EVERETT – Returning home from a seasonal job three days before Christmas, James Wlos discovered the RV he was living in had been towed from an Everett street. With his shelter hauled away, Wlos slept in a friend’s truck that night.
His vehicle’s registration had expired more than a month earlier, according to impound records obtained by the Herald. That’s a violation of city code for any vehicle on a public street.
Wlos, 50, said he had set aside some of his paycheck for holiday presents. Instead, that money was needed to retrieve his home from impound.
“If you impound a motor home, you just made a family homeless,” Wlos said.
As rents rise and incomes aren’t keeping pace, many people are turning to their vehicles for shelter, but a handful of parking tickets or expired car tabs can derail that arrangement. According to the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County, rents here jumped almost 30 percent between 2013 and 2016.
Shelters in Snohomish County provide about 475 year-round beds. Another 212 spaces are open during the cold weather months and 13 spaces are reserved as overflow.
That isn’t enough, data show. During a 2017 Point in Time tally, volunteers counted 1,066 people experiencing homelessness. Of those, 515 were camping or sleeping in cars.
To fill in some of the gaps, an Edmonds church provides a few spaces for people who are living in their vehicles to park for the night. And Everett might soon expand those options, as the city explores partnering with a faith-based organization to create another designated safe parking area.
Wlos, who walks with the aid of a cane due to a hernia, has been living outside for almost two decades. He works odd jobs around the region.
“There’s no social safety net to help those who fall behind to get off the streets,” Wlos said. “We should make housing a human right.”
When rents become too high to manage, some people say they would rather live in their vehicle than enter the shelter system. Factors include the separation of family members, sometimes based on gender, limits on the amount of belongings allowed or bans on pets.
Michele Dana, 64, prefers her vehicle because it offers more independence and privacy.
“People need a little place of their own. That’s why people don’t go to shelters,” she said.
For years, she said she parked overnight at a Trader Joe’s, but the constant fear she would get into trouble kept her from sleeping well. Snohomish County, along with many cities, prohibit camping on public land outside of designated campgrounds. The ban includes living in vehicles.
These days, in a parking lot behind the Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church, Dana is able to get a restful night’s sleep.
For two and half years, the Edmonds church has hosted what is believed to be the only safe parking program in the county, providing 10 spots to families and single women experiencing homelessness. Last summer, the church had 33 people, including 19 children staying in their lot.
“We see people who just can’t afford rents anymore,” said Pat Garrity, a program volunteers. “Even the low-income housing is too high.”
The lot is overseen by a dedicated volunteer team from the church. Volunteers run background checks on all guests before allowing them to park overnight at the church. The church provides a portable restroom and trash disposal for those folks.
“It’s a godsend. People can come here and not get hassled every night,” said Grant Gladow, another church volunteer.
The lot also provides refuge from parking tickets. Many cities, including Everett, require vehicles parked on city street to be moved every 72 hours or the owner risks a ticket. In Everett that ticket costs $20. The city will tow vehicles with four tickets if they have been unpaid for 45 days or more, according to Meghan Pembroke, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.
Wlos said he’s often contacted by parking enforcement and told to move his vehicle even before his engine has cooled – prior to him violating the city’s 72-hour rule. Last fall and winter, Wlos was cited eight times for parking in the same spot longer than allowed, according to public records.
“If you can’t park your vehicle on a city street, where can you go for the night?” he asked. “Every metropolitan should have a safe parking area, where people aren’t harassed.”
According to Pembroke, the city has offered Wlos outreach services, which he declined.
“As we would in any other case in which someone refuses our offer of services, and yet continues to generate complaints and violate traffic and parking laws, we will exercise our enforcement authority,” Pembroke wrote in an email.
Pembroke said the city is working with local organizations to expand shelter capacity and affordable housing. “It will require a broad community response to make sure that there is adequate affordable housing and shelter for everyone who needs it,” she said.
The city is willing to provide funds to a faith-based group interested in hosting a safe parking program. Pembroke said the process to find the right group will begin later this year.
Snohomish County has no plans to open a safe parking lot, according to human services director Mary Jane Brell-Vujovic.
Safe parking programs are often costly, she said, pointing to Seattle as an example. According to a Snohomish County report, Seattle was spending upward of $1,750 per vehicle per month for security, sanitation and garbage, and social services. The lot has since been dismantled.
Brell-Vujovic said the county is trying to balance the need to provide short-term services for people experiencing homelessness, while focusing as many resources as possible on long-term solutions.
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