Putting people on the Road to Housing

Nearly 100 homeless people have already moved to stable homes, thanks to a recent partnership between Compass Housing Alliance, the City of Seattle and local churches.

The Road to Housing program, founded in mid-2012, serves some of Seattle’s most challenged residents: people who live in their cars. Besieged with mechanical troubles, burglars and parking tickets, car campers make up almost a third of unsheltered people in King County, according to the 2014 One Night Count.

To cut that amount, Road to Housing draws on church community strength, city funding and casework by Compass staff, to help car campers find more stable housing.

The program’s strategy is two-pronged: it connects campers with legal parking spots, in church parking lots, and assigns case managers from Compass, who help them find more stable living situations, for instance in transitional housing.

So far, four churches are part of the program: Our Redeemers Lutheran Church, Woodland Park Methodist Church, Crown Hill United Methodist and Lake City Christian. Each church provides parking spots, a bathroom or portable toilet and access to the church building when weather gets bad.

Program Manager Frank Scarabino said church parking lots are good places to park because they’re untouched by zoning laws, which restrict people from sleeping in residential driveways, for instance. What’s more, church parking lots often come with under-used buildings and sympathetic congregations.

“Our faith calls us to look after the homeless and the hungry,” said Kathy Olson, chair of the social justice committee at Woodland Park United Methodist church.

Access to a supportive community is valuable, said Jenni Lovell, a program case manager. She recounted the story of a congregation that helped buy school supplies for a single father and his 11-year old son.

Also, each church collects holiday wish lists from car campers every year before Christmas, Lovell said. Congregation members volunteer to shop for the wish lists and then present their gifts at a party.

The program is a good deal for churches too, Olson said. Car campers provide church members with friendship and greater awareness of social problems. They sometimes chip in with simple chores on the church grounds, like sweeping up leaves and pine needles.

With fewer day-to-day worries, Scarabino said, car campers in the Road to Housing program can focus on big steps, like finding jobs and apartments.

They get help from case managers at Compass Housing Alliance. Lovell, who has been a case manager for the program since it started, said she has helped homeless people buy car tabs and fix broken vehicles. And despite the scarcity of affordable units in Seattle, she has helped a remarkable number of people find stable housing: 22 people in 2012, 39 people in 2013 and 36 people so far in 2014.

“It’s not a drive-in, where all of a sudden they’re in housing,” Scarabino said. “It’s a lot of work.”

Case managers meet with car campers at least every other week, he said. Finding stable housing for them takes a lot of hustle and stacks of paperwork.

But it’s an urgent battle, Scarabino said. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that taxpayers pay about $40,000 a year for every unsheltered homeless person. That covers expenses like emergency room fees and parking ticket enforcement.

Where parking isn’t restricted to certain times of day, city law limits parking in one spot to 72 hours. RVs and large trucks can only park overnight in industrial areas. Those who disobey the laws are given tickets of up to $44. The so-called Scofflaw Ordinance means that cars with four parking tickets can be immobilized with a mechanical boot, and then towed and auctioned away if the tickets remain unpaid.

Many car campers also lack money to buy gas, fix broken-down cars and renew their car tabs. This can lead to hefty fines from the city.

Despite their many challenges, car campers often miss out on social services because they don’t fit the traditional definition of homelessness, Scarabino said. They don’t get services from shelters because they already have shelters, albeit small, often illegal shelters.

The Road to Housing program not only helps car campers meet their basic needs, but also helps them move toward permanent stability, Scarabino said.

Scarabino said Seattle’s homeless need both kinds of programs: those that take care of people’s immediate needs, and those that help them find more permanent solutions.

“Relief is bringing a hungry person food; development is teaching a person how to farm,” Scarabino said. “You need both.”