A Primer on Safe Parking Programs for People Experiencing Homelessness
Photo: Vancouver's Safe Parking Zone, provided courtesy of the City of Vancouver
Housing insecurity has become more pronounced recently across the state and nation for a variety of reasons (rising rents and the pandemic, to name a few). As a result, more people have been unable to afford stable housing and are living in temporary situations, like shelters and vehicles. Cities and counties are responding in a number of ways, including removing barriers for affordable housing, enacting tenant protections, and setting up safe places for people to park cars and recreational vehicles (RVs) that also double as a residence. While the end goal is permanent housing, temporary solutions like safe parking areas provide safety and connections to human and social services. This blog discusses the key elements of safe parking programs for people experiencing homelessness, including examples of programs that allow RVs.
What Is a Safe Parking Area?
Safe parking areas offer a temporary off-street option for individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness and using a car or RV as their primary residence. These lots provide people with a safe and stable place to park their vehicles where they access volunteers who can provide them with hot food and warm clothes, and on-site service providers who can link them to employment, housing, and medical services. As many cities and counties require vehicles parked on the street and elsewhere to move often, parking in sanctioned areas also alleviates this concern. Our Living in Vehicles: How Homestead Rights Affect Municipal Impounds blog discusses how “homestead rights” apply to vehicles used by their owners as residences.
Communities across the state and elsewhere have implemented safe parking programs but many of these don’t allow RVs. With a few modifications, however, these programs could be tailored to include RVs.
Below is an overview of the key elements of any program, including hosts and managers, services, siting, timeframes, and costs, along with suggestions specific to RVs.
Site hosts, managing agencies, and services
Safe parking areas are typically hosted on land owned by governmental entities, religious organizations, or nonprofits. Hosts or sponsors may also manage or operate the site, although in some cases other entities manage them (local governments and religious organizations typically partner with social service agencies).
In seeking a managing agency, hosts will want to consider the population served so that human and social services are tailored to guests’ needs. Residents of unsafe/unhealthy RVs need to be transitioned to other shelter immediately while functional RVs may just need some minor repairs or a new engine. The approach to services should be flexible enough to ensure a safe living environment and should consider the varied needs of all guests, from families with children to senior citizens. Some programs have an operations plan that includes all the details related to site management, maintenance, and services.
- Eugene's (OR) Safe Sleep Sites are managed by social service providers who are responsible for complying with rules and community agreements, responding to concerns, and coordinating logistics with the city and other program partners.
- Vancouver's (WA) Safe Parking Zone, which is located at C-TRAN’s Evergreen Transit Center, is one of the few local examples of safe parking programs that allow RVs. City staff manage this site with assistance from paid temporary staff, social service providers, and volunteers.
Zoning and site requirements
Some communities restrict safe parking areas to certain zoning districts and host types (e.g., religious organizations). Some also require public meetings and/or permit approval. One important note specific to religious organizations is that per state laws — RCW 35.21.915, (non-code cities), RCW 35A.21.360 (code cities) and RCW 36.01.290 (counties) — cities and counties may not enact an ordinance or regulation, or take any other action, that imposes conditions other than those necessary to protect public health and safety and that do not substantially burden the decisions or actions of religious organizations in hosting shelters on property they own or control.
Site considerations include access to power and water, facilities for grey or blackwater disposal, and proximity to transit and services. If access to a building with heat and air conditioning during adverse weather conditions is not available, vouchers can be made available for motels or other ways for people to stay safe.
- Bellingham allows safe parking areas for vehicles (not RVs) on sites owned by governmental entities, nonprofits, or religious organizations in all zones with a temporary shelter permit.
- Yakima allows religious organizations to provide safe parking areas in any zone, provided they first hold a public meeting. Restrooms must be provided either within a building or through the use of portable facilities. If RVs are hosted, provision must be made for proper disposal of waste.
Some programs only allow parking on certain days of the week or overnight. This may be due to competing uses (religious organizations with services a few days a week) or the population served (some cater only to employed individuals). Other programs set overall end dates for operation if a site is meant to be temporary.
- Everett regulates safe parking areas as part of its temporary encampment regulations and limits the duration to four consecutive months or six months during any calendar year.
- Los Angeles County's Temporary Vehicle Regulations, which are part of the county’s Interim and Supportive Housing Ordinance, include accessory overnight safe parking and temporary occupancy of RVs. Accessory uses can’t conflict with the hours of the primary use and are limited to operating between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. For temporary occupancy, there are no restrictions on hours; however, occupancy of the parked RVs must end within 30 days after the expiration of the shelter crisis.
- Through Mountain View's (CA) Safe Parking Program, private lot owners may agree to allow use of their lot by individuals living in their cars and RVs between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m., and county-operated lots may operate 24/7 during the COVID-19 emergency declaration.
Costs to operate safe parking areas are associated with facilities, site management, towing, and vouchers for gas, vehicle repairs, and motels (in case of adverse weather conditions). Sites that host RVs may incur additional towing costs due to their size. Funding can come from federal, state, and local public and private sources.
- Denver is accessing American Rescue Plan Act funding to support households experiencing homelessness living in their personal vehicles.
- Eugene provides funding for an Overnight Parking Program, operated by St. Vincent de Paul through a contract agreement. Funds are used to support staff, portable restrooms, and trash service. Safe parking area hosts that aren’t part of the St. Vincent program pay their own program costs.
- Seattle's 2022 Budget includes a safe parking program with social services that will serve about 25 cars and/or RVs. A limited RV safe parking program is already up and running through partnerships with the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and local churches.
- Staff who manage Vancouver’s Safe Parking Zone report that it can cost up to $7,000 to have an RV cleaned and towed that has been abandoned or is beyond repair. In some cases, towing companies won’t move an RV until it has been cleaned by a biohazard crew.
Conclusion and Resources
With a few modifications and additional funding, safe parking programs for vehicles can be expanded to include RVs. As cities and counties along the West Coast develop solutions to help their unhoused community members, they should consider safe parking as one part of a multifaceted approach.
For more information, see these MRSC resources:
- New Legislation on Temporary Homeless Encampments (2020) — Discusses changes to statutes that were made in 2020 to limit the ability of cities and counties to regulate encampments operated by religious organizations.
- City of Seattle v. Long: Vehicle Homestead Rights and Excessive Fines (2021) — Discusses the Washington Supreme Court ruling that expanded the circumstances under which an individual may bring an “excessive fines” challenge to a civil infraction under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
- Temporary Sheltering Options and Amenities for Unsheltered People — Includes policy examples, codes, and operations plans for shelter types, including temporary shelters.
Author’s note: I’d like to thank MRSC public policy intern Nick Fisher, and City of Vancouver staff Kerry Peck and Jamie Spinelli for their assistance in creating this blog.
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.