Every evening, Jeff Alexander drives his '93 Chevy pickup around the boatyard district near the Ballard Bridge, looking for a place to park...

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Every evening, Jeff Alexander drives his ’93 Chevy pickup around the boatyard district near the Ballard Bridge, looking for a place to park.

Choice all-night spots aren’t easy to find. Not because they’re filled by apartment-dwellers or workers at nearby businesses. It’s because the side streets are lined with folks seeking the same thing as Alexander: a place to sleep. When he finds a spot, away from retail shops and their security guards, Alexander, 53, and his girlfriend, Erica, 36, go to work lining the tiny S-10 truck cab with cardboard.

It keeps heat in and trouble out.

“Living in here’s like living in a space capsule,” he says. “It’s horribly difficult, but I try not to let it all get to me.

“I don’t figure on doing this for long.”

That’s what most everyone says in Seattle’s biggest car-camping colony. A roughly 12-block area in lower Ballard is host each night to about 50 trailers, vans, trucks, buses and cars, all with people living in them.

“It’s the city’s new rolling slum,” says Rick Reynolds, director of Operation Nightwatch, a Seattle ministry for the homeless. “Well, it’s not exactly new. It’s just bigger.”

One recent day, I counted 41 live-in vehicles parked in the blocks east of where the 15th Avenue Northwest bridge touches down in Ballard. There are battered RVs. Old vans with camp stoves and coolers up top. Cars with sheet-covered windows and jars of peanut butter on the dash. Converted school buses.

Not all the cars are junkers. I saw a man and woman stretched out under blankets in the back of a newer, ding-free station wagon. Both lay on their backs, staring at the ceiling, smoking.

“You should see it on the weekend,” says Edith Macefield, 84, one of the few homeowners in the area. “I suppose 200 to 300 people are down here.”

On Macefield’s block, on Northwest 46th Street where she’s lived for 52 years, there’s a line of six parked cars, vans and trailers. People are living in all of them.

Garbage is strewn along the sidewalk and into a vacant lot.

“Some of them work, some of them are here all the time,” she says. “The way I see it, if they don’t bother me, I don’t bother them.”

Panhandlers constantly work the Ballard Bridge offramps. But the rest of the denizens of the car-camping colony stay remarkably hidden, considering their numbers.

I spoke to eight of them. Most didn’t want their names used or photographs taken. They don’t want anyone to know they are there.

“It’s humiliating, so I keep to myself,” says one man in his mid-30s who has been living in his truck camper for two months.

All said they are sober, looking for work and leaving soon.

If they do leave, their spots won’t be empty long.

The number of people living in cars has soared. Last year’s homeless “Street Count” estimated 700 people used cars for shelter in King County on the night of the survey, up from 150 seven years ago.

Rent certainly has something to do with it. Someone making $7.50 an hour would have to put in 73 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, to afford a typical one-bedroom apartment here, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Many in the Ballard car colony have some means, enough to own a vehicle and buy gas for it. They say they occupy a kind of middle ground of homelessness — too well off to go to a shelter or food program, too poor to pay the rent.

“Us in that truck is better than us on a doorstep somewhere,” says Alexander, a fisherman and day laborer who lost his rental house three weeks ago after defaulting on medical payments.

Life in Ballard’s rolling slum is mixed. Sometimes a spontaneous sense of community breaks out. Someone will start a fire and others will gather around until the police run them off. One neighbor who bikes through daily said some car-campers set out a jack-o’-lantern at Halloween. But there are also fights. Drinking and drugs. Stuff gets ripped off or vandalized. One woman told me she woke up the other night to the sound of someone peeing on her windshield.

Last weekend, two people died. Richie Owens, 33, and Sarah Gregory, 24, apparently overdosed on heroin, police say. They had been bunking in a motor home on Northwest 49th Street — directly behind the world headquarters of PATH, the Bill Gates-funded institute for health care in undeveloped countries.

I mention the deaths to everyone I meet. Nobody has heard. Nobody seems surprised, either.

It hits me that the Ballard car colony is far bigger than tent city, the roving homeless encampment that causes so much controversy, especially on the Eastside.

Yet few know this is here. It’s amorphous. No one launches a noisy NIMBY crusade to shoo it away. Nor does anyone organize much help on its behalf.

I ask Edith Macefield what should be done. She looks at the line of cars and vans with fogged-up windows and shrugs.

“What can you do? They don’t have any money, so where can they go? Chase ’em out of here and they’ll park somewhere else. Maybe the city should give them a supervised lot somewhere.”

A man gets out of one of the cars. I tell him I’m with the newspaper, and I’m writing about the car colony.

“People sleeping in their cars ain’t news,” he says.

No, it probably isn’t. And that’s at least part of the problem.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.