Every night, in almost every part of the Puget Sound, children fall asleep in their family cars. Desperate for a place to stay, homeless men, women and youth resort to living in their cars because our homeless shelter system lacks the capacity to keep them safe.

On January 29, 2016, 4,505 people were found to be living in places not meant for human habitation in King County (and this does not include people staying in shelters, transitional housing, or staying on a friend’s couch.) Of those 4,505 people, 1,608 (35.7%) were living in their vehicles. (National Low Income Housing Alliance, 2016)

It’s dangerous to live in your car. Isolated vehicle residents are constantly on alert, making it impossible to rest and recover from the chaos that homelessness brings into lives. People who live in their cars find it difficult – often impossible – to tend to their physical needs, from basic hygiene to recovering from illness. Young children and the elderly suffer the most, leaving them with long-term physical and emotional damages.

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Safe Parking programs offer safety and community – two things that people living in their cars desperately need when they are trying to get their lives back together. Unfortunately, there are not enough Safe Parking programs to serve the number of people who live in their cars after they lose their homes.

Safe Parking programs give congregations a way to use their sacred land for the greater good. As the crisis of homelessness grows in our region, parking programs play a critical role in helping people who are newly homeless. Without a safe place to park, people living in cars face the daily struggle of moving from place to place, wasting precious time and resources. With early access to safety and community, people without homes can focus their energies on solving the problems that left them homeless.

Do Safe Parking programs end homelessness? No, not alone.

Could your congregation help? Yes! Congregations are supporting safe parking programs across a wide spectrum of ministries. 

Safe Parking Ministry Spectrum

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Frequently Asked Questions

The following information was gathered through interviews with local congregations who have been running successful safe parking programs. (Note: this page will be updated as information is gathered.)

What is the cost of running a safe parking program?

This is the number one question congregations ask. Depending on the program, congregations can expect increased costs in these areas:

  • Port-a-potty rental
  • Garbage pick up
  • Electricity (cell phones and laptops are critical tools in the hunt for affordable housing)
  • Wireless internet
  • Supplies (congregations that offer access to building spaces including restrooms, kitchens and other spaces)
  • Community meal and activities

Tip: An experienced congregation estimates yearly cost of a “barebones” (pilot level in our spectrum) program to be $1,200 per year. 

What policies do you put in place to run the program?

Clear rules and expectations lead to a smoother program. It’s important to think about how the rules you are setting apply across groups. Rules should be consistent policies that everyone on the property must follow. A good example is smoking policies. If safe parking guests are not allowed to smoke in the parking lot, then housed congregation members should likewise not be allowed to smoke in those same areas (and vice versa).

Congregations use a variety of tools to set program rules and expectations between the residents and the hosts. These agreements should be respectful of the needs of both the residents and the hosts.

See a sample agreement here: Lake Washington UMC Safe Parking Policies and Rules

How do you handle security and insurance?

Experienced congregations have shared that security concerns are generally handled in the same way as any situation that might take place on congregation property. This might range from stepping in to mediate a minor argument/conflict to calling 9-1-1 in cases of real emergency and when individuals’ safety is in jeopardy. Although overnight hosts are not required, they may be used early in the program to help establish program parameters and organization.

Congregations do not need to change their insurance levels.

What is the screening process for individuals wishing to enter the program?

Most congregations conduct some type of screening of residents prior to invitation to the program. This generally consists of a National and WA State Background Check.

Experienced congregations have shared that it’s important to be careful and measured in how you apply what you learn from background checks – interpreting them is less straightforward than it may seem. That said, the discovery of recent and/or chronic violent history would warrant barring an individual from the program. In other cases (i.e. cases of nonviolent criminal history), it’s important to have a conversation with the individual and make decisions on a case by case basis.

One congregation shared that their experience has been that potential residents are the ones whose background checks are relatively “clean”. They thoughtfully review the results and determine if the resident is a good fit with their community. In their  years of running the program they have not turned anyone away due to a “bad” background check. 

How do you decide on operating hours?

It depends on what your congregation wants and is able to provide. Some congregations ask guests to only park on site during specific hours. Others offer guests a more liberal number of hours that cars can be left on site.

One church gives safe parking guests 24 hour access to their lot while another restricts guests to the hours between 9pm and 7 am. 

How many parking spots do we need to make available?

Many congregations have started programs with as few as 2 or 3 parking spots available. This may be desirable for those wishing to start a pilot program. That said, offering 5-6 or more parking spots allows safe parking guests to feel safer and provides more opportunities to form relationships and build community.

What kinds of amenities and hospitality should be offered?

Congregations may offer a range of resources based on the physical layout of the property and the availability of host volunteers.

Some offer “hosted” open building hours where volunteers are onsite during posted hours to give residents access to the building. Others are not able to offer access to their buildings due to the location of some of the amenities.

Amenities include access to:

  • Bathroom
  • Kitchen
  • Showers
  • Washer/ Dryer
  • Library
  • Wireless
  • Recreation areas

One congregation offers two hosted times everyday with access to kitchen and bathrooms – 6:30-9:00am and 7:00-9:00pm. They also offer a community meal once a week and have shared that they greatly appreciate the greater sense of community this expanded building access and regular shared meal has brought about. Since they decided to be intentional about showing more hospitality, and since relationships between safe parking guests and housed members of the congregation have grown, there have been fewer problems and the program is a better one for all involved.

How do you handle community concerns and communication?

Most safe parking programs invite neighbors to their property to learn about the program and ask questions. While there is no requirement for congregations to notify the neighborhood, most do it as a courtesy. For some, it’s a great way to get the community involved in the ministry through group meals and activities. At these meetings, it is important to be clear about the precautions the congregation is taking to make the program as safe as possible for both the guests and the community.

What about relationships & partnerships?

People living in safe parking programs are living out their lives in public with little privacy. Their lives are stress-filled, cramped and on display in ways that many of us have never experienced or imagined. It’s a good idea for congregations to offer an orientation to volunteers / hosts to help them understand what challenges people living in their cars face day to day.

Naturally occurring relationships that come out of involvement in the ministry and welcoming guests into the community can result in deeper relationships that help guests gain greater stability and even housing, with arrangements ranging from providing showers and laundry to housesitting opportunities, shared housing situations, and even co-signing leases.

Your congregation may not be able to support a safe parking program on its own, or at least maybe not right away. Consider partnering with a faith community that’s already doing the work and/or with a local agency like Compass Housing Alliance’s Road to Housing program that can help connect your safe parking guests with the services and resources they need to get back on their feet. The stronger your relationships are with the other faith communities and housing/service providers in your area, the better you can serve those who come to you seeking help.

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