Program allows people to park overnight at five Clark County churches

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

Published:

 

To learn more

Visit goconnect.org/safepark

Need shelter or a place to stay in your car overnight? Call the Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677

Want to help Shannon Medlin and Thor Shreddington? Visit gofundme.com/helphomelesscouplefixtruck

Moving from Arizona to Vancouver seemed like a good idea. Shannon Medlin is a freelance software developer and her partner, who goes by his stage name Thor Shreddington, is a musician. They were struggling financially, so they seized the opportunity to live near the music and tech scenes in Portland and Seattle when a friend offered to sublet his apartment.

After the roommate situation went sour this summer — resulting in a protection order and eviction case that were both dismissed — the couple stayed at another friend’s house, and then began living out of their 1986 GMC Suburban. They had to decide where to park at night. Conventional wisdom suggested Wal-Mart parking lots were a safe bet, but the couple got kicked out, not knowing that they weren’t supposed to camp there.

“I was starting to get angry. I was like, ‘What happened? The road-weary traveler has nowhere to go and Motel 6 is like $75 now,'” said Shreddington, 31.

For a while they parked nightly at the Gee Creek rest area. Although open 24 hours a day, the state’s rest areas are meant for long-distance travelers making short stops. People can only stay for up to eight hours. It was a bit far from town anyway, and the Suburban is not safe to drive at freeway speeds, the couple said, with worn tires, bad wheels and assorted mechanical problems.

A place to park

Medlin said she finally Googled the right combination of words and came across GoConnect’s SafePark program that lets people park overnight in selected church parking lots in Clark County. They called the Housing Hotline managed by the Council for the Homeless and got set up at an east Vancouver church parking lot.

“It’s been definitely a relief to be in a place where I’m not worried whether it’s OK for us to be there. I don’t want to be against any city rules or anything like that,” said Medlin, 37.

People who park on any random street to sleep for the night could get harassed by passers-by or police. According to Vancouver city code, vehicles cannot be parked in the right-of-way for longer than 24 hours. Unauthorized vehicles can be towed, and, as of last year, owners fined $35.

SafePark participants are vetted and go through a background check before they’re given a parking permit. Which church lot they use depends on whether they’re a single woman or man, a couple or a family.

David Bilby heads GoConnect. He started the program in May. His clients agree to follow a code of conduct and work on an “action plan” for transitioning out of living in their cars. More than 200 people have been referred to the program so far. At its peak in August, there were 55 participants, and one location hosted 12 cars. Typically, sites host a handful of people at a time.

Bilby said he averages about four new participants weekly. There’s a wait list with about a dozen people on it.

The average stay is less than a month, though the parking permit lasts for 90 days. SafePark is a “stepping stone” to greater stability, not an end-all solution to homelessness, Bilby said.

“I get that a lot. ‘You’re not really helping people. They’re still homeless. What do you think you’re doing? Why don’t the churches just open up their buildings and let people in?’ Well, we’re doing what we can do,” Bilby said. “It’s a Biblical mandate to love our neighbor as ourself.”

There are five churches that host the program; four are in east Vancouver and one in the Vancouver Heights neighborhood opens today. Bilby asked that the participating churches not be identified.

A church that considered being part of the program, Laurelwood Baptist Church, got mixed reactions when they sent letters to nearby residents, according to a KGW-TV story. Neighbors were concerned about crime already occurring in the parking lot, so the church is working on that first, Bilby said. He pointed out that church parking lots can attract crime because they are often vacant.

“I think the part that is so good with this program is that it makes the parking lot safer,” Bilby said. “I think there’s so much that churches could gain by doing this, but they’re just so afraid.”

Sometimes church members and staff pray with people or bring food, or open up their houses for people to do laundry and shower.

Expansion plans

Bilby hopes to double the number of participating churches from five to 10 this year and have them be scattered throughout Clark County rather than clustered in east Vancouver.

He’s also put in grant requests to hire someone to do what he does, as well as a case manager who can provide more one-on-one attention and connect people to other programs, services and resources. In March, he plans to have a fundraiser where people spend a night in their car. Although it’s a fairly low-key concept, SafePark incurs costs such as utilities and renting portable toilets. Two churches sponsor sites.

Some people have moved on to permanent housing. A couple of men have gotten jobs at property management companies, positions that include a place to live. A 74-year-old woman parked in a church lot for a couple of weeks before she found a room to rent in a house. Another woman, a 39-year-old veteran, stayed in her car while she was sick. She got housing but later died.

“At least she was in a house. She wasn’t in her car,” Bilby said. “She was around friends and people that she trusted.”

One woman secured full-time employment while she was in the program. As her permit neared its expiration, Bilby gave her a motivational push to find a place to live.

“I think that’s the thing people don’t hear: ‘I believe in you. You can do this. You got this,'” he said.

Other people meet him and get the permit, but never show up to the parking lot. Bilby never hears from them again. He knows people are working through issues and that their lives are chaotic.

“There’s been times that I’ve left this parking lot and just cried just hearing the stories,” he said.

Medlin and Shreddington are staying in the parking lot until they can save up enough money to repair their Suburban.

“It’s good to see these things are available. I know we were freaking out for a while,” Medlin said.

They want to move to Nebraska, stopping in Arizona on the way. A gofundme account was set up to help pay for expenses.

In the meantime, the couple have adjusted to living out of their large SUV. They shower at Planet Fitness and wash clothes at a local laundromat. Whenever Medlin lands freelance jobs, she’ll hang out at the Cascade Park Community Library or Black Rock Coffee Bar.

Every night, as they drive to the church, they run the heater to trap some warmth inside. They lined the vehicle with two layers of insulation, which makes it warmer — not warm — on the coldest nights. (On a cold December night, the thermometer in their vehicle said it was 45 degrees inside when it was 23 degrees outside.)

By the light of a magnetic flashlight, they go through the tedious task of moving stuff from the back to the front, so they have room to sleep on the mattress they got free off Craigslist.

Then, they close their blackout curtains and try to get some rest.