City Works to Create “Safe Parking”

Vehicles parked outside of Lake Washington United Methodist Church, where a “safe parking” program has been designated. 50 individuals currently sleep in their vehicles overnight in the parking lot, where they have access to the church’s facilities. // Photo courtesy of Lake Washington United Methodist Church.

By Ella Banken

Seven hundred people were counted to be unhoused in Whatcom County, according to the January 2019 point-in-time count, an annual survey to quantify homelessness. Out of these 700 individuals, 67 people said they slept in a vehicle overnight, according to the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness 2019 Annual Report. 

The City of Bellingham is working to arrange safe, overnight parking for those who sleep in their vehicles, according to Rick Sepler, planning and community development department director. 

The lots would be available for use exclusively at night but would provide a safe, consistent environment for those who fear getting hassled, robbed or moved along by police when parking on the street, Sepler said.

The city has a 72-hour rule for parking. If it’s in a non-fined area, vehicles must be moved, or they risk being impounded after a warning, according to the City of Bellingham website. 

Prescreening would be required, possibly in the form of background checks, by Bellingham Police Department. After that, individuals would be given a permit to put on their windshield, Sepler said. 

Currently, the City is trying to find an appropriate agency to support the project, said Sepler. They are hoping that a religious organization or other similar group will adopt the project.  

The city council has expressed interest in funding the project if another organization doesn’t take it on, Sepler said. 

“We’ve asked the religious community to step forward. The City has not budgeted, nor allocated dollars to fund these projects,” he said. 

According to Sepler, the City would have a higher liability if they coordinated the project, so it would require paid staff to run it, rather than counting on volunteers.

For a city-run project, it would cost $17,000 per month to staff the lot every night plus the cost of sanitary services, he said. 

The City is offering to pay for services like portable toilets, if the project was adopted by another group, Sepler said. 

“If council believes that it’s in the community’s interest, they can allocate dollars and we would move forward,” he said. 

Markis Dee, member of the Whatcom County Homeless Strategies Workgroup and HomesNOW! board member, said he is glad the city is working on projects like this, however, he believes they could be doing more.

“My biggest criticism of it is that I believe it should be a 24-hour lot,” Dee said. “By criticism I mean that as gently as possible, I really do think they’re really trying to do something.”

Dee wants the project to allow for a slightly more stable environment and provide more services, like a kitchen tent.

“So individuals can hold still for a little while, and not be so mobile,” Dee said.

HomesNOW!, a Bellingham nonprofit organization, has persistently advocated for unhoused individuals since the organization’s inception in 2017. Their most recent project established a temporary tiny home village on a vacant lot in the Fairhaven neighborhood, according to a previous article by The Western Front.

“The City seems to need to take baby steps on these things, and that’s okay,” Dee said, smiling. “If they want to do that, we’re here to help them, but we’re in a bigger hurry.”

This sort of project has been successful in many areas along the West Coast, including in major cities like Santa Barbara, California, San Diego and Seattle, according to Sepler. 

The model that Bellingham is looking to instate was started by Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, Washington, Sepler said.

“Our hope is not to reinvent the wheel. We want to learn from everyone who’s done it before,” Sepler said.  

The church started their program in 2011, offering six overnight parking spots for women and families, according to Karina O’Malley, safe parking coordinator at Lake Washington United Methodist Church. Since then, the project has grown, now offering safe parking for 50 individuals, primarily single adult women. 

“We started with a small program, but it’s grown and grown just because it’s such an amazing opportunity and we feel like we’re making a really big impact on people’s lives,” O’Malley said.

The safe parking project at United Methodist now offers 24-hour stay for those living in their vehicles, O’Malley said. Volunteers unlock the church building early in the morning and in the evening so that guests can use the kitchen and indoor bathroom facilities.

“At this point we have 14 folks who regularly take a two-hour shift to open the building and make the kitchen available,” O’Malley said. 

She said they have never felt the need for 24-hour volunteer supervision. United Methodist changed the project model to 24-hour parking because they wanted to build community, both between guests of the lot and the church community, They now host community dinners every Wednesday night, to which everyone is invited, O’Malley said. 

“The biggest benefit to our program is community,” O’Malley said. “Homelessness can be really isolating and very frightening. Being in the church parking lot, knowing that they’re allowed to be there and nobody’s going to wake them up in the middle of the night, they can get a good night’s sleep.”

The project in Bellingham is in its early stages, Sepler said. The earliest the city could arrange this project would be the spring, in order to figure out all the logistics.

“It could be as small as five cars in one location, with a church doing it with a volunteer, it could be 50-60 cars like Lake Washington or anything in between. It’s a case-by-case basis,” Sepler said.

Planning projects like this take time. The City recently coordinated an overnight shelter that can sleep up to 40 women at Civic Stadium, Sepler said.

“For the City to facilitate and run with paid staff and volunteers … that took us months to put together to figure out all the details,” Sepler said. 

The City has not begun to look for potential locations for the project, Sepler said. The parking lot behind city hall could be an option, which previously held a tent encampment run by HomesNOW!.

“If the council has an interest in advancing this as a city funded and supported issue, we certainly would look more fully at locations,” Sepler said. 

Permits for projects like this would have firm end dates, he said. People worry about establishing permanent camps.

“Would we do a public process for selecting parking lots? Probably not. And the reason is, no location would be good,” Sepler said. 

Overnight parking would be restricted to cars and other smaller vehicles. RVs would not be permitted, Sepler said. 

“In the Seattle experience, they’ve had felonies, fires and fatalities in RV lots,” he said. “Inappropriate things can go on in RVs.”

Sepler encourages anyone who wishes to have a permit for a location to run a project like this is welcome to apply. 

“They’re fairly complex, nonetheless, they’re important for us to do,” he said.

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