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Safe Parking Programs: A Safe Place to Sleep in Your Car

Safe Parking Programs: A Safe Place to Sleep in Your Car

A King County Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month that the City of Seattle should not have impounded a vehicle that served as a residence for its owner. The judge ruled that the owner had homestead rights in the vehicle pursuant to chapter 6.13 RCW because it was his residence. 

While Seattle has said it will appeal, the decision illustrates a practical reality—there are a lot of homeless individuals living in vehicles and there is a shortage of places to legally park those vehicles. For example, the 2017 Seattle/King County Point-in-Time Count of Persons Experiencing Homelessness found that 2,314 people were living in cars, vans and RVs, which amounts to 20% of King County’s homeless population.

Safe parking programs—which are often sponsored by churches and other types of religious organizations—are one tool for providing relief to individuals living in vehicles. While safe parking programs are not a permanent solution, they can provide safety for individuals residing in vehicles and better access to support and social services.

This article explores the regulatory role of local government when a religious organization seeks to establish a safe parking program on its property.

What are Safe Parking Programs and how are they Regulated?

Safe parking programs allow individuals living in vehicles to park in off-street parking lots. Such programs are often provided by religious organizations as part of their efforts to minister to those in need. When a municipality receives a request to establish a safe parking program in its jurisdiction, it raises the question: to what extent should safe parking programs be regulated?

Regulation of safe parking programs raises concerns both about religious rights and the need to minimize impacts of such programs on the neighborhood. As a result, any requirements or conditions imposed should be necessary to protect public health and safety, and care should be taken to not unduly burden a religious organization’s ability to care for the homeless. 

Temporary Encampments Present a Useful Analogy

A starting point for analysis is the case of City of Woodinville v. Northshore United Church of Christ, 166 Wn.2d 633, 211 P.3d 406 (2009), which involved temporary homeless encampments on church property. 

A church applied for a temporary use permit for such an encampment. The City refused to process the permit because there was a moratorium in place in the zone in which the church was located. The court analyzed the City’s actions under Article I, Section 11 of the State Constitution, which provides broader protection of religious rights than the US Constitution. The court ruled that refusing to process the permit amounted to a substantial burden on the church’s religious rights for which there was no compelling government interest. 

The court drew a distinction between requiring a permit, and refusing to process an application. Requiring a permit with reasonable conditions related to public health and safety does not violate Article I, Section 11 of the State Constitution.

After Northshore was decided, the legislature adopted ESHB 1956, which created RCW 35.21.915, (non-code cities), RCW 35A.21.360 (code cities) and RCW 36.01.290 (counties) in 2011. These statutes (which are substantially similar) apply to “temporary encampments.” The statutes specify that any conditions imposed by cities and counties must be necessary to protect public health and safety and must not substantially burden the decisions or actions of a religious organization regarding the location of housing or shelter for homeless persons on property owned by the religious organization.

Legislative Intent Demonstrates Support for Working with Religious Organizations

Although the terms of these statutes do not directly apply to a permanent safe parking program, the statement of legislative intent in ESHB 1956 (section 1) suggests that legislative concern extends beyond temporary encampments:

The legislature finds that there are many homeless persons in our state that are in need of shelter and other services that are not being provided by the state and local governments. The legislature also finds that in many communities, religious organizations play an important role in providing needed services to the homeless, including the provision of shelter upon property owned by the religious organization. By providing such shelter, the religious institutions in our communities perform a valuable public service that, for many, offers a temporary, stop-gap solution to the larger social problem of increasing numbers of homeless persons. This act provides guidance to cities and counties in regulating homeless encampments within the community, but still leaves those entities with broad discretion to protect the health and safety of its citizens. It is the hope of this legislature that local governments and religious organizations can work together and utilize dispute resolution processes without the need for litigation.

Putting it all together, municipalities may regulate safe parking programs to the extent necessary to protect public health and safety. To the extent possible, a municipality should work with religious organizations to ensure that conditions imposed do not substantially interfere with religious exercise.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Oskar Rey

About Oskar Rey

Oskar Rey is an attorney with Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC. Prior to this he worked as a legal consultant at MRSC from 2016 to 2024. Oskar has practiced municipal law since 1995 and served as Assistant City Attorney for the City of Kirkland from 2005 to 2016, where he worked on a wide range of municipal topics, including land use, public records, and public works.