St. Anne’s Episcopal embraces Safe Car Camping Program

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith



WASHOUGAL — Cory Soderberg said he used to be awakened in the middle of the night by a tap on his window or a flashlight shining into his Dodge Caravan.

“I’ve been chased out of everything 20 times, and all the cops know me by name,” said Soderberg, who’s been living in his van for nine months.

Now, the 52-year-old sleeps soundly, knowing he won’t be bothered in the parking lot of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Washougal. He’s one of nine people staying in cars and small mobile shelters at the church through the Safe Car Camping Program, which is still in its infancy in Clark County. St. Anne’s is the only church in the county allowing people to park vehicles overnight, at least in this formal capacity, though program organizers aim to expand the program to other willing congregations.

“It gives me a peace of mind and a stability where I’m not looking over my shoulder. I sleep better, and I’m not constantly on the run,” Soderberg said, adding that it helps his dignity. “People don’t get that it’s really hard to play this part for me. It makes other people uncomfortable a lot, but it’s a lot harder for me than it is for you to watch me.”

The Rev. Jessie Smith began hosting people, including a family of seven, a few days before Christmas; she had been contemplating allowing car camping since attending a workshop in the fall. Religious assemblies are able to use their land to provide a safe space for the homeless regardless of land-use laws because it’s seen as part of their religious mission.

The only real cost to St. Anne’s is renting a port-a-potty, which costs less than $100 monthly, Smith said. Volunteers unlock the church to let people use the kitchen and bathroom between 5 and 7 p.m. Car campers have to be out by 9 a.m. to give the church full use of the parking lot during the day.

Adam Kravitz, founder of Outsiders Inn, a resource advocacy group in Vancouver, spoke to the congregation about the need for this program, and Smith explained how it tied into the Episcopal faith.

“We follow Jesus, who was hospitable to people across every boundary that he could find,” Smith said. “This one small thing we can do to show love across boundaries is to share the gifts that we do have, which is this space, this land, this building.”

The church property has trees that offer some privacy, and it has fields on two sides. Renters at the house next door, which is owned by the church, were OK with having cars and shelters nearby.

It won’t always be so private, though. The field to the west is the proposed site of a three-story apartment complex.

Still, the car-camping program is intended to be a temporary solution to the larger issue of the lack of shelter space and affordable housing in Clark County. Previously, Kravitz and other homeless advocates had rallied around a plan to secure church land where they could build a village of tiny houses. Originally, Safe Harbor Church of the Nazarene in Vancouver offered up its empty field but backed out after threat of a lawsuit. Although Kravitz is still interested in the village, finding appropriate property has been difficult, and the coldest months of winter when it was needed most have come and gone, he said.

“We wanted to make that happen a lot sooner,” he said.

Fear of the unknown

Smith feels the weight and responsibility of using her executive powers to decide to host people in the parking lot. She understands why other churches may be hesitant to jump onboard. 

“I think the main fear is liability,” Smith said. “And, I think it’s fear of the unknown.”

Churches are able to shape the program to their comfort levels, whether that means serving just families, or just single women. Maybe it means not allowing pets or restricting the program to just cars, not RVs or camper trailers. Participants have to sign up, be vetted by calling the Council for the Homeless and abide by a code of conduct.

“No one is just stagnating in a parking lot,” Kravitz said. “We’re able to go to them and start talking about basic needs and start talking about assessments.”

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church decided not to host cars or RVs. The west Vancouver church allows six people living in four mobile huts to park under a carport on the church’s property. Back in November, when a few people were cited for illegally camping, the church said those people could stay in their parking lot without worry about getting ticketed.

Those living in the huts are able to take advantage of the church’s outreach programs during the week, where volunteers distribute food, bus tickets, clothing and blankets. The occupants have access to electrical outlets, and the church is working on extending the Wi-Fi zone as well, said church member Den Mark Wichar. They all have keyed access to a nearby outhouse. In return for these services, those living in the huts are expected to respect the campus and abide by its general standards (no smoking, no drinking, no fighting). 

One of the current occupants found an apartment, and other people have moved on to better situations since the church started letting the huts park there, Wichar said.

“It’s like a step toward a more permanent solution,” he said.

Kravitz said there are a handful of mobile huts for the homeless that have recently been built, but there’s no legal place to park them. So, he’s looking for interested churches to take them in.

Some churches don’t have the right setting to host people, but they can help out financially, Smith said. Although Camas Friends Church in downtown Camas doesn’t have the privacy that St. Anne’s has, the congregation donates to the car-camping program.

Uncertain numbers

Just how many people are living out of their cars in Clark County isn’t clear.

Of the 77 unsheltered homeless people who attended Project Homeless Connect at Vancouver’s St. Joseph Catholic Church two months ago, 24 of them — or 31 percent — said that they were living in their cars. That number is a severe under-representation, said Charlene Welch, spokeswoman for the Council for the Homeless. She said the homeless population is fluid and people living out of their cars are particularly difficult to track.

School districts, however, keep tabs on homeless families with students. Vancouver Public Schools knows of about 55 families living out of their cars. Battle Ground Public Schools has two families.

Peggy Carlson, homeless student liaison with Evergreen Public Schools, said 32 of the 850 students identified as homeless since the start of the school year were living out of cars.

“From night to night, it will change,” Carlson said.

Offering a consistent, safe place for people to park at night can get people going in the right direction, Kravitz said.

“People seem to thrive once they have a little bit of stability and support,” he said.

Mixed successes

Car-camping programs in other parts of the state have had mixed success.

The Road to Housing program at Seattle-based Compass Housing Alliance is in its third year, during which time the nonprofit has secured only 12 parking spaces for homeless people living out of their cars, said executive director Janet Pope.

“Churches certainly may be very willing, but it’s a long process,” Pope said. “You’re asking a church to be responsible for what happens on their lot for a good chunk of time, and that’s a big commitment.”

She said that Seattle has had more success converting city-owned parking lots into car-camping spaces. A lot owned by Seattle Public Utilities recently opened and there’s been talk of opening more.

“I think there’s a recognition that this isn’t a solution,” Pope said, adding that homelessness is rampant in Seattle, where the mayor declared it a state of emergency.

Near Seattle, Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland has spent the last few years tweaking its car-camping program, which hosts 25 to 30 people in the church parking lot. Five years ago, Karina O’Malley heard stories of people living in cars who were harassed, ticketed or getting their cars impounded. At the same time, shelters were full and turning people away.

“We looked at our parking lot and said they could park there. It was as simple as that,” said O’Malley, church member and volunteer coordinator for the car-camping program.

Over time, the primary mission of the church shifted toward helping the homeless.

St. Anne’s, too, has seen that change. The church is thinking about becoming a new host of the Winter Hospitality Overflow shelter program, which currently operates at two Vancouver churches, and Smith would like to eventually see a day shelter open in east Clark County.

“It’s a snowball effect. Once you start doing this work, it’s ‘Oh, there’s more need than we realize,’ ” she said.

 Link to original story posted in The Columbian here: