According to Heroes for the Homeless, a group that provides emergency services to those on the street, there are more people living out of their cars in Ballard than in any other neighborhood in Seattle. And it's not hard to see why.
Ballard combines the lax parking codes of an industrial neighborhood (many spots are free for up to 72 hours) with the amenities of one that's more residential (a food bank, library, and grocery store), making it especially attractive to those unfortunate enough to have to live out of their cars.
Those prime conditions, however, have also created controversy. One that's been building for years.In 2007, Representative Mary Lou Dickerson allocated $10,000 for a pilot program. That begat The Ballard Homes for All Coalition, a group of residents who then went looking for a place where those living in their cars could get cleaned up, and ultimately get the help needed to find themselves a home not on four wheels.
For the coalition, the obvious first choice was one of Ballard's many church parking lots. The lots, they figured, would be the most viable place for the program not only because the people who run churches tend to have a soft spot for those in need, but also because of The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which allows churches to use their property as they please, essentially freeing them from zoning restrictions.
In 2008, St. Luke's Episcopal Church agreed to let one homeless man park his car in its lot for six months, and gave him a key to access bathroom facilities in exchange for his signature on a waiver agreeing not to use drugs or alcohol. But St. Luke's chose not to extend its involvement in the program, leading to a new search and a new, more scrutinized look at the program from Ballard neighbors, many of whom didn't like what they saw.
In 2009 a forum was started in MyBallard's online blog titled, "Speak out against the proposed safe parking program," where informative updates about the safe-parking program discussions gave way to provocative rants. User "Bamber" spoke for many when he wrote "These homeless camps will further decline the neighborhood. It's certainly not easy to try to sell our home and move (and nor do I think that's the answer!) We have a responsibility to maintain the neighborhood we bought in to."
That particular thread died later that year. But a similar one began this past June, after Councilmember Mike O'Brien began talking about reviving the program. The "Councilmen and car campers" thread has become a place where anonymous residents can air their grievances about people living in their vehicles, with an expected ratio of one sane comment per equally unhinged NIMBY screed.
Sahar Fahti, an aide with in Councilmember O'Brien's office says that the program under consideration at Our Redeemer's Lutheran, the latest church to offer its parking lot, would include a social worker to help with job searches and permanent housing. It would allow those living in their cars access to a bathroom, dumpster, drinkable water, and electrical outlets, while also screening those who apply.
Proponents say the program isn't meant to draw more people living in their vehicles to Ballard, but stability for those currently there. They also say the number of cars allowed to park would stay minimal, and that the pilot program, if successful, could be implemented city-wide, so that no one area becomes too concentrated.
Yet Fahti and others understand that they're fighting an uphill battle, one represented by one of the last anonymous comments written on the thread: "If I had a tow truck I would fill their gas tanks with sand and tow them all to Medina," it says. "Where they go from there no one knows."