Joseph Mills and his girlfriend, Katy, were parked near the McDonald’s on Fourth Avenue South. As they cleaned out their red van, discarding trash bags and tidying, Katy looked up.
“Joe, I think they are coming over here,” she said.
Soon, Mills found himself persuading a police officer not to take his home away.
Mills and Katy had been living in a tent, but when she got pregnant, they decided to drop their savings on a van so she could have a sense of security at night. When they purchased it in May, they thought all it needed was a new battery, but they soon learned it had expired tabs and couldn’t pass an emissions test. Now, Mills must scrape together at least $150 to have an emissions specialist repair it before he can renew.
Vehicles parked on a public street with an expired registration of more than 45 days can be impounded. So Mills fought hard, showing them the paperwork from the failed test.
“They were going to take our van right then and there,” he said. “It took me tooth and nail to fight and say ‘We are doing everything we can to move forward, please don’t kick us down.’ I tried to be kind and use a pure Southern gentleman attitude.”
For vehicle residents, who make up a third of the unsheltered homeless population in King County, staying “street legal” is one of the biggest challenges. It requires money and resources they often don’t have.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s scofflaw ordinance says the city can place a yellow immobilizing boot on vehicles that have four or more parking tickets, then tow and impound if all overdue tickets, collection fees, interest and a $145 booting fee are not paid within 48 hours.
So the Scofflaw Mitigation Team (SMT), comprising volunteers Jean Darsie of the Ballard Community Taskforce on Homelessness and Hunger and Bill Kirlin-Hackett of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness (ITFH), works to intervene before someone is left on the streets.
But community advocates say relying on an all-volunteer fix for a policy that inherently harms a vulnerable population is not a fix at all. Besides the smt, no official city policy exists to mitigate harm from scofflaw and other regulations to vehicle residents.
“The Scofflaw Mitigation Team does an amazing job,” said Graham Pruss, a University of Washington doctoral student who has led research on vehicle residency for five years.
“But their efforts are a Band-Aid. The bigger question is why we need scofflaw mitigation in the first place.”
Mills and Katy also had to deal with a $47 ticket for expired tabs while parked along Airport Way, an orange sticker warning they had to move while parked on South Massachusetts and a time when Katy got pulled over while driving on expired tabs to find a restroom.
Mills doesn’t expect to have $150 anytime soon. He and Katy sell Real Change and are struggling to get by.
“If you park you are in trouble, and if you drive you are in trouble,” Mills said. “I’m terrified they are going to take this van away. She is a pregnant woman who needs these locked doors. At the point they come with a tow truck, I play activist and handcuff myself to that vehicle.”
A volunteer effort
For those with a private driveway, keeping vehicles up to date and avoiding citations is likely an inconvenience. For vehicle residents in poverty, it’s more often a vicious cycle. Parking on city streets day-in, day-out, is full of catch-22s.
Suspended or expired license? That can lead to arrest if one drives, but a rule that vehicles must be moved every 72 hours means one has to keep driving. Expired tabs? More than two unpaid tickets means you can’t renew them until you pay, but expired tabs can garner continual tickets. Broken-down car? Most vehicle residents can’t afford expensive repairs, but they can be towed or ticketed for noncompliance with the 72-hour rule.
Once tickets enter collections, interest and fees abound. Racking up four tickets doesn’t take long.
“I’ve met people who have 20 or 30 expired tabs tickets and maybe two of some other kind,” Darsie said. “After a certain point, people just give up. They can’t pay anyway, so they keep running away and trying to avoid the law.”
When the scofflaw ordinance passed in 2011, community advocates grew concerned it would hit Seattle’s vehicle residents the hardest.
“What it caught in the dragnet was all the people living in their vehicles who had no way of paying the stuff — people who have been next to the same railroad tracks in sodo for more than three days,” said Frank Scarabino, program manager of Road to Housing (R2H), a city program to help vehicle residents get housing (“The Long Road Home,” RC, July 28).
Today, parking enforcement officials who believe someone is living in their vehicle now send notices to the smt as well as R2H.
Kirlin-Hackett said he gets five to 10 notices each week. He and Darsie check the vehicle’s ticket status, then hit the streets to locate the owners and strategize, even accompanying some to court or the Department of Licensing. What they can do depends on funding. When they first began, United Way made a $5,000 contribution and they raised thousands more, but they burned through that and went essentially unfunded from spring 2014 to spring of this year.
A 67-year-old Vietnam vet named Michael who lives in a Pace Arrow in Ballard said he’s got it all: expired driver’s license, a vehicle in the same spot with a flat tire for weeks and numerous tickets for more than $40 that are all in collections gaining interest. Unable to work, he says his rv is the best option.
“There’s nothing worse than seeing people my age living in sleeping bags on the street,” he said, leaning out the door.
When it breaks down
Sola Plumacher, of the city’s human services department (HSD) said those who receive outreach are rarely towed.
That success largely depends on relationships forged with parking enforcement and the Seattle Municipal Court (SMC). Outreach workers praised both, saying they have worked collaboratively to reduce harm to vehicle residents.
“A lot of these decisions don’t have a tone of discretion,” said Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who championed the creation of R2H. “But where there is discretion, they are using it to say ‘Let’s not be part of the problem here.’”
But harm mitigation that rests solely on the goodwill of people on the ground is precarious.
“The problem with that is it’s very personality driven,” O’Brien added. “So when someone leaves a position and someone new comes in, if they haven’t been brought up to speed on how we treat vehicle residents, they just look at the manual and say ‘Oh, I take out a car that’s been there more than 72 hours.’”
When the current safety net does break down, it’s hard to know whether it is simply an oversight or whether it is an intentional change in approach from leadership.
Community advocates say there was a great deal of collaboration around vehicle residency under Mayor Mike McGinn. They have seen that lessen under the administration of Mayor Ed Murray. Darsie said that after the transition they had to rebuild understandings and relationships that had fallen by the wayside.
Murray’s office did not respond to several requests for comment, but many are hoping Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas’ recent request for a review of the city’s vehicle residency policies is a sign of progress. The report was originally slated for the end of June, but it has not yet been released.
When it comes to parking enforcement — often the first point-of-contact for vehicle residents — several community advocates said they were under the impression that officials who once considered it part of their role to mitigate harm to vehicle residents had been told it was no longer a priority.
Asked if there has been a shift in parking enforcement’s approach to vehicle residents, Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief Perry Tarrant said he would still expect them to address someone in need of services.
“If parking enforcement comes across someone who they determine to be homeless or in need of services, they still have the materials to distribute and the mechanisms to call outreach services, so there’s no deviation there,” Tarrant said. “But as far as having an ongoing, continuous or specific role, it’s never been a primary role of parking enforcement to address people living in their cars.”
Kirlin-Hackett said vehicle residents have been towed with no outreach notice sent. He’s been on more than one trip to Lincoln Towing, and though the smt sometimes can get the tow costs or boot placement reversed, harm has already been done if someone sleeps on the street.
Mills and Katy were unaware of the smt and said they were not connected to it through law enforcement. The officer who pulled them over gave them 30 days to get another emissions test. Mills said he wouldn’t expect that blessing from everyone.
A sign of the problem
Many point to the red-and-white “No Parking 2 – 5 a.m.” signs on West Commodore Way and 20th Avenue West in the Interbay area as a prime example of what happens when unofficial policies break down.
In the past, Pruss said, neighbors and businesses concerned about illegal activity successfully lobbied to have such signs installed to disperse campers or even took matters into their own hands by installing counterfeit ones (“Sign of the Times,” RC, Aug. 14, 2013).
Pruss’ research was instrumental in highlighting how these signs resulted in more concentrated areas of vehicle residents, exacerbating the situation in a city where there are few places they can go.
Recognizing that, a moratorium against putting up more signs was placed. So when several went up in Interbay last spring, displacing about 20 vehicle residents, outreach staff who had been working with them were shocked.
“People were beside themselves when that went up,” Scarabino said. “The stress levels in that community skyrocketed — there are just fewer and fewer places to go.”
Seattle Department of Transportation (sdot) spokesperson Marybeth Turner said the signs were installed at the request of SPD.
“SDOT does not have plans to install any new ‘No Parking 2 – 5 a.m.’ signs unless requested by the Seattle Police Department due to an identified public safety concern,” she said.
O’Brien said it was unclear to him whether the signs were put up in defiance of the moratorium, whether the moratorium had been lifted or whether it was a miscommunication.
He said community concerns about noise, garbage, human waste and illegal activity are legitimate, but sweeping out an entire block of vehicle residents is not the answer.
“If someone is leaving needles on the street, your job is to figure out who it is,” O’Brien said. “If these people were living in houses, you wouldn’t clear the whole block. You would find out which house is the problem and address it strategically. People in their vehicles need to be treated the same: not as ‘them;’ not as a ‘they’ who are causing all the problems.”
Those vehicles, outreach workers said, simply moved to surrounding areas, where the cycle of neighbor complaints and enforcement will likely begin again.
“You can’t enforce your way out of this problem,” Scarabino said.
Call it a giant Band-Aid
Kirlin-Hackett and Darsie said they want to see an intentional plan from the city, including an amendment to the Scofflaw ordinance that recognizes an alternative path of enforcement for vehicle residents, the removal of “No Parking 2 – 5 a.m.” signs and a law enforcement policy that does not use parking ordinances to respond to illegal activity.
O’Brien said amended language is on the table, but that it presents a legal challenge in how to differentiate between vehicle residents and someone who has left their car on the street too long. He said he is waiting for the release of the city report before he explores changes.
“It may be that we are going to see some language that essentially codifies some of the good behavior that has been happening in the city, and if not, I’m certainly interested in figuring out how we can do that,” he said.
Plumacher of HSD said it is clear there is a gap in how unpaid parking tickets are mitigated for people experiencing homelessness. The city is not currently funded for scofflaw mitigation work and is not allowed to pay for parking fines, leaving much of the burden to the court, she said.
For now, Darsie and Kirlin-Hackett said, they do the work out of necessity.
“Right now, this only works because of a bunch of volunteers who care,” Darsie said. “Maybe we can be blamed that there isn’t a city policy, for taking the load off. Maybe we should have let more people lose their vehicles. But we weren’t willing to do that.”
Kirlin-Hackett said he is tired of waiting for something to change.
“We are still in this limbo of not being sure what the city is going to do and how long it’s going to take them to talk about it,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “In the meantime, every day people are at risk.”
The ultimate vision is safe, off-street parking spots where vehicle residents are not at risk for tickets, but no one knows if and when that might happen. Though R2H provides safe parking in church lots, there are currently only 12 spaces available.
“My position has always been that we need to find a place where these folks can park and direct them to that spot,” O’Brien said. “And if all those spots are full, and I’m going to say ‘You can’t park here, but I can’t tell you where to go,’ then I don’t feel justified in giving that person a ticket when they don’t have choices.”
Mills and Katy — and their red van — are long gone by now, living in Florida with a job for Mills detailing boats if everything went as planned. Their time in Seattle was largely marked by the constant fear of losing the shelter they had.
Sometimes, Mills imagined getting on a podium to tell his story, even just for five minutes. If he did, he said, he would tell the city its policies are all wrong.
This story is the third of a three-part series on vehicle residents in Seattle. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.