Seattle considers another try at ‘safe lots’ for people living in their cars

Jul 5, 2019, 10:59 PM | Updated: 11:05 pm

safe lots...

A King County judge ruled in March 2018 that this truck legally counted as a home. (KIRO Radio)

(KIRO Radio)

The latest King County homeless count shows more than 2,000 people are sleeping in vehicles on any given night. To address this corner of the homelessness crisis, there have been efforts to create “safe lots” around Seattle over the years.

Some safe lots have been successful, while others failed.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has included $250,000 in this year’s budget for yet another effort. The initial plan was to use the money for a 30-vehicle safe lot at Genessee Park, but that drew mixed reaction at a meeting for the idea back in March.

“I’m worried about homeless people dying, because people die without shelter!” one woman exclaimed.

“People don’t belong sleeping in cars, and there are other solutions,” another man said. “For $250,000 you can put people in housing.”

A truck is legally a home in Washington

So the city scrapped that plan, but now there’s a new effort — use the $250,000 to partner with faith-based organizations for a new safe lot pilot program that will scatter up to 30 safe spots around the city. The pilot does not provide RV support. It is strictly for people living in cars.

Lily Rehrmann with the city’s Human Services Department says the rollout is smaller, with just a handful of spots at a single church — Our Redeemer’s Lutheran in Ballard. The funding will be put toward the church’s existing program.

“The funding will allow them to consistently serve seven households per night, whereas they are currently serving 2-3 households per night,” Rehrmann  said.

So that seven of the 30 spots will be at the Ballard church where they already had a few spots. Moving forward, the city would like to speak with other faith communities to see what sort of safe lots they can potentially host.

The model is based on similar programs in California that have been successful. The church partners with the Urban League which will provide case management services and they’ll set up a code of conduct for anyone living at the lot.

“A code of conduct that all participants need to agree to in order to participate in the program,” Rehrmann said. “One of the main requirements of the code of conduct is that anyone participating in these programs must be working actively with case management services to be looking for housing. That’s one of the reasons why we are so pleased to partner with Our Redeemer’s and the Urban League because they have shown success helping people living in their cars move into permanent housing.”

There is no time limit on how long people can stay at the Ballard church. Vehicle residents don’t have to leave every morning. They’ll have access to showers, bathrooms and a kitchen and can come inside during winter months when its cold. Vehicles have to work and have car tabs.

Two Washington cities make it into top 10 list for most stolen cars

At Our Redeemer’s Lutheran in Ballard, vehicle residents must be sober. The question of low-barrier access and sobriety will be a decision that each church must decide for itself.

Moving forward, the safe lots will remain for cars, not RVs. There just hasn’t been a successful model for people living in RVs and trailers. Under Mayor Ed Murray, there was an attempt at an RV lot, but it was shut down due to the extremely high cost of operation. A different safe lot in SoDo also failed because of violence, including three deaths.

“While it’s really important not to paint everyone with the same brush, what we found is that some folks living in RVs feel comfortable staying there, because it’s a fairly large vehicle, they can lock the door and keep possessions,” Rehrmann said.  “They had different needs and different wants than folks living in their cars, which has far more cramped conditions.”

The city hopes to learn something by the way they’ve set up the car-only model.

“Testing our idea that folks living in their cars are pretty new to the experience of homelessness,” Rehrmann said. “Their car is often their last asset, and it’s what’s connecting them to their job or their school that they are going to during the day. So that little bit of help from us and from the service provider with expertise … can quickly help them move on to housing. ”

The city is working to get other churches on board and get all 30 spaces operating in the pilot. Officials will evaluate them in the months ahead. If they’re successful at moving people into housing, more money could be proposed in the upcoming budget to expand the program.

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Seattle considers another try at ‘safe lots’ for people living in their cars