Chanel has a dream.
The young, White woman has been part of the vehicle resident scene in Seattle for many years. She was there for Bangarang Village, a protest park-in at Interbay that took root for a few months in 2015 before authorities intervened. She was there in 2017 when vehicle residents set up a protest encampment in a space in the industrial area that once housed Nickelsville.
Now, Chanel wants her own.
“If I could start the Trailer Trash Park...” she said, trailing off.
Chanel and her fellow vehicle residents are tired of being moved around. Many live in old recreational vehicles (RVs) that are intermittently operational. They congregate where they can legally park, in areas like SODO and Ballard, and try to avoid confrontations with law enforcement.
Sometimes, however, it’s unavoidable.
Jim, 65, lives in an RV with his sick partner who can’t move the vehicle on her own. Jim himself broke his neck 15 years ago and mostly recovered, but other injuries have left him with scar tissue in his hand that makes it so he can barely clench it. He calls it the “claw hand.”
Jim is, in effect, an unpaid caretaker, bringing his partner soft ice cream and making sure there is lots of water available in their home — everything the two of them need. But gas is expensive, and the 32-foot RV they live in needs a lot of it. Jim lives in fear that he’ll run out in the middle of an intersection, or that he won’t have enough to start the vehicle when the police come and tell him to move along.
“It would be nice if there was someplace to go,” Jim said.
The city has a poor history trying to make places for vehicle residents, who at least have a roof over their heads, to stay safely. It’s even worse for people living in RVs, who cannot take advantage of the safe parking program at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, a congregation that also served as a home for vehicle residents back in 2012.
There have been attempts. The 2012 church lot was won through a grant from the Department of Neighborhoods, just after the City Council passed the “Scofflaw ordinance,” a law that required parking enforcement to put a boot on a vehicle with four or more unpaid parking tickets.
A year later, the partnership with faith-based organizations, called Road to Housing, was established. It accommodated 52 vehicle residents, and 34 moved to “a more stable” living environment such as a motel or transitional or permanent housing.
As of the last King County point-in-time count in January, there were an estimated 2,147 people living in their vehicles in King County.
Another program was set up at the former Yankee Diner parking lot in Interbay. It was shut down relatively quickly in 2016 as costs escalated. Twenty-four-hour security, fencing and other precautions priced out at $35,000 per month on top of roughly $25,000 in set-up costs to help 20 vehicle residents, according to SeattlePI.
After that, the city’s response to vehicle residents, particularly those in RVs or other large vehicles that are harder to accommodate, was essentially to move them along.
Even finding a parking spot got harder. Areas were plastered with prohibitions against parking between 2 and 5 a.m., and even places that were once relatively open to vehicle residents, such as SODO, have been dotted with giant blocks of concrete meant to deter parking. This combination of tactics has forced more people into a dwindling number of legal spots.
That lack of legality causes already poor people to spend much of their time and resources trying to comply with laws or get their homes back when they’re on the wrong end of a tow truck, a result that seems increasingly likely as the city has begun cracking down on vehicle residents.
Mayor Jenny Durkan advanced legislation against “vehicle ranching,” the vanishingly rare practice of renting out dilapidated RVs to poor people, which between four and 10 people engage in citywide, according to Seattle Times reporting and expert estimates.
Durkan also proposed a crackdown on “hazardous” vehicles, a way of ensuring that the RVs and other kinds of cars are junked rather than towed to an auction lot and returned to the streets. Such vehicles could have “an accumulation of junk, debris or combustible materials,” according to the Mayor’s Office.
That describes a lot of RVs, and the crackdown makes vehicle residents nervous. Efforts to make them “move along” have gotten worse over the years, several said.
One woman, J.C., decided to give up the vehicle residency life after her home was taken too many times. Now she and her two little dogs, Toffee and JoJo, live in a tent.
“It’s easier to replace a tent when you’re swept than being battered down,” she said, matter of factly.
That leaves one solution, from what they figure.
“I’m landless, not homeless,” said Owen, a 30-something whose head was mostly shaved with individual locks of hair in place. “I need somewhere to park.”
That’s a common refrain, said Graham Pruss, a researcher who focuses on vehicle residency.
Pruss documented the rise and fall of Bangarang Village, the vehicle encampment in Interbay founded by people who were young and homeless during the Occupy movement. That experience taught them the revolutionary politics of simply taking up space to make their message heard, Pruss said.
“Every time they were given a microphone, they said, ‘Stop moving us around. We just want a place to be.’”
“It felt like the rise of the new thing, of people doing this insurgent home ownership,” Pruss continued. “‘We’re tired of being pushed around—we want a home. You won’t let us be.’”
It’s the same message Chanel has for what she hopes will become the Trailer Trash Park: A space that RV dwellers can call home, where they can pay rent, access utilities and generally be treated like any other renter.
“It would be nice to put the energy spent on the 72-hour stuff into something else,” she said. “It’s really just coming up with the property.”
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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