A small confab gathered outside a trailer parked on a road adjacent to Green Lake Park on a cloudy Sunday. A red sign in the window read, “No trespassing, we’re tired of hiding the bodies.”
It was at odds with the overall demeanor of Beau LaBreche, the owner and resident who stood in front of the door, talking about the many things he’d learned watching the news on YouTube.
LaBreche proves that it is possible to find accurate information on YouTube, if you try. He knew, for instance, that the City Council had approved $194 million for affordable housing and the ins and outs of national politics. He has a job, but can’t afford housing. In the words of Jimmy McMillan, the rents are too damn high.
The area around Green Lake was a haven for vehicle residents and campers alike for the better part of a year. It wasn’t perfect — trash had accumulated outside of a number of the rigs and tents, and residents complained of rodents. But for a time, the city left well enough alone, giving the people who lived there some level of security, despite a proliferation of orange stickers indicating that the RVs had overstayed their welcome.
That would change. On a Monday morning, city vehicles and a tow truck came to remove tents and vehicles alike.
LaBreche and others left in advance — the day before, people had been hurrying to do emergency repairs in an attempt to get their homes out before the sweep came.
And they are homes. A summertime decision by the Washington Supreme Court called Steven Long v. the City of Seattle found that not only did vehicle residences fit under the state’s Homestead Act — a law that protects a person’s home from being sold to cover debts — but that fines and fees levied against a person for parking violations must be assessed according to their ability to pay.
Long lived in his truck, which was parked illegally in the International District when it was towed, along with the tools that he used to make a living. Long was left homeless and sleeping on the ground. He could not afford the more than $500 in fines and fees to get his vehicle back.
What set Long apart was not his circumstance — nearly half of the unsheltered population in Seattle live in their vehicles. It was the fact that he managed to get an attorney in time to dispute the towing fees.
“Mr. Long is so unusual in the sense that he found his way to lawyers before the 15 days was up,” said Jim Lobsenz, an attorney with Carney Badley Spellman who worked as co-counsel with Columbia Legal Services on the Long case, in August.
The attorneys had been looking for a way to challenge the 72-hour parking rule, which allows vehicles to be impounded if they are parked in the same place for more than three days. This wasn’t that case, ultimately, but it did make waves in Washington, changing the way that cities needed to deal with towing vehicle residences. Advocates say that hasn’t necessarily been followed, especially outside of Seattle — outreach teams receive calls saying that vehicles are being towed “at the drop of a feather” in other towns.
Lobsenz has since cited the Long case in a new filing, Penny Pannek v. the City of Seattle, a case in which a vehicle resident was towed, allegedly without warning, and her vehicle sold at auction with all of her possessions contained within. She and her two dogs were left homeless as a result.
That case is still ongoing.
LaBreche had heard of the Long case, although it didn’t prevent the sweep that Monday morning. The previous Sunday, in front of his rig, he, Johan Tessensohn and Real Change vendor Neal Lampi talked through potential solutions to the homelessness crisis and the vehicle residency situation in particular.
Tessensohn is a believer in tiny house villages. He thinks that the city could have set up a village nearby the Green Lake encampment. LaBreche isn’t a fan of tiny house villages, instead thinking that money could be better spent. Lampi wants a space that vehicle residents can call their own with the necessary hookups, electrification and resources for RVs.
It’s a good idea, said Bill Kirlin-Hackett, one of the founders of the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, now known as the Vehicle Residency Outreach program. The Scofflaw Mitigation Team was created to help vehicle residents who had acquired several tickets to avoid getting booted. For a long time, they were an ad hoc group, one of the few that worked directly with vehicle residents. They’ve only recently received funding from the city, funds that were cut from the mayor’s proposed 2022 budget but restored by the City Council.
Vehicles can be better than tents, but they’re still cold — Seattle saw snow and below-freezing temperatures for the week around Christmas. Sometimes, vehicle residents try to warm themselves by lighting grills or other heat sources inside their vehicles, which can lead to fires.
“The extent of the problems are just nightmarish,” Kirlin-Hackett said.
And residences are still subject to usual parking rules. No current tabs? The city can take your vehicle. Decide it isn’t occupied? The city can take your vehicle.
The 72-hour parking rule was suspended, initially, during the pandemic but put back into effect in October. So far, no vehicle residences have been impounded as a result of the 72-hour parking rule, said Ethan Bergerson, spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Transportation.
“Since we resumed enforcement of the 72-hour rule in mid-October, our initial focus has been on clearing unoccupied abandoned vehicles,” Bergerson wrote in an email. “At this point in time, we are not aware of instances in which a vehicle with someone living in it has been impounded under the 72-hour rule since it was reestablished.”
The City Council did approve funding for a “safe lot” program in its 2022 budget — $1.5 million for vehicle residency outreach and safe lots, combined.
Spaces for vehicle residents have a checkered history in Seattle. A program that began in 2016 cost the city nearly $35,000 per month and was eventually shuttered, according to several outlets who reported on it at the time. Other programs use property owned by faith organizations, but they often cannot accommodate RVs, only smaller vehicles, limiting their use.
The city debuted safe parking zones in 2016 that included trash removal. They were far from people’s jobs and other services, and advocates referred to them as “homeless ghettos.”
“Seattle really hasn’t had a stable, safe parking program,” said Graham Pruss, a researcher who has studied vehicle residency in Seattle and elsewhere. Seattle has tried to accommodate a wide range of vehicle residents with the recognition that people live in their cars and RVs for a variety of reasons, Pruss said.
RVs and mobile home parks are a form of affordable housing, accommodating as much as 6 to 8 percent of the U.S. population, Pruss said.
Ultimately, safe, stable parking programs are a form of harm reduction. Ideally, they are a step toward stable housing, as well.
That’s a best case scenario, and a lot of positive outcomes can come from that, said Christopher Weare, a lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy at U.C. Berkeley. Weare supervised a team of researchers at the University of Southern California who studied safe parking programs throughout the United States, although most were concentrated on the West Coast.
The team found 43 safe parking programs outside of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and looked at the services provided, the populations they intended to serve and recruitment, among other metrics. Ultimately, 19 responded to the team’s inquiry. Most were located on the West Coast, in part because the East Coast has less hospitable weather.
Although Seattle’s programs weren’t included in the study, there are still some key lessons to be learned. One critical element was that the lots should be accessible 24 hours a day, a deviation from parking programs in Los Angeles, which often operate on limited hours, similar to traditional congregate shelters in Seattle. To Los Angeles’ credit, Weare said, the city is actively considering a model with longer opening hours.
“They would have a sense of stability; they create a sense that they can build a level of community in that lot,” Weare said.
At the end of the day, these are stop-gap programs while people work to move into stable housing, Weare said.
Locally, not only is the city of Seattle working to fund safe parking programs, but the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) is looking at how to serve a population of people traditionally left out of the homelessness response.
KCRHA convenes a Vehicle Residency Policy Group that focuses on outreach, harm reduction around parking and wastewater, resident stability around safe lots and derelict RVs as well as pathways to housing. As of the beginning of December 2021, the group had met about three times, said spokesperson Anne Martens.
To the south, Pierce County is also contemplating safe parking locations for vehicle residents as part of its effort to end street homelessness.
In the meantime, vehicle residents in the area have few options, torn between a lack of affordable housing options, high market-rate rents and a desire to hold on to the one asset they have — their RVs.
“Some people want to be free,” Tessensohn said.
Read more of the Jan. 5-11, 2022 issue.