I never knew there was a hidden population of people in church parking lots across the country. Then I read a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about how some congregations were helping alleviate a crisis of homelessness on the West Coast.
It makes sense, actually. Most days a week, church parking lots are pretty much empty.
I thought the Chronicle’s story was unique until I did a search and found out that church parking lots-and-the-homeless have been covered quite a bit. KTVU, a local TV station, covered the same topic a month ago. Here's the Chronicle's piece:
Last year, Arnell Clark and his girlfriend, Mataele Robertson, moved their young family out of an East Palo Alto house because they could no longer afford the rent. The couple figured they’d get more room in a 34-foot recreational vehicle.
But the stigma hit hard. When they were renters, neighbors used to say hi. But in an RV on the street, “we’re invisible,” said 39-year-old Clark, a laid-off package handler. “It’s the unspoken that tells me how you feel.”
The solution: moving to a church parking lot. For months the couple have stationed their RV in the lots of local churches. They are currently on the East Palo Alto property of St. Samuel Church of God in Christ, an arrangement that Clark finds a blessing…
With no end in sight to soaring housing costs, several Bay Area faith organizations have become a sanctuary of sorts -- not just channeling donations and distributing food, but also offering a safe place for people living in cars or RVs. The arrangement has sometimes grated on neighbors, but for pastors, it’s simply an extension of their mission to serve humanity.
The newspaper offers a list of churches -– mainly in Silicon Valley -– that are letting either RVs or people sleeping in their cards take up space in their lots.
The "Safe Parking" sign that introduces this post is from Morgan Hill Bible Church that's well to the south of San Jose. Back to the feature itself:
It is unclear how many churches across the Bay Area provide spots for people living in vehicles. But the escalating housing crisis has prompted at least several to act. Leong, of Lord’s Grace Christian in Mountain View, has helped found a program called Lots of Love that is offering eight parking spaces in two parking lots in Mountain View churches for people who live in cars. St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Mountain View will provide three parking spaces, and the program is working to line up spots elsewhere too, including at Leong’s church. Leong said successful applicants will need to check in with a case manager, and he hopes to get some of the RV dwellers into permanent housing. Some people living in RVs are seniors and people with jobs, Leong said.
At the First Presbyterian Church of Hayward in Castro Valley, up to eight parking spots are available to people living in cars from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Occupants have to pass the church’s vetting process, and RVs are not accommodated.
Whoa, 6 a.m.? That’s a nasty time to have to be up and out of a lot. Even homeless shelters let you stay until 7 a.m., after which time many homeless have to wander about until public libraries open up.
The same story is up and down the West Coast. KUOW, a Seattle radio station, reported on it five years ago. Last year, the San Jose Mercury News reported on 16 churches that let people stay overnight in their parking lots. And the video at the top of this post is from KGW, a Portland TV station.
These stories aren't all fluff and roses. In 2016, the Seattle Times did a piece on a Methodist church in the one of the city’s eastern suburbs that opened its parking lot, and bathrooms, to homeless families, only to learn that helping the poor is a lot more complex and costly than it’s made out to be.
On July 19, the Seattle Times ran a fascinating piece about how the city’s Ballard neighborhood has seen its homeless denizens quadruple in the past year. Notice the church spotlighted in the opening paragraphs is St. Luke’s Episcopal. That’s the same parish made famous in the 1960s by the charismatic-renewal pioneer Dennis Bennett. A friend of mine drives at least an hour each way into Seattle twice a week to help cook at this church and he reports the crowds are immense.
I’m curious as to whether mosques, Hindu temples, synagogues and other houses of worship from different religions are letting the poor park on their lots. I can’t say I found any after a quick search, but there’s got to be some somewhere.
Homelessness and religion is a perennial story these days, especially out here on the Left Coast. If you're new to the religion beat, it's a great place to start.