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People who can’t afford rent are living in their cars, and cities aren’t sure what to do about them

An increase in the number of the “vehicular homeless” gives governments a dilemma: Should they provide safe spaces for car living or enact policies to discourage the practice? While they ponder, faith groups have stepped in.

Micki Denis prepares the bed in the car she lives in at Lake Washington United Methodist Church’s parking lot in Kirkland, Wash., on Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. Denis, who recently moved to the area, says she has a part-time job and doesn’t make enough money to afford most apartment rents in the area. “They don’t offer full-time jobs to 65-year-olds,” she says. She hopes to return to travel in Europe, where she says she can live off her pension and Social Security. The church’s Safe Parking program, started in 2011, helps women and families who are living in their vehicles by providing a 24-hour place to park, as well as access to a kitchen, bathrooms and Wi-Fi at night.
Micki Denis prepares the bed in the car she lives in at Lake Washington United Methodist Church’s parking lot in Kirkland, Wash., on Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019.
Lindsey Wasson, for the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Micki Denis first moved to Seattle, she tried to find a studio apartment she could afford — nothing fancy, just a warm room for sleeping and a small kitchen so she could have her son over for dinner. Instead, the mother of five and grandmother of 14 is sleeping in her car, a 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser.

She is not alone. Each night, Denis shares a parking lot outside a Methodist church with as many as 50 cars, vans and trucks, some housing entire families. In the morning, kids spill out and go into the church to get ready for school.

But Denis — the 64-year-old cousin of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and sister of a Nevada state senator — wakes up each day in disbelief that this is her life now.

She lived in nice homes for decades, until her divorce in 2003. From 2005-07, she served a mission in Florida and El Salvador for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Just last summer, she traveled around Europe.

Coming from Utah, where despite rising rental costs Denis could live on a variety of part-time jobs — like being an interpreter for a school district and a cafeteria cashier at her church’s Salt Lake Temple — she was shocked by the Seattle-area housing market.

She found a part-time job to supplement a pension and Social Security, but it’s not enough. “I thought I could get something for about $700, a nice studio, but I can’t. I don’t know what’s going on here,” Denis said.

What’s going on is that low- to moderate-income Americans who don’t own their own homes are being hammered by skyrocketing rents, stagnant wages and a shortage of affordable housing. Applicants for subsidized housing face years on a waiting list. Those in need of emergency shelter find beds are often full while people sleep in the streets.

No state has an adequate supply of affordable rental housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which recently released a report that examined the increasing gap between wages and rent.

The coalition found that rental costs are rising faster than wages, and that, on average, a worker earning the federal minimum wage would have to work 103 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment. In some communities, it’s worse than that. In King County, where Denis now lives, a worker needs an income of more than $62,000 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, compared to $46,548 for all of Washington state, the report said.

This has driven Denis and thousands of other Americans to live in their vehicles, many of them from vulnerable groups like children and seniors. This solves one problem but creates others — like where to park at night and how to maintain hygiene. Cities and municipalities where they stay face unsavory choices. Should they accommodate the “vehicular homeless” with relaxed laws and safe parking lots, or try to legislate them away?

California is considering legislation that would require its largest cities to provide parking for people living in their vehicles. But in the meantime, faith groups and nonprofits are stepping up to help, even when neighbors say “not on my street.”

‘Completely unaffordable’

As darkness envelops the parking lot at Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, Denis prepares for another cold evening near Crissy Norton, a mother of three who has two vehicles in which to house her family.

Norton, who is 26, is here at the church’s “safe lot” with her common-law husband, Matt, and their girls, who are 6, 3 and 1. They sleep in two vehicles: a Honda they own and a Ford F-150 truck they borrowed from a friend. They also have a Volkswagen Jetta that doesn’t run, but is good for storing clothes, blankets and toys.

The family’s troubles began when Matt lost his job just before Christmas in 2017. “We struggled for a year to pay rent with odd jobs, but finding him one was tough. Last Christmas, we finally couldn’t do it and got evicted. We stayed with some friends in the winter, but come summer, we had to leave, and since then, it has been truck living,” Crissy Norton said.

The family’s struggles, however, have been a little easier thanks to a ministry of Lake Washington United Methodist Church, a 200-member congregation that decided in 2011 to put its often-empty parking lot to good use.

The church established a “Safe Parking” zone where people can sleep in their vehicles without fear of being harassed, interrogated or ordered to move. Volunteers come to the church early in the morning so school-aged children can come inside and get ready for school, and again in the evening, so “guests” can use bathroom facilities and the church’s kitchen and phone. The guests also have access to a refrigerator and Wi-Fi. They are welcome to join church activities but don’t have to do so.

Karina O’Malley, a church member and volunteer who oversees the program, said the church started small, with six parking spaces, but as the program has grown, they’ve had up to 50 vehicles parked overnight. The demand exists, she says, because rent prices in the county are “completely unaffordable.”

Moreover, the gap between wages and rent is expected to worsen in the coming years, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“The median-wage worker in eight of the nation’s 10 largest occupations, including retail salespersons, fast food workers, personal care aides, customer service representatives, and office clerks, do not earn enough to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home,” the coalition’s report says, adding, “The number of low-wage jobs is expected to grow significantly in the next 10 years.”

This means that many people like Denis, despite having a steady income and a job, either can’t afford to rent a place, or if they could, would have nothing left over for utilities and food.

And sleeping in a car is more appealing to some people than going to a homeless shelter. Some are uncomfortable with the stigma; others don’t want to abide by a shelter’s schedule or prefer the privacy of their car.

Moreover, deciding to live in a car provides people with few options a sense of autonomy.

“There’s a tiny minority who say I’m choosing to live in my car because that’s the only solution that works for me at this point. But most of these folks are desperately trying to get back into housing,” O’Malley, at Lake Washington UMC, said. “Folks don’t have a lot of great options, but there’s a sense of dignity that comes with saying what you’re doing is your choice.”

A painful secret

Denis, a native of Cuba who came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 5, had no experience renting for most of her life. From age 18 through 50, she had always lived in homes that she owned. Her five children, ages 33 to 45, are well off enough to help, but Denis doesn’t want to impose, which is why she hasn’t told them where she’s living been living since the middle of July. She said she figures she’ll need help when she is in her 70s or older and doesn’t want to tap that reservoir of goodwill while she’s still healthy and able to work.

“I haven’t asked my children for help. I haven’t told a soul,” she said, adding that even her brother, a Nevada state senator and former LDS bishop, doesn’t know. “I want to fix this problem on my own,” she said, her voice breaking.

Denis traveled Europe cheaply between April and October of last year, staying in hostels and LDS temple housing, and so when she returned to the U.S. for a grandchild’s baptism, she thought she could live equally well here while maintaining her mobility. But that hasn’t been the case, at least not in the Pacific Northwest.

“Even if I pay $1,100 (in rent), that leaves me with hardly anything for gas, for food, for insurance. And the housing that I could afford is in places that aren’t nice. I can’t do that. I’m safer here,” she said.

Denis is working as a cashier, so she has a place to go during the day. She has a membership at the YMCA, where she goes to swim, do yoga and shower, and she also spends time at the local library. At night, she stretches out on a foam mattress in the back of her Toyota and covers herself with a down comforter.

Since she’s a half-inch shy of 5 feet tall, sleeping in the car isn’t so bad, Denis said, except for when she needs to go to the bathroom at night. The church provides port-a-potties, but she doesn’t like to leave her car at night, especially now that it’s cold. (When it’s 32 degrees or colder, the church lets people sleep inside, but it hasn’t gotten that cold yet this fall.)

That said, she knows she has it better than some of her parking-lot neighbors. “There are women here who never leave their car,” she said.

What cities can do

At the other end of the spectrum is Bob Wells, founder of the Cheap RV Living website and its corresponding YouTube channel, which has 339,000 subscribers.

Wells, the author of “How to Live in a Car, Van or RV,” promotes what he calls “nomadic tribalism in a car, van or RV,” and his followers include people trying to get out of debt and those who embrace a minimalist lifestyle.

Because Wells is so well-known, he’s been approached by some government officials about how cities and towns can best address the challenges presented by vehicle dwellers, the most pressing of which is where they can park and where they can dispose of waste.

He urges cities to build a cooperative relationship with vehicle dwellers, provide parking and portable restroom facilities, and even a place where people can go to get temporary work. Such things would produce big results for a little money. “They’re going to have happier residents, and they’re not going to be dumping their tanks or sleeping outside people’s homes.”

But some cities are doubling down on enforcement to try to get the car dwellers to go elsewhere.

In July, police in Fort Collins, Colorado, issued tow notices and tickets to more than two dozen people camping in their cars, the Coloradoan reported. And San Diego has enacted a new “vehicle habitation ordinance” that prohibits people from sleeping in their cars near residences and schools. At the same time, however, the city has expanded a Safe Parking Program that it operates in conjunction with Jewish Family Service of San Diego.

Pamela C. Twiss, a professor at California University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “The Homelessness Industry, a Critique of U.S. Social Policy,” said she applauds cities and faith groups that are expanding safe parking.

“A car is obviously not a suitable home, but using a car for sheer survival shouldn’t be criminalized,” Twiss said. “People have to have ways to survive, and we don’t have enough shelter spaces for those who need emergency shelter.”

She also noted that there is a multiyear waiting list for subsidized housing in much of the the U.S. “We’re only serving about one-quarter of those who are eligible on an income-basis,” which means that three-quarters of people who qualify for government assistance won’t get it, Twiss said.

And there aren’t enough emergency shelters, either. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that there are 286,203 emergency shelter beds available for the 553,000 people who need them.

‘Not a solution’

Teresa Smith, founder and CEO of a San Diego nonprofit that helps the homeless, said groups that offer safe parking often are approached by people who are living in their cars happily but need a place to park for a few days.

“I can’t tell you how many calls we get from people who want to urban camp,” she said.

Smith’s organization, Dreams for Change, runs two safe-parking lots with a capacity of 30 to 35 vehicles, but they’re always full, and there’s a waiting list, so they can only accept people with the most urgent need, she said.

Also, Dreams for Change only accepts people who are actively looking for housing. “This is not a lifestyle for them; it’s a transition, and their goal is to move back into housing.”

Conversely, at Lake Washington United Methodist, the safe-parking lot is open to people to anyone living in a vehicle, whether or not they’re looking for housing. Crissy Norton, the mother of three, has been actively searching and just found out last week that she and her husband have qualified for traditional shelter. She hopes to be in apartment with her children within a few weeks.

Denis, however, remains uncertain of her plans. Unwilling to ask her family for help and reluctant to move from Seattle, she believes her car is her only option right now. Hers is a situation that an increasing number of seniors are facing, said Smith at Dreams for Change.

Smith said that 15-20% of the people living in their cars on Dreams for Change lots are 58 and older, and 20% are families with kids. And while most safe parking programs are on the West Coast, she said she has been contacted by people in North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Colorado about how they can start similar programs there.

“It’s clearly not just a California issue. The problem is growing, very much so,” Smith said, adding that safe-parking lots are “not a solution, by any means.”

“But they’re at least something that helps.”

And Denis and Norton said it’s been good to be surrounded by other people in the same situation, and they’ve made friends there. In fact, for other people contemplating turning their car into a residence, Norton says it’s critically important to have a community of support.

“Don’t do it alone,” she said. “Make friends. Never, ever let yourself be alone.”