Mayor Ed Murray issued an emergency order Jan. 19 accelerating efforts to create two “safe lots” for people living in cars or RVs. The two lots will now be set up by the end of February in Ballard and near West Marginal Way in West Seattle. The lots will hold up to 50 vehicles together, according to the mayor’s estimate.
In the interim, the order also established three “no-tow” zones in Ballard, Interbay and SoDo. Vehicle residents in the “no-tow” zones will be allowed to park without having to move every 72 hours and will have access to trash collection and bathrooms.
Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness (ITFH) and a longtime advocate for people living in vehicles, lauded the order as “a great start” but worried that it left a lot unexplained.
“I think the problem with the mayor’s office is announcing things before they’re ready to tell you how it’s going to work,” he said. “It’s like starting from scratch.”
Kirlin-Hackett noted that the 30-day timeline was a short one and that the order had no specific plans about how to implement the camps, especially in terms of a code of conduct.
“It just becomes a people management issue,” he said. “It’s more than one person per vehicle. When that many people get that close in and their lives are in trauma, it takes a pretty good code of conduct and oversight for everybody to stay on the same page and safe.”
However, the Seattle City Council, led by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, amended the order on Jan. 21 to include requirements for a code of conduct and other details. The amended order included a set lifetime for the lots — six months with a possible six-month extension — and required the city to provide sanitation, electricity and potable water to campers. It also outlined broader requirements for site management and outreach services planning.
The 2015 One Night Count found 776 people living in vehicles in Seattle, a 53 percent increase from 2011. Car campers are the largest single sector of homelessness tallied in the One Night Count, ahead of people living in tents or other structures. Some advocates are worried that the safe lots don’t have enough capacity. Kirlin-Hackett, surprisingly, was more concerned with how the camps will be managed than with how many they can hold.
“Safety needs to be the No. 1 concern, not numbers,” he said, noting it would take a lot more time and work to move a significant amount of RVs off the street. He would prefer that the city help vehicle residents avoid getting ticketed and towed and provide them outreach and services where they are.
In 2011, Seattle tightened its enforcement of parking tickets. The city puts a locked boot on the wheel of a car that has three or more unpaid parking tickets. It’s meant to clamp down on people who avoid paying their tickets — the city calls them “scofflaws” — but often the process involves locking and impounding the cars of homeless people. Jean Darsi of the Ballard Task Force on Homelessness and Kirlin-Hackett have been supporting homeless people who are swept up in the scofflaw program ever since.
“The problem is, it’s not a formal program,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “It’s two people, me and Jean Darsi, who are volunteering to plug the hole in the city’s scofflaw mitigation. They should actually be paying us for the work we’re doing. We’re doing it because they won’t do it.”
The ITFH sent councilmembers a letter with a list of policy recommendations after the initial announcement of the mayor’s emergency order. In addition to the code of conduct for the new camps, the letter asked for more assistance for vehicle residents still on the street, including a moratorium on the 72-hour parking limit for non-retail and residential areas.
Also included in the policy recommendations was something for the neighborhood activists who are complaining about vehicle residents.
“I’ve heard the ‘Breaking Bad’ mobile meth lab thing more times in the last few weeks than I ever want to hear it,” Kirlin-Hackett said, responding to criticism from neighborhood activists about drugs and trash. Instead of complaining, he said, he wants to involve people by creating an “adopt-a-block” program to, as he puts it, “replace the taking of pictures of trash to post on public media with actually picking up the trash.”