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Safe parking programs provide safety and stability for the unhoused

A source of hope and support for those living out of their vehicles

Parking lot at Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, Wash., on April 30, 2024, where guests in the Safe Parking program find a secure space to park their vehicles overnight. // Photo by Karina O’Malley

Mayor Kim Lund’s recent Executive Order issued on February 20, 2024, emphasized the need for proactive measures in response to the fentanyl crisis, particularly in downtown Bellingham. 

According to Janice Keller, Interim Deputy Administrator and Communications Director for the City of Bellingham, Mayor Lund directed an increase in both medical service and police patrols downtown as a response to the increase in overdoses during the first weeks of this year.

Amidst these efforts, Mayor Lund is interested in exploring safe parking solutions to provide further support for vulnerable populations affected by the city’s initiatives.

A safe parking program offers a secure, designated parking space to individuals who are experiencing houselessness and are living in their vehicles, quelling fears of being asked to leave the area, getting a parking ticket or getting towed. 

However, as of the writing of this article, the search for an agency willing to operate the program continues. 

In the fall of 2023, the City of Bellingham issued a request for proposals to find a service provider who had the knowledge, skills and experience to operate a safe parking program. 

The City did not receive any submissions, and the attempts to pursue a program were set aside while focus shifted to other priorities such as the tiny home villages, winter shelters and downtown executive order, according to Blake Lyon, Director of Planning and Community Development for the City of Bellingham.

“After the request for proposals window closed, the City had several informal conversations with members of the community that expressed an interest in potentially establishing a program, [but] unfortunately those efforts did not result in formal actions on the provider’s part,” Lyon said. “The most significant difficulty in starting this program is the lack of a qualified service provider that has capacity to operate the program.” 

Finding a suitable physical location has also presented difficulties. Although the city is exploring various alternative sites, they were not pursued due to inability to confirm a service provider.

At Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, Washington, the Safe Parking program recently celebrated its 12th anniversary.

The program started in 2011, according to Karina O’Malley, the Safe Parking program coordinator at Lake Washington UMC. The church offered the use of their parking lot and portable toilets, open all day for individuals living in their cars. They had a team of volunteers who would meet the new guests and register them into the program at night. 

“[A] couple of years later, we decided to expand the program, wanting to make it more welcoming. We decided a big part was allowing folks to stay 24/7, allowing them access to the church building and letting people come inside,” O’Malley said. 

Lake Washington UMC's initial goal was harm reduction, according to O’Malley. Over the years, the program has significantly expanded its resources and services with the help of outreach service agencies.

“Now that we’ve partnered with other agencies, having on-site case management from our partners has made a significant impact,” O’Malley said. “This arrangement simplifies outreach efforts for agencies, as individuals can easily access resources. By addressing basic needs, we free up time for individuals to meet with a case manager or housing navigator and progress efficiently.”

Safe parking programs partnered or operated by outreach service agencies provide services and resources like case management, food assistance, employment assistance and transitional housing. 

According to the Lake Washington UMC website, volunteer hosts ensure the church is accessible every school day, mornings and most evenings, providing guests with indoor facilities like a phone, kitchen, bathrooms, and recently, a shower trailer.  

Through a grant, the church provides access to free WiFi for communication and access to online resources. The program also provides information on community resources to help meet basic needs.  

Kelly Mutch, a former guest at Lake Washington UMC’s Safe Parking program and current member of the church, came to the safe parking program in 2019 after they lost their job in 2014 due to health issues. Mutch lived off their savings for five years, but ran out of money to pay rent. Wanting to avoid eviction they decided to call various safe parking programs.

“I'm making phone calls in this old motel down at SeaTac. They would tell me 'we do have a safe parking program but we’re full' or they wouldn’t even bother to return my call,” Mutch said. “The unimaginable sigh of relief after six days of panic attacks, to have Karina call me back within three minutes of that call and say 'we will fit you in.'”

Reflecting on their experience, Mutch emphasizes the importance of safe parking programs in providing shelter and vital support from outreach services and workers. 

“With the help of the safe park program, homeless folks have a place to stay and services that can expedite getting their needs met with transitional housing, financial assistance and food assistance,” Mutch said. “The longer they are homeless the greater their needs become; being homeless is hard on people, mind and body. Nobody chooses homelessness as a lifestyle, they just need support.”

Andrea Ornelas

Andrea Ornelas (she/her) is a campus news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a third-year public relations major. When she’s not reporting, you can find her spending time with friends and family, reading and spending time outside. You can reach her at

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