Real Change Vendor Tracey “Melvin” Williams usually parks his 1999 Saturn in Lake City. He parks pointed downhill so he can get a rolling start and compensate for a faulty engine starter.
On May 13, Williams drove his car into a parking lot at Woodland Park United Methodist Church in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood, a location in the year-old Safe Parking program.
It was a relief to park off the street, with access to a bathroom and a microwave, he said.
“I’ve gotten a few parking tickets,” Williams said. “My car is close to being booted. I want to put it somewhere I don’t have to worry about that.”
Compass Housing Alliance’s Safe Parking program gives Williams some peace of mind, along with access to a caseworker who will help him find housing for the next 90 days. Woodland Park United Methodist Church is the second congregation to open its parking lot to a handful of people who live out of their cars. By the end of the year, Compass will have spaces at five congregations around North Seattle.
Compass officials say Safe Parking has been a success, but to help the hundreds of families who sleep in their cars every night, the program will need more funding.
“It’s been a really successful program; it’s just a really small program,” said Jennifer Pargas, program manager for Safe Parking.
The pilot program was meant to help 15 households in 2012, but 31 approached the program. Safe Parking helped all but four households find housing. Nine entered transitional or market-rate housing, two moved in with family or friends and another nine receive motel vouchers.
This month, Compass opened its third site, at Crown Hill United Methodist. The program will soon have 16 spots throughout the city. Other churches have expressed interest in the program, but Pargas said the caseworker can effectively manage no more than 20 or 30 clients at a time.
With a single full-time caseworker to help clients find stable housing, Safe Parking is approaching full capacity.
The program was created in 2012 to address the growing prevalence of people living in their cars in the Ballard neighborhood. Councilmember Mike O’Brien proposed funding the program, and the city allocated $65,000 to pay for two Compass staff members to manage the program and do case work for the clients.
The number of people living in their cars in the region has grown. In January, volunteers for the annual One Night Count found more than 600 people in King County sleeping in vehicles. O’Brien and others assume there are many more who go uncounted.
The Safe Parking clients are unlike any other group Compass has served, Pargas said. They are recently homeless due to foreclosure, job loss or family illness. Most have never had to ask for services before.
“We are meeting a niche, but I think there are lots of other ways of figuring out how to expand this program,” Pargas said.
For example, all of the Safe Parking spots are for family-sized vehicles, but many homeless people live in RVs.
Their problems tend to be the same. Like Williams, people sleeping in vehicles often have a stack of parking tickets and risk having their vehicles impounded. They have to move to another location every 72 hours to avoid violating street parking rules. They often forgo repairs to pay for meals, and many have medical issues due to poor diet and sleeping in uncomfortable positions.
That’s something Williams knows too well. His back and neck hurts from sleeping in the driver’s seat. His left leg is always in pain because he can’t extend it at night since the vehicle’s clutch is in the way.
Graham Pruss, a Seattle University research fellow who has studied car camping, said there’s still much more to learn about people who live in their vehicles.
“There is almost no demographic research done about this, even though this is the largest population living unsheltered,” he said.