The auctioneer’s call sounded out over the dusty gravel lot, packed with cars of indeterminate functionality and the people eager to bid on them. He pumped his practiced cadence through a microphone attached to a portable speaker situated in what appeared to be a former food truck, whose sketchy sprayed-on paint job gave the performance the respectability of a backyard fire sale.
“TWE-nty five dollars, can I hear $25?”
At that price, there were no takers for the 1979 GMC Honey motorhome sitting in the impound lot for a parking violation. Perhaps not surprising: The seat had been ripped out of the driver’s side, along with half of the left wall. Inside, flies buzzed over piles of materials that may have once constituted the interior.
Tchiago Cross raised a finger in the air.
Cross, currently experiencing homelessness himself, won that bid without a challenge. A man hanging with him, Chris, purchased two other motorhomes — one for himself and another for a friend who needs a roof — and a Jeep for a combined $425 plus taxes and a fee for the locksmith to forge a new key for the Jeep.
None of the three motorhomes functioned. One had no engine, the other was missing a battery and that GMC Honey had a blown head gasket, among other structural maladies. It’s possible that this was the reason each vehicle ended up in the impound lot in the first place: They could provide a person shelter, but not transportation.
But each was a home, two still full of personal possessions such as a set of acrylic paints in a wood box, a bottle half-full of prescription anti-inflammatories and a keychain with a photo of a kids’ baseball team and its coach.
Such is the reality for people living in their vehicles in Seattle: They must find a way to move at least every 72 hours or be subject to ticketing and towing. Once impounded, fees rack up quickly to the point that the original owner cannot afford to get the vehicle back, but a perfect stranger can purchase it for less than a week’s groceries.
Vehicle residents live in a gray area in the city of Seattle. On the one hand, they have more physical protection than a person living in a tent, and sometimes the ability to travel to their work or services. On the other, they don’t enjoy the same consideration from City Hall as a tent camper to get notice before being moved along or to have their personal possessions stored by the city for eventual reclamation.
Unlike city policy that requires storage of tent campers’ belongings in a warehouse after encampments are swept, vehicle residents get their whole lives taken from them and get charged for the privilege. If they can’t produce an ID, they won’t get their stuff back. If they can’t cover fees, they can’t retrieve their homes.
Instead their homes are sold at auction, where bidders can walk away with the vehicle for less than the accumulated impound fees.
Joseph Deets is all too familiar with the process.
Deets, who also goes by J. Bear, lived for a time in Camp Sanctuary, a unique encampment comprised of vehicle residents rather than tents. He was once the owner of a Mitsubishi Eclipse he’d purchased for $3,500. When he was arrested, the vehicle was left on the street and eventually towed. It sold at auction for $25, Deets said.
Deets figures he owes somewhere between $6,000 and $7,000 in fees for the Eclipse and other vehicles he’s owned intermittently over the years. His current vehicles were parked outside of the Washington Department of Transportation lot on which he and the other vehicle residents had congregated for the previous two weeks. For the moment, at least, they were safe.
The same couldn’t be said of the other vehicles on the property.
City officials and police arrived at Camp Sanctuary on June 1, the day of the “sweep.” They’d given the residents roughly two weeks’ notice after chasing dozens of vehicle residents out from under the West Seattle Bridge. That was time, an officer noted, that they had no obligation to give.
While cleanups of tent encampments fall under the auspices of the multi-departmental rules (MDARs) — which require notice before conducting a sweep, offers of services and storage — the same is not true for vehicle residents.
“We’re not required to adhere to the rules that apply to tent encampments,” an officer announced that morning.
There are no formal systems that serve vehicle residents.
People experiencing homelessness get connected with services through emergency shelters, day centers and outreach to homeless encampments. Vehicle residents, on the other hand, have to be willing to give up their most valuable possession to get the help they need.
Forcing people to sacrifice their shelter and identify as homeless for a chance to get into an apartment or other traditional form of housing is a tall order, said Graham Pruss, founder of WeCount and expert in vehicle residency.
“The vehicle becomes a barrier, in a sense,” Pruss said. He believes that deploying services differently so that people living in their cars can get the help they need without giving up their shelter would be better than asking them to lose everything first.
Attempts to find alternatives for folks living in their vehicles have failed. The city opened “safe lots” in which RVs could park, but they closed due to cost. The city identified “safe zones” that had fewer amenities, but only one now exists and it’s in SoDo, far from communities and services that people belong to and need.
Even if it was better placed, it hardly covers the need; 42 percent of folks found on the streets of Seattle during the count of the homeless conducted at the end of January were living in cars.
There have been efforts to help these people, championed in particular by Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien. But the longest-lasting supports have come from outside of Seattle City Hall.
Rex Hohlbein of Facing Homelessness raises money to help people with the petty issues that could lead to their vehicles being impounded, such as the inability to pay car tabs or tickets on cars that can’t move.
The Scofflaw Mitigation Team, a two-person army comprised of Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett and Jean Darsie, coordinate with parking enforcement and the courts to help people with mounting tickets to keep their homes and possessions out of the impound lot.
But their work is not formally recognized by the city. Parking enforcement often calls, but other city departments may not. The work is dependent on relationships with a few city officials who choose to help.
If one of those city contacts leaves, retires or is moved out of their position, “we’re written on the wind,” Kirlin-Hackett said.
There are things the city could do, such as offer up parking lots largely empty at night for the use of vehicle residents, Pruss said. At this point, they lack the will, he believes, because people conceive of being homeless in a tent and being housed in a shelter or other building.
“It blows my mind that there’s not more advocacy for the human rights and citizen rights of the 42 percent of people who occupy the streets of Seattle,” Pruss said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
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