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Updated Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 11:01 PM

Program to help homeless living in cars off to slow, steady start

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporter

A 59-year old man who goes by the nickname "Wavy" knows what it's like to live in a van and try to find a place to park for the night. He's been awakened by police telling him to move along. A homeowner called 911 when he parked in a West Seattle neighborhood.

"Wavy" — he didn't want his full name used — once owned a business with three employees but said the economic collapse wiped out his investments and his customers.

Since April, he has parked his van overnight in a church parking lot in Ballard, part of the city's Safe Parking pilot program designed to help one of the biggest segments of the homeless population — those living in their cars — find a way off the streets.

But in the year since the city launched the pilot project, just two churches have opened their parking lots, providing a total of seven spaces.

City leaders and homeless advocates say they'd like the city to do more, but limited funding, zoning issues and fears of disproportionately affecting one neighborhood have so far kept the program from reaching more of the estimated 500 to 1,500 people living in their vehicles across the city, a number that has grown along with home foreclosures, unemployment and the slow economic recovery.

"Adding two spots every six months is not going to make a dent in the problem," said City Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who sponsored the Safe Parking program.

The experience has been positive for the churches that provide the parking and for the social-service agency, Compass Housing Alliance, that provides case-management services to the campers. Eighteen of the 28 people helped by the program, and all of the families with children, have moved into some type of housing and off the street, said Jennifer Pargas, Safe Parking program manager for Compass Housing.

"A large portion of the people we've seen are the working poor. They've been laid off from a job, have gone through their savings and lost their house," Pargas said.

The 2013 city budget increases the Safe Parking program funding from $30,000 to $65,000, which will allow for a full-time caseworker to assist the people who park at the church lots. The current caseworker was able to dedicate only 13 hours a week to the program.

But even a best-case scenario of seven to 10 churches each providing two to five parking spaces by the end of 2013 "still isn't nearly enough to accommodate the people living in their vehicles, just in Ballard," said Elizabeth Maupin, the Safe Parking Outreach Coordinator who works with faith communities interested in participating.

Maupin envisions safe-parking zones in several locations on city or private property with access to restrooms, showers, a phone and computers so car campers can look for work and have a place to be indoors. As in the current program, participants would be screened and anyone with a criminal history excluded.

"We need more places for people where they can be near their work and their communities. Most of the people living in their vehicles are working, just not enough to pay for stable housing," she said.

O'Brien said he'd like to find a way to scale up the Safe Parking program and serve more people. But he also thinks neighborhoods will be resistant to what sounds like "another Nickelsville" — the tent city named for former Mayor Greg Nickels — with RVs and vans parking in their midst.

"Opening a city lot with lots of cars raises concerns with neighbors. There are advantages to a dispersed model where no one neighborhood is overwhelmed," he said.

Invisibility as a strategy

On a recent cold and rainy night, Graham Pruss, a project coordinator for the Project on Family Homelessness at Seattle University, knocked on the doors of RVs parked along industrial streets in Ballard.

Complaints from neighbors about people living in their vehicles, as well as public urination, defecation and littering, led city parking-enforcement officers to post many of the neighborhood streets to ban overnight parking.

That's left just a few streets where oversized vehicles such as RVs can legally park, Pruss said. He's led Seattle University's efforts to document the number of people living in vehicles in Ballard and North Seattle.

Pruss, who also is chairman of the Ballard Community Task Force on Homelessness and Hunger, estimates that the One Night Count of the Homeless in January 2012, which identified 519 people living in a vehicle, was "just the tip of the iceberg." He thinks the actual number is two to three times larger.

"A primary survival strategy of people living in their vehicle is to be invisible. It's difficult to document them, difficult to do outreach, difficult to provide the services to which they are entitled," Pruss said.

He'd like to see the city use park-and-ride lots to provide more safe parking spots. He said that with screening and case management, people now living in their vehicles can more easily focus on finding work and permanent housing.

"The Safe Parking program shows it works. We just need 50 times as many places," Pruss said.

Although the number of people served by Safe Parking has been small, the churches that are participating say they've had few problems.

"It's been such a positive experience for us," said Kathy Olson, chairwoman of the Missions and Social Justice Team for Woodland Park United Methodist Church, which provides two parking spaces for car campers.

The church took on the parking program in addition to a nightly shelter for 20 homeless men in partnership with the nonprofit SHARE.

Dispelling stereotypes

Before agreeing to participate, the church had to work with neighbors concerned about safety and noise. Others who use the church had concerns about access.

"We've been able to dispel a lot of stereotypes about who these people are," Olson said.

The church supports the car campers in other ways. It pays for the portable toilet, for phone and gas cards, for blankets and toiletries.

What it hears from those who park there, she said, is that they can focus on getting a job and not worry every evening about where they'll stay and whether they'll be safe.

At Our Redeemer's Lutheran Church, "Wavy"came in from his van and sat in the fellowship hall out of the pounding rain. He's working two jobs, doing building maintenance and cleaning, but he said neither is steady enough to cover the rent for an apartment.

Over the past few months, as his name has moved up the list for subsidized housing, the parishioners have given him a waterproof parka, another new jacket that he wears under the first, and new work boots and socks.

And a safe place each night to park.

"They really walk the walk," he said. "This has been a blessing."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.


ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Graham Pruss, a project coordinator for the Project on Family Homelessness at Seattle University, checks on people living in their vehicles. Pruss also is chairman of the Ballard Community Task Force on Homelessness and Hunger.




ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Scott Cronie has been living in his RV for four years and is on the Safe Parking steering committee and the Ballard Community Task Force on Homelessness and Hunger.




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