St. Anne’s Episcopal embraces Safe Car Camping Program
By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: March 7, 2016, 6:10 AM
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.