When Gerhard Bush-Tschosik found out that a site at Vancouver Mall would start offering free, protected 24-hour parking for people living in their vehicles, he showed up the night before to make sure he’d get a spot.
The 27-year-old Vancouver resident has been living in his van with his 1-year-old pit bull mix, Reece, for more than a year. But since the COVID-19 outbreak forced businesses and public facilities to close across the state, he’s been finding himself with fewer and fewer places to go.
He had parked at Walmart for a while, but the store is not open all night anymore, he said. He parked his van outside his old workplace for a little bit. There just aren’t many resources left. It’s hard to navigate an era of self-isolation, Bush-Tschosik said, even for a natural introvert like himself.
“It’s hard to find a spot to even go to the bathroom,” Bush-Tschosik said, speaking through a crack in the door of his van Thursday morning. Reece, wiggly and wagging, was trying to scramble over his lap and out of the van.
He was among the first people to register for the new safe-park program, being managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department at the mall. The free resource is designed for people who are trying to self-quarantine, but don’t have a place to go — those who live in their cars and just need a place to park them.
Another participant, who asked not to be named, said he became homeless in January when a rent hike made his apartment unaffordable. He’d just been settling into a routine when the coronavirus outbreak upended most of the resources he had started to rely upon.
“This just happened, and so now I have to learn how to do things. You can go on the web and find out how to live in your vehicle,” he said. “I haven’t taken a shower in, like, a month.”
A place to quarantine
City staff spent the morning cordoning off the area in the southwest corner of the complex’s parking lot with signs and rope; social distancing protocol means that cars need at least one vacant spot between them.
Three portable toilets had been shipped in earlier in the week, along with two hand-washing stations, a dumpster and a few extra garbage cans.
The site can accept 40 vehicles, including up to two recreational vehicles, on a first-come, first-served basis. Registration was held Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon and will continue today during the same window.
By the time registration closed on Thursday, 10 of the 40 slots had been filled.
Most of the occupants were familiar faces, said Dave Perlick, recreation manager for Vancouver Parks and Recreation — he recognized them as regulars at the Navigation Center, a local day shelter for people without homes. That facility has remained closed since March 19.
The mall, which also went dark on March 19, offered the space to the city for free for the duration of Gov. Jay Inslee’s shelter-in-place order, now extended through May 4.
“We really appreciate the Vancouver Mall,” Perlick said. “We’re committed to managing the site well.”
There are some limitations. There’s nowhere for people to shower or do their laundry. But these are unprecedented times, Perlick said, and the focus is on alleviating some of the most urgent gaps in resources.
“Let’s do this really well, and demonstrate that it meets the needs of folks,” he said.
Mall security officers will continue to monitor the site, as will staff from Phoenix Protective Corporation, the contractor that usually provides security at the Navigation Center. The Vancouver Police Department will also patrol more frequently, Perlick added.
He emphasized that this is not a place where people should expect to come and go. The whole point is to park and stay inside your vehicle. It’s a place to quarantine, just like a home would be.
“If you have somewhere else to be at night, we ask that you don’t participate in this program,” Perlick said.
People want to help
By 10:30 a.m. Thursday, three people had visited the site asking how they could help. Some offered food, and another donated a roll of pet waste bags, Perlick said.
Perlick said he understood the impulse. But he asked Samaritans to hold off on delivering goods and other aid directly to the parking site. His team is planning to coordinate with the Clark County Food Bank to find ways to safely provide food to the people sheltering-in-place.
“We know the community wants to help. We appreciate that,” Perlick said. “But we would ask anyone who’s interested in donations to contact Parks and Rec. Don’t just come down to the site, because we really want to make sure that we take social distancing seriously.”