A Willamette intern faced pushback trying to find places for homeless people to park overnight

Lorrie Walker and Pamela Watson, volunteers with The ARCHES Project, talk with homeless resident Doug Pendleton at Cascades Gateway Park in 2019. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

For the past month, Jared Garson has tried to find safe parking spaces for people living in their vehicles to sleep at night.

But he hasn’t had any takers.

He said he’s called about 15 businesses or nonprofits to ask if up to four vehicles could use their parking lots after hours to give people who are homeless and living out of a car or RV a consistent place to sleep each night.

“It’s just a lot of unwilling pushback I’ve experienced,” Garson said.

Garson is a junior at Willamette University and is working on the Safe Parking program with Councilor Chris Hoy through a school-sponsored internship that runs through December.

The idea behind the Safe Parking Network is to allow people a consistent place to park and sleep each night without fear of being told to leave by police or security and with trash cans and bathrooms. The city started looking into the idea last year after eyeing a similar program in Eugene.

Garson said hearing news about the statewide eviction moratorium ending, skyrocketing housing costs and the lack of affordable housing made him realize Oregon needed some help.

“It is in one of the toughest shapes homelessness wise,” he said.

Garson said families who were possibly evicted during the pandemic may have nowhere else to live but their cars.

People who live out of their vehicles often have different problems than those who sleep in tents, according to homeless services providers. They are often people who recently lost their residence but continue to hold a job.

The city is trying to increase the number of sites from 12 to 20 with space for about four vehicles at each. There are currently 68 people on a waiting list for the sites, according to a September sheltering update from Church at the Park.

He has a script when he calls potential places that might want to offer up their parking lots.

He tells them they won’t have to manage it, that will be through homeless service provider Church at the Park.

Church at the Park has liability insurance, screens campers and provides trash service and portable restrooms at no cost to hosts.

Cars are supposed be gone before employees arrive at work and arrive after they leave.

There are currently about a dozen churches who participate in the parking network.

Garson said his goal was to get more than just churches involved.

“There’s a lot of hesitancy to take on the responsibility. I don’t think business or organizations are going to feel comfortable opening up parking lots. If this trend continues and I’m not having any more success, the church component will be the final straw,” he said.

He was holding off calling churches in hopes that he’d be able to get others to bite.

Garson, who’s interning at the state Legislature next year, said the city’s solution to homelessness is limited in its scope, particularly when it comes to preventing homelessness.

He said the prevention piece has to come from the legislature by cutting the strings that are leading to homelessness like foster care and incarceration.

Hoy graduated from Willamette in 1987 and did an internship at the Oregon Senate for his senior project. He worked as a staff person for Sen. John Brenneman, R-Newport, and said he learned the mechanics of how bills become law.

“It was hugely impactful on me and my career,” he said. “I always thought about having an intern should I have the opportunity.”

Richard Ellis, a professor of politics, policy, law, and ethics at Willamette, reached out to Hoy about having Garson intern.

Hoy thought, “Heck yeah.”

He said civic engagement is important and everyone should know how the city works.

“This internship is going to arm Jared with some amazing skills for the rest of his life,” he said.

Hoy said the city’s mission has been to expand the number of sites it offers for overnight parking.

“Living in your car in one of our safe park sites is much better than just some random spot you find on the street somewhere,” he said.

Hoy said the city doesn’t have the capacity to dedicate a staff person to expanding safe parking sites and that it takes multiple conversations with an organization until they’re comfortable with the idea.

Hoy pointed to downtown Salem, saying the results are tangible when the city manages camping, like through safe parking or micro shelters.

Downtown right now, it’s not so bad, compared to how it’s been in the past,” he said.

Garson said anyone interested in learning more or hosting a safe parking site can contact him at [email protected]. He’s looking for sizable lots that aren’t in a neighborhood that could fit approximately four vehicles. 

Jared Garson. (Courtesy/ Jared Garson)

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected].

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