The drivers who pass by along North Northlake Way near Gas Works Park see the less colorful side of Danny Fletcher’s RV. The side that faces the street is white and grey and tagged with the “Cutler by Airstream” brand, featuring a few beat-up driver’s side windows and a thick Mariner’s blanket that crookedly hangs as a makeshift curtain.
The RV is two-faced. On the other side, from bottom to top, is a colorful swath of neon-bright graffiti, with lime green and traffic-cone orange, fading blues, pinks and reds that are bold and full of movement. Two dogs that look like pit bull terriers — real, not spray-painted — stick their heads out the back window, side-by-side.
That was the backdrop as community advocates, neighbors, business owners, police officers, social service workers and city representatives convened for three days in July.
There was a sense of urgency as about 40 people gathered behind Fletcher’s RV in a haphazard circle on a balmy Tuesday night. Calling themselves “Bangarang Village,” after the Lost Boys’ battle cry in the movie “Hook,” several families living in at least three RVs had settled in a gravel parking strip near the Burke-Gilman Trail, banding together for safety, but drawing fire from local businesses and neighbors.
Soon, the campers woke up to stickers plastered on their RVs, warning them they had 24 hours to move or their homes would be towed, likely leaving many of them on the street. They refused to vacate, asking the underlying question: “Where do we go?”
That’s the question no one seems to have an answer to.
Talk to many present at the meetings, and they will tell you the same thing: Bangarang Village is a microcosm of what is happening at large when it comes to the nearly 800 people who live in their vehicles in Seattle.
It has all the elements: parking regulations that offer limited options and lead to a concentrated area of vehicle residents; visible poverty and safety concern that fuels neighborhood tensions until they reach a boiling point; and law enforcement officials caught inbetween the rock-and-hard-place of trying to enforce rules without harming vulnerable populations.
Add some more: systemic issues that have produced an ever-climbing number of homeless people; an overrun social service system that resorts to Band-Aid fixes and rests on the shaky ground of good people willing to stay late; and public misperceptions about who the people truly are who reside within the RVs, trucks and cars on the streets of Seattle.
Capping it off is the tendency to continually push the problem down the road for later — quite literally — only to be facing the same issues at the next turn, on the next block.
“Bangarang Village is one example of a group of people who have been surviving on these public streets, dealing with these laws day in and day out, and they are fed up with it,” said Graham Pruss, who was a University of Washington doctoral student who has led research on vehicle residency for five years.
“The reason we are seeing this is they have decided to voice their frustrations and deep concerns about the harm it is causing their lives and the lives of their families. If you were to go and ask anyone living in their vehicles you would hear many of the same complaints. The only difference is Bangarang Village has decided to come together.”
People on all sides of the issue are calling for a change, whether they are screaming it to the treetops, such as Bill Kirlin-Hackett of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness (ITFH), or apologetically muttering it one-on-one after meetings, such as some law enforcement officials.
They say it’s time for a coherent, humane and codified city plan that addresses vehicle residency, and they say it’s long overdue. Vehicle residents have consistently been the largest subset of Seattle and King County’s unsheltered homeless population, at about a third of the nearly 3,800 counted this year.
“We’re not anywhere close to knowing what we’re doing around people living in their vehicles,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “It’s really a crazy system right now. There are a lot of ways to enter harm, and very few ways to escape it.”
Recently, Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas requested that the city’s Human Services Department (hsd) provide a report assessing the city’s current practices around vehicle residency. Many, including Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, say they are hopeful it will be an opportunity for action.
“We’re at a point, and the community has been asking this for a while, that we need to figure out what our policies are that we can codify and say ‘This is how we’re going to deal with it,’” O’Brien said.
Although the report has not yet been released — its initial deadline was the end of June — Sola Plumacher, strategic advisor for hsd, said it is clear there are some gaps.
“What we recognize from the human services viewpoint is that these individuals are maintaining their shelter,” Plumacher said. “Their vehicle is their home, and if we take that away, they end up on the street.
Our shelter system is already full, our homeless count is up, and we need to be really thoughtful, holistically, about what our approaches are in trying to broaden the lens as we look at this situation.”
Who’s in the Honda?
There is no single face to car campers in Seattle.
It’s a mom on dialysis who was evicted when she could no longer work after her kidneys failed, who sleeps with her legs sticking out the driver’s side window of her Nissan Altima because of her poor circulation.
It’s also her 23-year-old daughter, who dropped out of studying biochemistry in college to work two jobs to pay for their survival while they race to get housing.
It’s a Vietnam veteran, mentally and physically disabled, who grew up in Seattle and has lived in an eight-block radius of Ballard for nearly 15 years.
It’s a retired couple on a fixed income who don’t want to burden their children, and a single mom who has always wanted an alternative lifestyle for her daughter.
It’s a nanny in her 60s whose rent shot up $500 per month before she decided to buy a motorhome to stay within the community in which she’s lived for so many years, rather than leave the city.
It’s criminals who prey on the vulnerability of other car campers in poverty.
It’s a street-smart, middle-aged man who has been living in an RV since the recession, drives for Uber and Subaru, and simply feels it’s “not worth paying $1,000 for a dump.”
It’s a deaf man in a broken-down trailer, mentally ill and desperately afraid the system is out to get him.
It’s a homeless couple that decided with a baby on the way, sleeping in a van with locked doors and a little security was better than the alternative of a tent.
Regardless of the circumstance, living in a vehicle is often the best option in a world of limited resources. Outreach workers say stereotypes of car campers as freeloaders and drug dealers — Pruss calls it the “Breaking Bad phenomenon” of imagining RVs as rolling meth labs on the verge of exploding — is a far cry from reality.
“The main thing to remember is that these are average Americans, people like everyone else,” he said. “They are struggling to get by, and they are trying to find a way in the world to provide the best lives they can for themselves. If their options include living in a bush, living in a shelter and breaking their family apart, or living in an RV, the choice to live in an RV is a very valuable option.”
In Bangarang Village alone, among others, there’s Fletcher and his two dogs, who have lived in the area for about five years; Obe and 4-year-old Tyler; Jennifer and her 1-year-old daughter Willow; and Melissa, who is three months pregnant, suffering from arthritis and desperately trying to get into housing with yearslong waitlists.
“I’m on every housing list there is, and I check them every month,” she said.
A sort-of city plan
The city’s approach to vehicle residents is twofold: provide case management with the goal of finding housing and work with volunteers who mitigate harm from local parking ordinances. When parking enforcement officials suspect someone is living in their vehicle, or when patrol receives a complaint, they send notices to staff members with Road to Housing (R2H) and the Scofflaw Mitigation Team (SMT), who hit the streets and start knocking on vehicle windows.
R2H is a city-funded program, launched in 2012 and championed by O’Brien, that provides safe parking spots in church lots and assigns case managers from Compass Housing Alliance to vehicle residents throughout the city.
The SMT comprises Kirlin-Hackett of the ITFH and Jean Darsie of the Ballard Community Taskforce on Homelessness and Hunger. It began when Seattle passed the Scofflaw ordinance in 2011, which allows the city to attach a yellow parking boot to immobilize cars with four or more unpaid tickets, then tow and impound if payment isn’t received within 48 hours.
Since vehicle residents often end up in a vicious cycle as they struggle to afford repairs, stay “street legal” with up-to-date tabs and licenses, and pay for tickets, the SMT aims to intervene before anyone gets the boot. Kirlin-Hackett and Darsie raise their own funds and work on a completely volunteer basis.
Everyone seems to agree there is laudable and successful work being done to help vehicle residents — work that would not be possible without a slew of law enforcement officials and municipal court staff willing to use as much discretion as they have within the system.
But that is also the problem.
Current city programs and policies are largely “personality driven,” as Councilmember O’Brien put it. They are mostly uncodified and depend on good people continuing to do good things often unpaid, which can easily break down when leadership changes or communication fails.
Simultaneously, need is overwhelming these programs.
There are only a handful of people who do the on-the-ground outreach to vehicle residents. Three years after its inception, R2H has a total of 12 parking spots. Two case managers work with about 60 clients in lots and on city streets, but finding housing moves at a snail’s pace.
Meanwhile, notices pour into the SMT every week. It’s a scramble to keep up.
“The truth is, we’ve been given great resources from the city, and this is a good start,” said Frank Scarabino, program manager of R2H. “But the problem we are facing is enormous, and we just need so much more.”
The moving game
Whac-a-Mole. Shuffleboard. Ping-pong. Community advocates use a lot of creative terms to describe the way vehicle residents are currently pushed from block to block when they are not welcome in the neighborhood.
Vehicles in Seattle must be moved every 72 hours; vehicles over 80 inches, including most RVs, can only park overnight on city streets in industrial areas; and swaths of “No Parking 2 to 5 a.m.” signs prevent camping in many pockets of the city.
In other words, vehicle residents must be diligently on-the-move, and there’s hardly a place to go.
That leads to concentrated areas of vehicle residency, and as car campers crop up in areas such as Sodo, Ballard, Interbay and along Northlake Way, friction rises with local businesses and neighbors concerned about noise, lost parking, garbage, human waste, illegal activity and the eyesore of visible poverty in their backyard.
“I think we’ve recognized that what we’ve done is create some real hot spots for car camping by limiting parking,” said Plumacher of hsd, “and the concentration that’s been created in specific neighborhoods creates an additional challenge.”
Jessica Vets, executive director of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, said businesses near Bangarang Village, such as Ivar’s and Dunn Lumber, had been negatively affected by a spike in crime and theft, and felt they had little recourse.
“The crime is the upsetting thing, and that is what we are all worried about,” Vets said. “Businesses are already struggling, and this is just one more thing.”
At the meetings, some vehicle residents were adamant that crime in the area stemmed from one infamous vehicle stationed down the road.
They said the reason they joined together in the first place was for some security.
“It made things worse because we get more negative attention, but it’s made things better because we feel safe,” Fletcher said.
Pruss, Scarabino and Kirlin-Hackett all echoed that this is typical of other areas — most vehicle residents are law-abiding and seeking safety themselves, and illegal activity stems from one or two vehicles.
“It’s hard for the local neighbors to know which vehicle it is, and they generally paint the whole group with the same brush,” Pruss said. “I’ve seen it occur countless times. Almost every time.”
That ultimately rains down on an entire group of campers if police, under pressure from business owners, respond to complaints by clearing the area.
Rex Hohlbein, local community activist and founder of the nonprofit Facing Homelessness, stumbled upon Bangarang Village while riding his bike. He stopped to introduce himself and was in luck — Fletcher was cooking up blueberry pancakes and eggs. By the time Hohlbein left the impromptu breakfast, he’d decided to organize a community cleanup to help alleviate the trash that was bothering neighbors.
On July 12, community members lugged donated dump trucks and tools, swept trash and sat together to hear the campers’ stories.
That was the same night the families got their first 24-hour notice to vacate.
Hohlbein said he got a call from Sergeant Jessica Taylor of the Seattle Police Department the next day saying she was worried the people at Bangarang Village were going to lose their homes. That’s when Hohlbein convened the community meetings.
Officers delayed the tow and helped find gas, starters and batteries to get the RVs up and running. Scott Lindsay, Mayor Ed Murray’s special assistant on public safety, made an appearance on July 14 to discuss options, and Plumacher of hsd called a separate meeting.
In the end, law enforcement removed the vehicle cited as a source of crime and the city issued a final two-week stay on the tow: one week to find a place to go and one week to move.
Advocates praised the dialogue and collaboration as a recipe for what could happen in other neighborhoods. But ultimately, it was still left up to the community to find a new site.
“Even though there is a lot of optimism and awareness that has been built, we haven’t solved a single thing other than buying some time,” Hohlbein said. “We just punted the ball two weeks down the road.”
In the meantime, as Taylor told the group, it’s all about “trying to enforce the rules with the minimum amount of damage.”
“It’s a cyclical problem,” Taylor told Real Change. “We need a long-term solution that is better for the community, better for business owners and better for these people. We don’t have an answer, and we need an answer.
Perception and policy
Nobody is quite sure what the city report on vehicle residency will include, or when it will come out, but advocates say they hope it leads to safe places for vehicle residents to park with access to bathrooms and garbage facilities, as well as changes in parking signage, amended ordinances and a drastic boost in outreach for vehicle residents.
O’Brien said he plans on meeting with community advocates after the review is released to explore short- and long-term changes.
Whatever happens, Kirlin-Hackett said he hopes it happens quickly, and wants to see it start from the top down, with the mayor.
“The people at risk are not waiting for meetings,” he said. “This conversation has happened a lot, but everyone stops short. They put their hands under their chins and nod and say ‘Let’s think about that,’ and that’s continued for years. This requires leadership.”
In some cases, it starts from the inside out.
Tracy Klinkroth was one of the neighbors at the community cleanup of Bangarang Village. She lives a block away, and at one of the meetings, she sat next to Fletcher behind his RV and admitted that she was one of the people who had called the police.
Earlier that week, she had posted a strongly worded rant on the Facing Homelessness Facebook page about the “illegal squatting colony,” vowing to call the cops until they disappeared.
But Hohlbein convinced her to grab a coffee. By the end of that, he’d convinced her to go to the cleanup. By the end of that, she’d had a change of heart.
“What really has to happen is the people who are pissed off need to come meet them,” she told business stakeholders at a meeting. “You can’t bitch and complain without knowing their stories.”
“I will be the first to say I was judgmental,” she told Real Change. “I pay $1,500 a month to live in an apartment, and I don’t want to wake up to trash. You get tired of it after a while. Whoever is visible gets blamed. It’s easy to say ‘Those people,’ and I did some of that. It’s easy to say you want them out of your neighborhood. Now that I’ve met them, I don’t want them to leave.”
This story is the first of a three-part series on vehicle residents in Seattle. Part two can be found here. Part three can be found here.