During the last few years, Kirkland church members have turned their parking lot into a safe haven for the homeless.
Around 2010, Lake Washington United Methodist Church members offered their parking lot for homeless families who are forced to live in their cars.
Karina O’Malley, who helps run the program, said it first started when they kept hearing about homeless people struggling to locate a safe place to park their vehicles without also getting ticketed by the police. The church had previously hosted Tent City and she said it seemed like an opportunity to minister as well as serve people in the community.
At first, however, she said they struggled to find an effective way to get out the word. Contacting several agencies the church had an established relationship with, O’Malley said they had only a few people use the parking lot at a time, which was not as appealing.
“It would be dark and creepy and they would leave,” she said. “They wanted some place safer.”
The other problem, she said, was that although the homeless had a place to park their car, they felt isolated from others who they might see at normal shelters. In 2012, however, when a sizable group left Tent City the church leadership held an emergency meeting and ultimately invited them to stay at their building.
“The whole point of staying in Tent City is community,” she said. “You have people around you and feel safe. They wanted to stay together.”
Word quickly spread in Tent City and more people joined until their numbers grew to about 60. The sudden migration brought about quick changes, one of which was the church being open all day and night. The kitchen, which had previously been used mostly to make coffee, was used to cook meals for several dozen people.
“They felt a little uneasy, but you get to know them,” O’Malley said. “It’s a process of sharing what many people consider their second home.”
Eventually, many of them moved on to another location, but enough stayed for the church to create their safe parking program. O’Malley said while the homeless often struggle with issues such as mental illness or domestic violence, the biggest contributing factor is the lack of financial resources.
“If you have mental health, drug addiction, even domestic violence, all of those things really don’t make you homeless unless you don’t have enough money,” she said.
While the program has grown organically and is still informal, O’Malley said they have enough people consistently using the parking lot that they will be raising money early next year to provide showers and laundry machines.
Another unintended, but positive result of the program is the ability for the homeless to get connected with church members who can offer assistance, whether it be spiritual or financial.
“The great thing about a church hosting this is we have a congregation full of folks with lots of different talents,” O’Malley said. “They’ll come to the church and the volunteer will be a nurse and talk about their health issues, or a former teacher will help them get their kid into the school system. When you have a program which allows relationships to be built, that sort of wrap-around service does happen, even though we don’t intend to hire a case manager.”
At the moment, she said their numbers have dropped off, which tends to happen as the winter approaches. With 25 volunteers taking on two hour shifts at the parking lot, she said other members are doing what they can to help the homeless reestablish some stability in their lives.
“It’s just amazing, our congregants get to know the folks and they connect working in the garden or reading the same book,” she said. “We’ve got 200 people who have the opportunity to offer what they have.”