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City Council members consider a vote on whether or not to search for a business partner to help with the safe parking program. // Photo by Izzie Lund

By Izzie Lund

On Jan. 27, the Bellingham City Council voted to search for an organization to partner with the city to create the Safe Parking Program for homeless people. The Safe Parking Program would designate space for homeless people to park their cars and sleep. 

An estimated 67 people in the community are currently living in their cars, according to a memorandum by the Planning and Community Development committee. 

Rick Sepler, the Planning and Community Development director, said the committee examined safe parking programs in Seattle, Santa Barbara and San Diego.

The program would be limited to passenger cars and not to RVs, because Seattle dealt with felonies, fatalities and fires, Sepler said. Councilmember Dan Hammill agreed that RVs are problematic because it’s difficult to see what’s happening inside.

The committee recommended partnering with a local religious organization because they believe a nonprofit would want the city to fund the entire program. The city will release a proposal to religious organizations offering to pay for half of the facilities and land if needed, Sepler said. The City Council will review a specific budget depending on the partner. 

Councilmember Michael Lilliquist said that the city had previously tried to find a partner for the program without offering to pay any of the costs; the city is taking further steps to make the program happen. 

If no organization partners with the city, they may have to create the program, Sepler said. 

“I’d like [the] council to be aware that if we choose the latter alternative, it is very costly and time consuming,” Sepler said. “We are ill-equipped as a city to run that kind of facility, and it is somewhat problematic for us.” 

Tara Sundin, the Community and Economic Development manager, sent a memorandum to the City Council recommending guests be prescreened by police and given a permit to put on their dashboards. The committee also recommended in the memorandum that volunteers or staff check in guests and supervise the parking lots overnight to ensure safety. 

Hammil said the program should not rely on volunteers because there are few people who would be willing to work overnight without pay.

Safe parking is not a permanent solution to the housing crisis, but it still does some good, Lilliquist said. The program would help people who own a car, but are unable to afford housing.

The program would also help the community because residents tend to get nervous when they see a homeless person sleeping in their car, Lilliquist said. 

“[People would ask], ‘Why are they parking in our neighborhood?’” Lilliquist said. “This person is here, in our neighborhood, because we live on a nice street. They’re nice people and they want to be safe too.” 

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