” He urged council members to contact Human Services if they knew of any that would be interested.