You learn to adjust your life to your environment.
That's what Isaac Chapiro believes. Which explains why it took him a little while to get used to electricity. Not that he hadn't been places where electricity could be found. It's just that after having spent the past few years sleeping in a tent or truck or unheated trailer, he hadn't lived anywhere with it for a while.
But that changed last month when Chapiro, 49, pulled his camper-trailer into the parking lot of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Ballard. There, with an extension cord from the church providing juice to his trailer, he plugged in a lamp. "It's amazing what happens to your head when you plug [the lamp] in and -- plook! -- you've got a light," says Chapiro.
And, like the stretch of the extension cord from the church, Chapiro's pathway to St. Luke's stretches back to last year. It was then, at some point in the summer, that Chapiro attended a Ballard Homes for All Coalition (BHAC) meeting. Also there was BHAC member Glo Mahar.
Mahar says that the coalition, which had heard churches in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Eugene, Ore., had found success offering sanctuary to car campers, wondered if the same practice might take root here. Chapiro, Mahar remembers, "said he would be very interested in our car camper situation."
Chapiro appeared a perfect fit for a local car camper effort, says Mahar. Fellow BHAC member Jean Darsie knew Chapiro, recognizing him as a Real Change vendor who sold at the Bartell's in Ballard on 22nd Ave. N.W. All that was needed was a church that would step forward.
Then came September 2008, and with it, the Sustainable Ballard Fair. At the fair, BHAC presented a prototype of a mobile shower, called Rover 1, that could be used by homeless people without access to bathroom facilities. St. Luke's member Jesse Bangs found the mobile shower concept intriguing. His interest led to an ongoing dialogue with Mahar, in which she put forth the possibility of the church hosting a car camper. But "it took us a long time to get things off the ground," Bangs admits.
First, Bangs had to present the idea to the church vestry board, on which he sits. With meetings once a month, it took a while before the issue came up for discussion. The way, it seemed, had been cleared for a camper to move in last December. And then it snowed. And snowed. And snowed. "We would have loved to have someone there during the snow," says Bangs, "to get them off the streets."
As the new year dawned, St. Luke's continued a dialogue with members of the congregation and neighbors who had issues about a camper in the parking lot: What about public safety? What about property values? Bangs worked to allay the concerns.
In early February, with Bangs confident the church was ready to move forward and Mahar keeping in contact with Chapiro, the trio sat down to a meeting. If Chapiro appeared an ideal candidate for a union of church and camper early on, he possessed another factor that worked in his favor: the Bartell's where he sells Real Change sits kitty-corner from St. Luke's, already making him a member of the community.
Together, the three worked out the terms: no alcohol, drugs, or tobacco; respect for set quiet hours; and an agreement to move the truck hitched to the trailer on Thursdays and Sundays, for church functions. In return, Chapiro would get electricity and access to a bathroom. Chapiro signed a three-month contract. "So far, zero incidents, zero complaints," Bang says.
Through the five months from the first mention of housing a car camper to its realization, Mahar says BHAC didn't pressure the church. "When you push too hard," she says, "sometimes things backfire."
But that hasn't stopped her believing that perhaps other churches in Ballard, in Seattle, even in King County, may open their parking lots to more campers. And it hasn't stopped her from asking St. Luke's if they might consider hosting another person.
Bangs says that space, not desire, affects such a decision. Once Chapiro's contract runs out in May, Bang says the church will consider renewing it. And maybe, if conditions allow, St. Luke's may extend hospitality to another camper. "Our intention is to start small and remain small," says Bangs.
For Chapiro, small works. With his '74 Chevy parked in a space nearby, Chapiro has set up a makeshift living room comprised of two chairs in front of his trailer, where he can take in the mid-March sunshine.
But that doesn't mean he can't have a big dream or two. He wishes that Ballard had a place where people could take a shower or do their laundry, akin to the Urban Rest Stop downtown. "And maybe us guys could get ahead a little bit," he suggests.
He knows that, when you've been out on the streets for a while, without a roof, it can take some rehabilitation to get back into society. "A place," he offers, "where [you] can be in peace."
For the moment, Chapiro has found a little peace at St. Luke's. And he's very grateful to have a place to be, with electricity, and neighbors who say hello: "It's really, really incredible how things happen."