Lana is almost 5-feet-8-inches tall, a fact made obvious when she ducks her head to clear the roof of her crimson Nissan Altima. She sits down, reaches for the wheel with her long, lanky arms and crams herself toward the dashboard. Her thin body hunched over, shoulders by her ears, knees bent on either side, she looks up and laughs.
“I drove like this for one or two days,” she said.
When her seat broke, coming off its tracks and permanently lodging all the way forward, she continued taking her 23-year-old daughter, Rachel, to work — and herself to dialysis three days a week — in that position.
Frank Scarabino stayed late after a 12-hour day and rigged the seat enough to get the back down, so at least Lana could scoot backward and get some breathing room while driving — and while sleeping.
“I got there and said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me,’” Scarabino said. “But [Lana] said, ‘Well, you know, that’s just the way things go, and I’ll just deal with it.’ How can you deal with that and not be beyond angry and frustrated? The grace of some of the people we meet — that’s part of their story.”
Scarabino is the director for a city program called Road to Housing (R2H), which partners with faith organizations to offer parking spots for vehicle residents in church lots, while providing outreach and case management through Compass Housing Alliance with the goal of finding housing.
Lana, 50, and Rachel, whose names have been changed to protect their safety and privacy while they are homeless, were evicted last year from their two-bedroom apartment in Renton when Lana’s kidneys failed, and she could no longer work to pay rent.
“No one plans on being homeless and living in their car,” Lana said. “Once you get there, you have to get your head around the fact.”
For the past few months, they’ve stayed in the Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church parking lot on Northwest 85th Street and 25th Avenue Northwest in Ballard. For about a year before that, they would often park along Lake Washington Boulevard near Mt. Baker Beach.
To people like Lana, a parking spot in a church lot is more than a drab parcel of pavement. It’s a safe place; a place where they can finally stop worrying about tickets and towing, and feel secure at night. They can access restrooms, store food, find community, avoid crime and theft, and have consistent communication with the people helping them.
But R2H only has 12 parking spots, and case managers say it takes months, if not years, to find people housing.
Meanwhile, there are about 776 people living in vehicles in Seattle. R2H is the only city-funded program to help vehicle residents, the largest subset of unsheltered homeless people in King County at nearly a third.
Safe and legal places to park take the front seat among a list of changes community advocates, outreach workers, city officials and car campers are calling for when it comes to addressing vehicle residency in Seattle.
“There needs to be safe places for people to park,” Scarabino said. “The reality is, people will be living in their vehicles. The reality is, there is not enough housing. And the reality is, there will be conflict because of the increasing pressure of population growth and the limited resources in the city.”
Lana’s front seat now permanently reclines into a chaotic pile of detergent, a dog-bed for her rambunctious white Havanese named Davey and other miscellaneous items in the backseat. The trunk is stuffed with plastic bags full of clothes that haven’t fit her since she started dialysis.
A drop in the bucket
R2H began as the Safe Parking Pilot Program in Ballard in 2012 under the leadership of Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien. In 2014, the council expanded it citywide, and today it has a budget of about $310,000, with two case managers, outreach specialist Shervin McCammon and program manager Scarabino. To enter the program, vehicle residents must be willing to work toward housing with case managers.
When it first began, O’Brien said, the idea was to approach people on the street and quickly move them to church lots. It hasn’t quite gone as planned.
Currently, there are 18 people residing in the 12 available spots at four churches in Seattle. “We have really struggled to get above 12 spots, and we’ve been operating this program for three years,” said Sola Plumacher of the city’s Human Services Department (HSD). “It’s not the kind of number that we need and it wasn’t the number we expected to see.”
Getting a church to participate can be a lengthy process. Leadership has to present the request, boards have to approve it and congregations have to support it.
When the program does add a church, it might get two to five spots.
When it became clear that it would be difficult find more spots, the program’s focus shifted to outreach throughout the city, O’Brien said.
“Now, we’re just connecting people with services on the street, recognizing that they still live in fear of getting ticketed or towed, that their safety is a concern, that they don’t have great options for using the bathroom, but yet they somehow survive,” O’Brien said. “We are just meeting them where they are.”
Between the church lots and the streets, R2H is currently working with more than 60 people. Staff members say R2H is a vital program, especially given the flexible funding they receive to connect people to services such as car repairs and medical assistance. But the need is overwhelming.
“Everybody is trying to figure out the best way to do the most good,” Scarabino said. “A lot of times, when we meet someone, we’re doing triage. We can see if people are interested in our program, but most of the time, we’re full. We’re full, full, full.”
Last year, R2H enrolled about 150 people in case management and moved 27 into transitional or permanent housing, according to HSD.
“You really kind of have to strive for perfection while dwelling on what you’ve actually accomplished, as opposed to what needs to be accomplished, or else you’ll go crazy,” Scarabino said.
More than a simple spot
On a sunny day in July, the lot outside Our Redeemer’s was mostly empty and quiet, marked with a post reading “May Peace Prevail on Earth.” In one area, orange traffic cones designated the five spots for people living in their cars. It was almost 80 degrees out, and Lana, wearing a purple sundress, prepped to take Rachel to work.
Days like this, R2H Case Manager Erin Rants can’t stop worrying about Seattle’s vehicle residents.
“I just kept thinking about everyone living in a hot piece of metal and what they are doing,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to move ahead when you are just thinking about survival.”
Heat isn’t the only hardship.
After Lana became sick — her condition is precarious and sometimes lands her in the hospital — Rachel tried working two jobs and going to school full-time for biochemistry at Bellevue Community College. Overwrought and overworked, she dropped out, working at Walgreens and Office Depot, sometimes from 9 a.m. to midnight, to pay for food, gas and occasional hotel rooms so she could shower and be presentable. They used to park by Lake Washington because it was within walking distance of a 24-hour gas station with restrooms, but finding safe, legal parking spots in Seattle is, some would say, nearly impossible.
Parking regulations lead to concentrated areas of car camping that create tension with neighbors and businesses, while a city rule that cars must be moved every 72 hours means vehicle residents must stay on-the-go, despite the struggle to keep their cars running (“Hell on Wheels,” RC, Aug. 8, 2013).
“You can’t park just anywhere, because here come the police,” Lana said. “And you just keep moving. You just gotta keep moving.”
Vehicle residents are also vulnerable to theft and often targeted for criminal activity. At a recent community meeting about rv campers who had settled in along North Northlake Way (“Nowhere to go,” RC, July 22), vehicle resident Jaclyn Allison said she didn’t want to move to a different area of the city that she saw as more dangerous.
“I don’t want my 3-year-old daughter to step outside and find a needle on the ground,” she said.
Rachel remembers the two most frightening moments from living on the streets. The first time, it was a stranger who approached the window and thought they “might be looking for some attention.” The second time, it was a police officer.
“He asked me what I was doing,” Lana said. “‘Sleeping,’ I told him.”
He let them stay, but he told Lana she should keep her legs inside the car. After several bouts of phlebitis — inflammation of the veins — Lana had resorted to sleeping with her legs sticking out of the driver’s side window, resting her feet on the mirror. Somehow, she manages to roll over once in a while to avoid what she and Rachel jokingly refer to as “car sores.”
She still sleeps like that, but at Our Redeemer’s, Lana and Rachel don’t have to worry about strangers or cops. They have access to the Central Hall, a big, open room in the basement of the church with a bathroom, a computer and a refrigerator. Lana eats more of the fresh vegetables her renal diet requires.
“Now, if I get sick and something happens, at least there’s people here and Rachel isn’t alone,” she said.
But when asked what a safe place to park really means to them, they both answered without hesitation.
At Lake Washington, with traffic constantly whizzing by, there wasn’t a whole lot of that.
Barriers and broken roads
If the ultimate goal at R2H is housing, then the two case managers have their work cut out for them.
So far this year, 31 people have been placed in transitional or permanent housing, which is already better than last year’s numbers. But Case Manager Rants said it takes longer and longer to make it happen. Parking spots at churches rarely open up — some residents have been there a few months, but some have been there more than a year.
“It’s different for everybody, but for everybody, it’s hard,” Rants said. “No matter who they are, no matter how few barriers they have. Unless they have money to pay rent in an ongoing way, there’s no way for them to get into housing quickly.”
Community advocates say a climbing unsheltered homeless population, up 21 percent from last year, is linked to what Mayor Ed Murray calls an affordable housing crisis. Shelters are full and waitlists for low-income housing are yearslong, with slim chances of getting in. Scarabino said he meets people like Rachel, who work full time and still can’t afford a home, all the time.
By the time people must live in a car, Rants said, they are probably facing many barriers to obtaining housing, such as evictions or bad credit, and it’s hard to find landlords who will overlook them.
“One thing happens that causes a chain reaction that makes it very, very difficult to get into the very limited housing we have in Seattle for people who are low-income,” Rants said. “People can be in this situation for years and years.”
Rants must work to find housing that matches a person’s circumstances, whether they are an adult, a senior, a family, disabled, facing mental illness or overcoming chemical dependency. Rants thought the last place she applied for a woman in her 70s was promising, but when they called asking for “one more” piece of paperwork, she found out it was just to get the woman on a waitlist that is two- to three-years long. “I’m worried that she is going to die in her car,” Rants said.
Though there’s a lot of good staff can do, being unable to offer either a safe place to park or the promise of rapid housing can feel helpless.
“Right now it’s like, we have this pathway, this beautiful road to housing, and it’s not that it’s a dead-end street, it’s just that the last part of the road hasn’t been constructed yet,” Scarabino said.
Finding the spots
Graham Pruss, former University of Washington doctoral student who has led research on vehicle residency for five years, said places to park are long overdue.
“We need a policy that says, if you are living in your vehicle, we have a secure place for you to be,” Pruss said. “This conversation should have been happening for the last 10 years, and we have some catch-up work to do.”
Councilmember O’Brien said given the challenges, it may be necessary to expand resources and look at whether there is city-owned or private property that can be used.
“We are still going to pursue [church lots] as an option, but I think we also need to look at other ways we can get more people in spots off the street,” O’Brien said.
Several community advocates, such as Jean Darsie and Bill Kirlin-Hackett, who work with vehicle residents as part of the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, wondered if any of the properties recently proposed by the city for homeless tent encampments might be used. They are also calling for the reduction of restrictive parking signage, as well as off-street parking that does not require commitment to case management.
Lana found R2H through a social worker where she gets dialysis from 6 a.m. to noon three days a week — she carries the catheter scars by her right shoulder. At the time, she was scrambling, and failing, to get the social services she needed.
“You get on this merry-go-round,” she said. “It’s frustrating and depressing enough to be in this situation, and then you go in circles. When you are out here living in your car, you don’t have the gas to be driving all over trying to do this. It’s like chaos. Everywhere you go, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ Granted, all you need is one ‘yes.’”
She may have found one.
Rants has helped them get into the Landlord Liaison Project, a program that partners with landlords, property managers and human service agencies to help homeless people who have been denied housing.
If everything goes as planned, Rants said, she believes she has found a landlord who will rent to them.
“The moment you think all hope is gone,” Lana said, “someone will turn up.”
This story is the second of a three-part series on vehicle residents in Seattle. Part one can be found here. Part three can be found here.