The city of Seattle’s long-struggling efforts to set up a safe parking lot for people living in their cars is finally coming to fruition, but the program will start much smaller than originally proposed.

Seattle has scrapped plans for a 30-vehicle lot on city-owned property near the Genesee Park and Playfield after frustrated neighborhood leaders objected, saying they were kept in the dark about the city’s intentions.

Instead, the city will partner with faith-based organizations to host smaller, scattered safe lots, an approach based loosely on a model pioneered in Santa Barbara, California and previously featured in The Seattle Times.

Now the city just has to find enough faith-based organizations willing to work with it.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

So far only one church has signed on: Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in Ballard, which has been operating a safe-lot program on its property since 2012. Only three vehicles are parked in that lot, but the church has allotted seven spaces.

“It has been an extremely positive experience for us,” said Our Redeemer’s Pastor Kathy Hawks. “It seems like a relatively low-cost way to provide support any movement forward for people who find themselves living in their cars.”

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The city is in talks with other faith-based organizations to host similar lots, with a goal of 30 parking spaces across Seattle by the end of September, said Lily Rehrmann, spokeswoman with Seattle’s Human Services department, which oversees homeless services and strategies. However, those 30 spaces would be only for passenger vehicles, not RVs, campers and trailers. The vehicles must be operational and have up-to-date car tabs, and residents of the lots will not be allowed to use drugs or alcohol.


A complicated problem

More than 2,100 people in King County were counted as living in their vehicles in this year’s snapshot count of homelessness, but Seattle has failed to have a consistent strategy to address the multitude of cars and RVs on city streets.

The faith-based partnership model is familiar: Outgoing Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien partnered with Our Redeemer’s when the church first started its safe-lot program seven years ago, with the same plan to invite other faith-based organizations to host vehicles.

Eventually, Compass Housing Alliance started doing outreach to the residents, but the program never grew beyond four churches and a combined 10 spots for vehicles.

In early 2016, former Mayor Ed Murray opened a safe lot in Ballard that allowed RVs and featured expensive, round-the-clock security, but failed to get many people housed. The lot closed down a few months later. Murray then opened a so-called vehicle safe zone in an inhospitable lot in Sodo, where at least three residents died last year. The safe zone closed this spring.

Rehrmann said many of the people in the safe zone, most of them living in RVs, were resistant to case management and finding housing. That is part of the reason the city is not allowing these vehicles into the new safe-parking areas. In contrast, people living in passenger vehicles, like cars, are more motivated to move into housing, Rehrmann said.


Meanwhile, Seattle recently announced an initiative to crack down on people who rent RVs and other vehicles to people who have nowhere else to live.

“Across the country, addressing RV occupancy is complicated,” said Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s senior adviser on homelessness.

Moving into housing

Under the city’s new model for vehicle camping, all residents will be required to be actively working with a case manager and looking for housing. Unlike the Santa Barbara program, and another well-known safe-lot system in San Diego, people living in the Our Redeemer’s lot don’t have to leave each morning. But, officials emphasized, this is a temporary program.

“You’re just not going to park your car here,” said Linda Taylor, vice president of housing and financial empowerment for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. The city has awarded the Urban League $250,000 to do case management for all the safe parking lots that come online; they’ve already been working with Our Redeemer’s for six months.

In that time, nine families have moved through the safe-parking program, Taylor said. All of them have been housed, she said.

Leaders with both organizations have offered to reach out to other churches and religious organization about replicating the program. “They have that authenticity in the faith community that we as a government entity don’t come to naturally,” Rehrmann said.


There is a precedent for such a model working: Several churches on King County’s east side host safe lots, including Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, the longest-running local program, with 30 to 50 vehicles in the summer. Nearby Overlake Christian Church in Redmond hosts up to 15 vehicles at a time.

Both churches partner with outside organizations for case management and limit who can stay in their lots. Lake Washington admits only families with children or adult women. Overlake allows single men and couples without children.

Neither church allows RVs or campers.

At Our Redeemer’s, residents have 24/7 access to the church fellowship hall, as well as a kitchen, showers and bathrooms.

What Our Redeemer’s doesn’t have is a time limit on how long safe-lot residents can stay. In the previous model, some residents lived in the lot for more than a year, said Hawks, the church pastor.

She understands that the city’s goal is now to focus on moving people into housing as quickly as they can. That, however, has not changed the church’s mission: Moving people out of the lot is “not our priority,” she said.