I see that after a decade of talking about it, Seattle finally is proposing to open an overnight-only “safe lot” where homeless folks living in their cars can park off the street for the night.
Only this being Seattle, it’s projected to cost the city $382,000. That’s for overnight parking in one lot in the U District, holding 20 to 30 cars. Which means each spot would cost $1,000 to $1,500 a month – in the ballpark of what it costs to rent a studio apartment.
“I heard about that budget, and it just boggles the mind,” said Karina O’Malley, who manages a homelessness parking program for a church in Kirkland at less than one-thirtieth the cost. “This stuff is not rocket science. What is the deal with Seattle?”
Great question! It’s one many of us ask about our city every day (out of love, right?).
Seriously, the long story of how we have struggled just to open some parking for the homeless is like a case study in the city’s troubles with tackling the broader homelessness issue.
It started nearly 15 years ago, when the city’s first car-camping colony popped up in industrial Ballard. I wrote about that “rolling slum,” a blocks-long “Hooverville on wheels.” The only resident who lived nearby, who happened to be the lady of old Ballard herself, Edith Macefield, accurately summed up the problem like this:
“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.”
I took her idea and ran with it, writing columns on how other cities such as Santa Barbara used parking lots empty at night for the homeless, for cheap. Inspired by Edith, a group formed in Ballard in 2007 to push for what came to be known as “safe parking” programs.
But other than a tiny number of spaces at churches – Our Redeemer’s Lutheran in Ballard has had a half-dozen spots for the past seven years — it stubbornly hasn’t happened here.
“Just about every city of any size on the West Coast is doing broader safe-parking programs now,” says Graham Pruss, a UW anthropology Ph.D. who studies the “vehicular homeless.” “Seattle is about the only one that’s not.”
That includes Palo Alto, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, LA, and San Diego.
We don’t even have to travel to California to learn how. Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland has been hosting up to 55 car-campers per night in its church parking lot since 2011 – which makes it one of the largest providers to the vehicular homeless on the West Coast.
Its annual budget, incredibly, is just $20,000. That pays for three portable toilets, trash service and Wifi boosted across the parking area. That’s a total of $30 per spot per month, while Seattle is proposing a cost north of $1,000.
One big difference is that the church does it all-volunteer, so it has no labor costs. But O’Malley said Seattle’s past experiences with safe lots for RVs baffled her for another reason – the community’s insistence on 24/7 security protection.
“That’s incredibly expensive,” she said. “And totally unnecessary. You don’t need round-the-clock security for people sleeping in their cars.”
The church uses volunteers to check the parkers in at night, and then to manage all the cars departing in the morning.
She suggested homelessness has become so polarizing in Seattle that people in the city have become afraid — more afraid than they are in the suburbs, a reversal of stereotypes. As a result, Seattle residents are more demanding of pricey security and management, driving up costs to the point of failure. Seattle’s lot for RVs in Ballard back in 2016 cost so much, $1,750 per spot per month, that it was abandoned.
Santa Barbara spends $400,000 to manage 24 lots totaling 133 spaces – so $250 per spot per month, one-fourth the per-spot cost of the new Seattle proposal.
The Seattle lot, suggested for University Heights Center, near Northeast 50th Street and University Way, includes a full-time case manager and three part-time parking organizers. If it’s approved, it would be nighttime-only use of a preexisting lot, so it isn’t clear why the costs are projected so high in the budget proposal. The city council is taking it up in its budget talks this month.
Meanwhile the number of people sleeping in their vehicles has more than tripled since Edith Macefield first made her seemingly simple, common sense suggestion. Seattle, we are hopeless on this issue, which is an easier part of the homelessness problem. Maybe just hire the Kirkland church people to do it for us?