On April 5, Jen pulled her leaking 1998 station wagon into a church parking lot. Three years earlier, she had lost her human resources job. Unable to land another one, she eventually had been evicted from her apartment. Living out of her car ever since, the 41-year-old can’t remember how she heard about the church, but calls it a blessing that she did.
The church she’s referring to is Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, Washington. It launched the Safe Parking program in 2011 to give homeless women and families a safe place to park and sleep overnight. It now also provides them with 24-hour parking and access to the church’s bathrooms and kitchen. The church lends out laptops for guests to use its Wi-Fi to apply for jobs or seek additional support services.
And when it’s really cold outside, guests sleep in the sanctuary.
“People need a safe place to park, and we have a parking lot that can hold about 100 cars.”
“People living in vehicles are getting woken up late at night by police officers telling them to move their cars, getting ticketed, or getting their cars booted,” says Karina O’Malley, coordinator of Safe Parking. “People need a safe place to park, and we have a parking lot that can hold about 100 cars.”
The Safe Parking program especially benefits women and families because women feel safer sleeping in a parking lot occupied by other women, says O’Malley. Some women in the program say it brings a sense of sisterhood and unity.
On Jen’s first night in the parking lot, a group of women gave her blankets and showed her how to convert the back seat of her car into a comfortable bed. Another woman called a mechanic friend over to fix the oil leak in Jen’s car. However, the mechanic began making unsolicited advances toward Jen, once showing up in the middle of the night without notice. She was scared, but the women protected her, keeping a close eye on her the following nights. Jen is still getting used to being vulnerable in the parking lot, where there is no security.
“I’ve never been homeless before, so all of this is new to me,” she says. “But there are some gals here who will come to your aid pretty quickly.”
The county has 1,000 more homeless people than it did last year.
Homelessness is a growing concern in King County, where LWUMC is located. Nearly 12,000 people were reported homeless this year, and almost half of them live on the streets, in tent encampments, or in their cars. And the county has 1,000 more homeless people than it did last year. There’s a myth that many of the homeless came from other areas to access resources, but a recent report found that most are from within the county.
In the spring, tech giant Amazon, headquartered nearby in Seattle, announced plans to build a homeless shelter with enough space for 65 families. Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien is working on legislation that would ease parking restrictions for those living in their cars. O’Brien also plans to create dozens of RV “safe lots” throughout the city.
Overnight parking initiatives to help people living out of their cars face criticism from those who believe that safe lots are poor alternatives to housing. As grateful as Jen is for the Safe Parking program, she’d rather live somewhere where she can take a shower.
Contrary to the stereotypes that are associated with homeless people, many of those in the program have jobs and/or are in school, says O’Malley, who credits the skyrocketing housing prices for the county’s homelessness crisis. The Seattle Times reported in March that rents in Seattle have gone up 57 percent in the past six years.
While most families usually stay for four to six months, some have been living in the LWUMC parking lot for more than three years. Jen is working with employment agencies to find a job and hopes to be in her own place soon.
“It’s time for a change,” she says. “I just want peace and to be safe.”
Although O’Malley agrees that more shelters are needed and are preferable to safe parking, she sees the program at LWUMC as one piece of a larger system of care.
“We’re using the resources we have to help those in need,” she says.
This article was funded in part from a grant by the Surdna Foundation.
J. Gabriel Ware is a former YES! reporter currently working for ABC News as a digital news associate.