The reason I am sighing about — rather than celebrating — Ballard's "mobile homeless" pilot overnight parking program, is that getting five spots for some of the region's thousands of car campers has taken a whopping seven years.
I guess I should have known. Nothing around here ever turns out to be simple.
Let’s start with the good news. In two weeks, Seattle finally is starting a “safe parking program” for the huge problem of the “mobile homeless” — people sleeping in their cars around the city.
In a pilot program, five parking spots will be made available at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in Ballard. There will be some supervision and social services, to try to help the car campers stabilize their lives.
The reason I am sighing about this, rather than straight-out celebrating, is that getting these five spots for some of the region’s thousands of car campers has taken a whopping seven years.
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“I thought it would be a no-brainer,” says Jean Darsie, of Ballard Homes for All, a group that formed five years ago in part because of the car-camping issue. “Other cities do this. I don’t know why it took us so long. A failure of nerve, maybe?”
My minor role in this started in 2005. I wrote about Ballard’s “rolling slum,” a blocks-long Hooverville of vans, RVs and cars.
It was bigger than any tent city. But it was off the grid. So “no one launches a noisy NIMBY crusade to shoo it away,” I wrote. “Nor does anyone organize much help on its behalf.”
That first part soon changed. The Ballard street colony grew out of control. Eventually the city put up no-parking signs that chased them away.
The idea of giving them a temporary place to park — to help them as well as the beleaguered neighborhood — wasn’t mine. I got it from the late Edith Macefield. She was the “old lady of Old Ballard,” who refused to move even when developers offered her a million bucks. Her only neighbors were Mike’s Chili Parlor and dozens of mobile homeless.
As she said in that 2005 story: “What can you do? They don’t have any money, so where can they go? Chase ’em out, and they’ll park somewhere else.
“Maybe the city should give them a supervised lot somewhere.”
Genius, I thought. Most car campers are in a kind of middle ground of homelessness — too well off to go to a shelter, too poor to pay the rent. So helping them get off the streets ought to be the low-hanging fruit.
Others thought the same. Ballard Homes for All formed to pursue a safe parking program. State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, got a $10,000 grant for it in 2008, and some churches began actively planning to turn over parking spots at night (the car campers would have to leave during the day).
I wrote some more columns about it — especially in 2008, when car-camping was found to have soared 45 percent.
Here we are in 2012. The problem hasn’t magically rolled away. But to date, as far as I know, only one parking space was ever donated to the cause, at an Episcopal church in Ballard. A homeless guy named Isaac parked his camper there for a time back in 2008 and this made the news.
Why has this been so hard?
“Something as simple as using a parking space isn’t simple,” says Steve Grumm, pastor at Our Redeemer’s. “It has taken incredible amounts of time and effort to get to this point.”
Churches had concerns about liability insurance. There was some neighbor opposition. The city itself was ambivalent, until first-term City Councilman Mike O’Brien “lit a fire” under the effort, Darsie says.
Graham Pruss lived in an RV in the Ballard colony for five months as part of his UW anthropology thesis. He says the core survival strategy is invisibility. You don’t move much when you’re inside, or turn on a light. At all costs, you don’t want anyone to know you’re there.
And so, maybe for years, the broader public hasn’t.
“It’s this huge group, in hiding,” Pruss says. “It’s not like the homelessness down in Pioneer Square.”
I recall what a guy living in his Volvo told me back in 2005: “People sleeping in their cars ain’t news.”
That was always a big part of the problem. So, no, five spaces may not be much. And seven years surely is. But kudos to everyone who persisted far longer than I did in finally making this rate as news.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.