SEATTLE -- Andrew Whitehead would love to park his pickup truck with a camper overnight in a so-called safe lot in Seattle. He’s been living in his rig for the last year in the half, mainly on the streets of the SoDo industrial area.
"It will allow me to feel safe when my eyes are closed,” says Whitehead, who works part-time and has learned to keep his things hidden from view and locked up all the time.
He may soon get his wish to park in a safe lot, but city officials are reluctant to share where the lots could be.
The Department of Neighborhoods, working with the Human Services Department, are currently searching for publicly-owned parking lots that serve as safe lots for people living out of their vehicles. RV's are not included in the plan.
The plan was first proposed in 2018 and $250,000 was earmarked in the 2019-2020 budget to create a pilot program that would be administered by the city. During the 2018 Point-in-Time count, 51% of those considered homeless in Seattle were living out of vehicles, up from 40% in 2017.
While the Point-in-Time count is just an estimate on one night, the survey showed 2,279 vehicular residents in the city.
KOMO News filed a public disclosure request for emails related to internal discussions on the placements of the safe lots. We received redacted emails with potential site locations blacked out. Typically redactions involved sensitive or personal information, but the city felt it necessary to black out the potential locations.
We emailed a spokesperson for HSD and she emailed back saying it’s a work in progress.
If the safe lots are a positive development to help the homeless, we wondered why the city was being secretive about potential locations?
Using Seattle Fire Department fire call data associated with the redacted locations, we determined three potential locations being considered are in the Rainier Valley. They are in the vicinity of the Genesee Park, Pritchard Beach Park and the Amy Yee Tennis Center or Mt Baker Beach. A city spokesperson would not confirm or deny the locations.
A source within City Hall says Genesee park is receiving serious consideration.
The program is being modeled after safe lots run by other cities including San Diego and Santa Barbara. Churches in the greater Seattle and Bellevue areas have run safe lots for some time but not the City of Seattle.
New Beginnings in Santa Barbara has been operating the safe lots on behalf of that city for four years. There are 133 spaces in 23 lots owned by government, churches and non-profits where people can park overnight without the fear of being towed and harassed by police.
“They park during the day and they come back in the evening,” says New Beginnings Executive Director Christine Schwarz. “They are working during the day and going to school in an effort to improve their chances at getting job that help support them.”
The organization’s website boasts: "There have been no major incidents or damage to any of the participating lots or neighborhoods."
In 2016, the City of Seattle opened up safe lots for people living in RV’s. There were supposed to be temporary until the people assigned to stay there received housing. Eventually they closed due to problems of crime, drug use and neighborhood complaints. There’s only one left adjacent to the railroad tracks on Spokane Street with just 2 RVs remaining.
There’s no doubt, whereever a safe lot is proposed, controversy is expected to follow. The city has shown a track record of announcing the locations of tiny house villages to house the homeless without neighborhood input. Only after locations were announced did the city hold neighborhood informational meetings.
Some believe the city will do the same with safe lots.
“Children are here without parents, I’ve seen parents doing nefariously things in the car and children are watching them,” says Amy Thompson who walks her dog daily at Pritchard Beach.
At each of the potential locations, there are no camping signs and signs warning people not to keep valuables in their cars because of crime in the areas.
“I’ve seen everything in this park and I’m here for only about 20 minutes a day walking the dogs,” says Thompson.
Like many, she’s sympathetic to the plight of the homeless who need a place a stay.
“I think it’s hard, it’s a fine line because there are people in between financial situations and then there's people that choose to be out,” says Thompson. "I don't know if this neighborhood is really going to want a transient community coming and going at all hours; there's enough crime already.”
Whitehead knows the risks of designating a lot to overnight car camping, but he says it will provide some measure of assurance that the police will watching over the lot rather than making people move out.
“Being able to rest is tremendous, it is powerful," he said. "No rest, no work."