On Sunday nights, you can find Graham Pruss under the Ballard Bridge, serving up a hot meal. A recent menu included ham and potato soup, locally baked bread and apple cobbler. He calls this weekly dinner a bridge to connect with people who live in their cars. They’re often referred to as car campers or mobile homeless, but Pruss prefers the term, vehicle residents.
Pruss is one of many homeless advocates who’s pushed Seattle to provide more services to this group of people. In response, last year the city launched the “safe parking” program, which opens up church lots where people can park and connect to housing services. The pilot program is modestly increasing this year, in a step toward what advocates hope will be a citywide expansion.
Pruss heads up a research project at Seattle University to learn more about the city’s population of vehicle residents. “This whole population is completely off the map,” Pruss says. “There’s this huge group of people that nobody knows anything about and they’ve never had any services devoted to them.”
Pruss estimates up to 1,500 people in Seattle sleep in their cars. He’s gotten to know many of them. He even lived in an RV in Ballard for several weeks to get a better sense of this scene.
Ballard’s industrial area is a hot spot for so-called vehicle residents because RVs can legally park on some blocks for up to three days. But complaints from nearby business owners have also pushed the city to get involved. Through his research, Pruss found many vehicle residents share a common trait – they’re relatively new to the streets and the prospects of homelessness. They’re teetering on the edge, Pruss says. And now is the time to catch them.
“A lot of these people are still there,” Pruss says. “They’re still there mentally, spiritually and emotionally. They still want to be connected. They want to be involved. They haven’t resigned themselves to just simply, you know, sleeping under bridge.”
This is where the safe parking program comes in. It connects people with church lots where they can park for up to three months. There, they’ll work with a case manager who can help with housing and other services.
The city has doubled its funding for the program, up to $65,000 this year, to pay for a full-time caseworker. So far, just two churches have opened spaces in their lots. Two more churches in the pipeline will nearly double the parking capacity, up to 12 spots.
When Sheri Collins heard about the pilot program on the news, she thought it sounded like a good idea. “I got a sense of finally, you know, finally someone is reaching us out here,” Collins says.
Collins often comes to the Sunday dinners under the Ballard Bridge. She says it’s one of her ways to stay social. This is Collins’ third winter living in a retrofitted, two-door Mitsubishi Eclipse along with her dog, Token. “He’s got his own sleeping bag, I’ve got mine,” Collins says.
Collins has removed the passenger seat so Token has a flat spot to sleep. She’s secured a little perch for his food and water. She sleeps in the driver’s seat at about a 35-degree angle. To make it feel more like home, Collins puts on slippers then rolls out a little carpet under her feet once she’s in for the night.
Collins is 41 years old. She says a few years ago she had a house, a longtime partner and a stable career. Then, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Her partner soon left and her work life crumbled. “And just in an instant,” Collins says, “I was evicted out of my house and sitting on side of street there with my stuff and my two dogs and trying to figure out what I need to do to make this survive.”
She’s getting by on about $100 a month her dad sends from Arkansas.
Collins seems like an ideal candidate for the safe parking program. But the thought of pulling up stakes and moving to a new neighborhood is daunting. She says it took her six months to find a place to park where she feels safe overnight. She knows the neighbors and nearby merchants, and they know her. She says changes in her routine tend to set off her panic attacks.
Pruss sees another common reason why vehicle residents steer away from homeless services: They don’t always see themselves as homeless.
Some people who are eligible for the program tell him they’re not interested. When Pruss asks why, he says people tell him, "It’s not really for me," or "I might be getting into something soon," or "I think there might be other people who need it more."
Pruss says it can take a long time to convince people to just give it a shot.
Still, Compass Housing, the nonprofit that manages the safe parking lots, says there’s typically a waitlist. So far, about 30 individuals and families have entered the program and the majority moved into more stable housing.
Pruss calls the program a good start but he wants to see much more. “Trying to saddle this on the back of a few churches isn’t really going to solve this,” Pruss says. “We need to look at city resources: park and rides, other city property, under bridges. Then we can start hooking them up with case management to get them off the street. It’s really that extra step that means everything.”
Seattle City Council Member Mike O’Brien sponsored this pilot program to test the waters. He’s also hopeful that it can expand citywide. “We will be looking at other neighborhoods,” O’Brien says. “We’ve heard a lot of interest in places where there’s a lot of car camping. And so I think with a full-time service provider out there, they’ll have some more flexibility to travel around the city a little bit more, as opposed to just remain in Ballard.”
He mentions Georgetown, the University District and Lake City as likely places to expand. O’Brien also says he’d like to see up to eight churches in the program this summer, but he realizes that may be ambitious. Last year, he predicted the first church would be ready in two weeks. It took six months.
Just like some vehicle residents, it turns out church congregations and their neighbors need some time to ease into this new program, too.