Homeless Cars 2

Vehicles can often be the only form of shelter available for the homeless.

MOUNT VERNON — The Mount Vernon City Council passed an emergency ordinance Wednesday that allows for safe overnight parking for the homeless at churches in the city.

The passage of the ordinance came after a second public comment session that included residents concerned for neighborhood safety and those who advocate for safe options at night for the homeless.

The ordinance allows religious organizations to let up to 12 people in five cars park on their premises nightly from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Because it’s an emergency ordinance, it is effective immediately.

The council is required to hold a public hearing within 60 days, and the details of the ordinance can be tweaked before a permanent ordinance is put into place.

Within six months of passage of the emergency ordinance, the City Council can either let the ordinance lapse, extend it for another six months or pass a permanent ordinance.

No churches have yet expressed interest in participating in this safe parking program, said Councilwoman Mary Hudson.

Peter Donovan, project development manager with the city, said several state and federal court cases affirm the rights of churches to offer shelter to the homeless as part of their ministries.

Cities can’t ban such uses, but they are given the authority to set regulations, he said.

“If this council were to do nothing, they (churches) could house up to 100 people on their property,” said Councilman Mark Holst, speaking in support of the ordinance.

While churches in the city can seek to open encampments for up to 100 people under an ordinance passed last year, this would require extensive planning and a relatively lengthy and expensive permit process.

The process to comply with the safe parking ordinance is much easier. It is free for applicants and requires less oversight.

Like the council’s meeting on this topic two weeks ago, many residents called for the city to create a centralized homeless encampment on public property, rather then placing the homeless on church properties throughout the community.

At that meeting, Hulst asked city staff to research whether it would be legal to prohibit two safe parking sites within 1,000 feet of each other, or to restrict a church from having both a safe parking program and an temporary indoor homeless shelter.

Senior Planner Rebecca Lowell said Wednesday that she didn’t think either of these provisions would be legal.

However, she was able to update the ordinance to allow for children with families or emancipated minors to stay at safe parking sites.

— Reporter Brandon Stone: bstone@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH

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