Donald Morehead took a bottle of 409, a household cleaning product, and went to work.
He saturated a bright orange rectangle affixed to the windshield of his recreational vehicle (RV), allowing the strong chemicals to dissolve the adhesive bond between the warning sticker and his “house on wheels.” Carefully, he peeled it back, doing his best to keep the notice whole.
The sticker — a warning to move his vehicle in accordance with Seattle’s 72-hour parking rule — would join a stack of others; he’d received nearly 30 such warnings, often after moving the RV and leaving to sell Real Change. They were all from the same officer, Morehead said.
“They know you’re already down on your luck and that you’re trying,” Morehead said. “But instead of giving you leeway, it’s like they follow you.”
Persistent encounters with police and parking enforcement are a reality of RV living. There’s also the suspicion of housed neighbors, the expense of holding already fragile vehicles together and the constant pursuit of necessities like a restroom and clean water. These are just a few considerations facing people experiencing homelessness who choose the shelter of a personal vehicle over sleeping rough, who prefer the privacy of an RV or a back seat to the crowded, sometimes triggering conditions of a shelter.
Vehicle residents now comprise the lion’s share of people considered unsheltered during the annual point-in-time count, a rough census of homeless people in King County. Despite this, there are no formal mechanisms for outreach to vehicle residents. Previous attempts, which were meant to provide a safe place to park, hygiene services and access to case management and housing, were closed due to cost.
The last remaining safe parking lot, available to only a limited number of people, is in SODO. It’s a dusty patch backed up against active railroad tracks with only a portable toilet as an amenity. According to The Seattle Times, at least one person has died in that lot waiting for housing.
Lacking specific services targeted to help people living in vehicles, Seattle spends its resources ticketing, towing and disposing of people’s homes. In 2017, Seattle spent $225,000 towing and destroying motorhomes, according to city records.
Although it’s impossible to determine exactly which of those vehicles were used as residences, there are clues available.
The oldest had vehicle identification numbers that predated the 1980s, when vehicle manufacturers standardized the identification codes; the newest was a 1999 model. The date of manufacture may seem like a detail, but many RV parks up and down the West Coast won’t allow rigs older than 10 years, suggesting that people who own RVs for recreational purposes, such as camping and family vacations, tend to have newer models. Older motorhomes are more likely to serve as a full-time residence.
So many RVs were getting towed in the past year that the city had to alter its contract with Lincoln Towing, creating a special addendum that capped the amount that the contractor could charge for the tow and disposal of an RV. The new cap is $2,000 — considerably more than the value of many of these vehicles, which can sometimes be bought at auction for less than $20.
The situation leaves Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett frustrated.
Kirlin-Hackett is one-third of the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, a group formed in 2011 after the City Council passed a bill that allowed parking enforcement to put boots on vehicles with too many unpaid tickets. Vehicle residences were particularly susceptible because of the high cost of car tabs and the fragility of older cars — there are many that can’t actually move. And yet, the law did not include a provision for people who couldn’t afford to repair their vehicles, renew their car tabs or pay the tickets.
Kirlin-Hackett and Jean Darsie, a volunteer with the team, lobbied for change. They forged bonds with the parking enforcement arm of the Seattle Police Department and members of the Municipal Court, creating a process by which they would get a call if a vehicle resident appeared to violate the law. The pair, later joined by Jennifer Adams, would then provide outreach. They would escort people to court to knock down the cost of a ticket, convert it into community service or start a payment plan.
Their work, which they have always done for free, has never been formalized by the city; the only lifeline for people living in vehicles could disappear if the wrong person retires.
“We are doing work that benefits the city,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “We have kept pushing every year for a rewriting of the scofflaw ordinance so that it makes allowance for indigency and for people living in their vehicles, and there is still nothing in it. And there’s nothing written anywhere else in the city of Seattle as a plan.”
All Home King County, the federally mandated body that is tasked with coordinating the response to homelessness in the county, also has no guidance around vehicle residency, and it remains an open question whether One Table, the newest attempt at a regional response to homelessness, will follow suit. The group will meet on July 31 for the first time since April.
Official action around vehicle residency may be in neutral, but in March, a legal challenge to the city’s practice hit fifth gear.
The case centered on Steven Long, a vehicle resident, who parked his truck on Poplar Place South, away from homes. Inside the truck were his tools of trade. The truck was impounded by police, who came on an unrelated camping issue, and Long faced $900 in tickets and fines.
A magistrate knocked that down to $547, but it was still too much for Long to pay. He was left without his tools, shelter and winter clothes until he could arrange a payment plan to get his home out of impound.
Columbia Legal Services took up the case, which they lost at the Hearing Examiner and Municipal Court levels. However, a Superior Court judge ruled in Long’s favor, saying that the excessive fines violated his constitutional rights and an old Washington law called the “homestead exemption,” which prohibits the government from seizing or selling a person’s home to pay off a debt.
Critics have suggested that the ruling will result in a headfirst dive down a slippery slope into parking anarchy, leaving the city unable to enforce its laws. That’s not the case, said Ann LoGerfo, the directing attorney with Columbia Legal Services’ Basic Human Needs Project.
“We’re not saying that everything is chaos and everyone has a right to do anything,” LoGerfo said. After all, the ruling doesn’t alter the city’s parking laws. Instead, it constrains the penalties that can be assessed when it means that government is holding a person’s home hostage and ensures that motorhome dwellers don’t get caught in a cycle of debt and loss. That, says LoGerfo, is the important part.
“Our country is built on how to be fair to people, how to treat people as equal. So when we have a person who has nothing and they’re living in a home — which looks to others as a truck, but is their home — and they’re bothering nobody … Why do we have to take every single thing away from them?”
If you would like to hear more from Donald Morehead, Bill Kirlin-Hackett and Ann LoGerfo in their own words, check out the first episode of Real Change’s new podcast, The Undercaste. It’s available on SoundCloud
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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