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Originally published November 24, 2011 at 9:01 PM | Page modified December 8, 2011 at 5:45 PM

Corrected version

Seattle may help homeless car campers

The city of Seattle hopes to launch a new program in January that will open a small number of Ballard church parking lots to homeless people living in their vehicles.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes This is a tough situation for all of us. We have people who obviously don't want... Read more
quotes I live just off Leary and for the past 3 years have dealt with many different homeless ... Read more
quotes I hope the Seattle Times will continue to keep the community informed about the... Read more

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The weather couldn't be worse. In a dark November downpour, the 27-year-old former sheet-metal worker ran from the van parked on a side street in Ballard to the warmth of a nearby bar where he knows the owner and can pass several hours unobtrusively until it's late enough to return to the van and go to sleep.

Marcus — he didn't want his last name used — has worked since he was 18, but he's been laid off from a succession of manufacturing jobs and the gap between work has grown longer each time.

"Nobody is hiring," he says, and gestures to the industrial neighborhood along nearby Leary Way. "Anybody in these shops in Ballard will tell you."

Still, he counts himself lucky. He owned a Honda Accord, purchased when he had steady work, and was able to sell it to buy the van in which he now lives. It's equipped with a stove and refrigerator. He notes that many of the homeless — an estimated 150 — living in cars on Ballard streets can't cook meals.

The city of Seattle hopes to launch a new program in January that will open a small number of Ballard church parking lots to homeless people living in their vehicles. A $20,000 grant from the city and $10,000 from the state will fund a caseworker to screen applicants, connect them to services and help them locate permanent housing.

City officials say there is a two-year wait for permanent subsidized housing. Homeless shelters have been turning people away the past few months. Even when there is a vacancy, most don't accept couples, families or pets.

"Oftentimes their car is the only thing holding their lives together and keeping them from being out in the cold," said State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, whose district office is in Ballard. She helped organize a Ballard task force on the homeless several years ago when a homeless woman from the neighborhood froze to death on the street.

This year, Dickerson said, four homeless people have died in Ballard.

The Seattle Safe Parking program is modeled on those in other cities, including Eugene, Ore., which has run a program, managed by a St. Vincent de Paul Society, for 12 years. The city provides a porta-potty and trash collection to any church or business willing to allow up to three vehicles to park in its lot. The city also provides case management to screen families with children and connect them to services.

"A lot of folks living in their vehicles have no other option," said William Wise, director of the Eugene First Place Family Center. "The (Eugene) City Council didn't want to make being homeless a crime."

The proposal for the Seattle program was sponsored by Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who in January participated in the One Night Count of the homeless. It found 506 people in Seattle living in their vehicles out of about 1,700 homeless people in the city. One-quarter of those living in their cars were in Ballard.

In April, O'Brien joined a nonprofit outreach group, Heroes for the Homeless, as volunteers knocked on camper doors and car windows in Ballard. They offered hot coffee, cocoa, dry socks and toiletries to the occupants.

O'Brien said he was struck by the realization that, but for a few different circumstances, the people could have been his parents.

"They were two years from retirement, their 401(k)s had tanked, they didn't want to burden their children. They were trying to get by until Social Security kicked in," O'Brien said.

Sixty percent of the people he met were couples. Eighty percent had a cat or a dog.

Industrial areas

Ballard seems to have attracted a large number of car campers because of its many industrial areas, which are typically deserted at night. Motor homes and RVs can legally park in industrial areas, but for no more than 72 hours.

The vehicle owners typically play a "cat-and-mouse game" with police and parking enforcement, said Jean Darsie, a member of Ballard Homes for All, an advocacy group that proposed the safe-parking program.

She said some car owners have left their vehicle for a doctor's appointment or other errand, only to return and find it has been towed. The owners often don't have the money to get the vehicle back, she said.

So far, only one Ballard church has stepped forward to host homeless car campers, Our Redeemer's Lutheran Church in north Ballard. Pastor Steve Grumm said his congregation wanted to help the growing number of homeless families but didn't have the skills or resources to take on "hundreds."

"What you realize is that homeless shelters are almost unsustainable for many people. You can't store anything, you have to come at a certain time and leave at a certain time. How do you hold a job or hold onto any possessions? Vehicles provide that," Grumm said.

He said his congregation was concerned initially about what it might be getting into or whom it might be letting into the church. Part of the agreement with the city is to open the church bathrooms to the homeless people in the parking lot. Four different preschool programs hold classes in the basement, as well as the church's own programs.

One neighbor with a child in the preschool, Craig Gibson, got involved with the church after it hosted Tent City 3. He saw the parking program as another opportunity to serve the community. While some parents were concerned, he said he sympathized with the car campers. He lost his own job in the construction industry in April.

"I've talked to a lot of homeless people who thought they could get another job in 30 days and here it is, a year down the road," Gibson said.

The city's promise to screen campers and limit the number of vehicles to no more than five helped ease fears, Grumm said.

The congregation voted unanimously in September to host the program. Parents at the preschools asked how they could help. The church's ninth-grade confirmation class said it would build a shelter in the parking lot for the campers as its gift to the church.

"As a congregation, we're interested in issues of justice, of the challenge of compassion, of walking with others," Grumm said. "We want to see ourselves as brothers and sisters to these people and extend our hospitality."

Now that Our Redeemer's has stepped forward, homeless advocates hope other faith communities will follow and that the program could expand to other parts of the city.

Last week Marcus, the young man living in his van, applied for an entry-level position as a janitor.

He estimates that he applies for about 30 jobs a week, with help from the Career Services Center at Seattle Central Community College, where he is a student. He said the application asked for seven years of residential history — that is, where he's lived and his current address, "because, apparently to be a custodian you can't be homeless," he said.

Asked if he would take advantage of a program that offered a safe place to park at night, he said, "Of course."

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

Information in this article, originally published Nov. 24, 2011, was corrected Dec. 8, 2011. The original version of this story mischaracterized the involvement of a member of Our Redeemer's Lutheran Church. Craig Gibson got involved with the church after it hosted Tent City 3, not because of the car camping proposal. He is a member of the church's Safe Parking Task Force and helped allay the concerns of some parents with children in the church's preschool programs.

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