House of Cars

More Homeless Seattleites Live in Their Vehicles Than Ever Before

But city officials are back to square one.

By Hayat Norimine November 20, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Vehicles doubling as domiciles near Spokane Street in SoDo.

On a cold Night in October along West Seattle’s Harbor Avenue, an RV with a whirring generator housed a young couple, their two dogs, and their cat.

Several months earlier, a 24-year-old Florida woman, whom we’ll call “Ellie,” and her husband moved to Seattle from the South, expecting to afford an apartment. They both worked in the restaurant industry.

“We got here and we’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Ellie. Instead, they bought a $2,000 RV—less than it would have cost to move into an apartment—and eventually began parking on Harbor Avenue. (Ellie asked to use a nickname for this story because her boss doesn’t know about her living situation.)

More than half of King County’s unsheltered people now reside in vehicles. The county’s annual point-in-time count, held in January 2018, totaled 3,372 men, women, and children living in cars, trucks, vans, or RVs—a 46 percent rise compared to the previous year. But as the problem grows, the city’s response remains slow. Officials have yet to stick to a solution that would ease the challenges of vehicle residency.

Advocates for the homeless, for example, say the city hasn’t stopped its pattern of criminalizing life-sustaining activities—imposing fines or towing vehicles parked for more than 72 hours. At the same time, homeless people are not being offered reasonable alternatives, like access to shelter or housing.

The Seattle Police Department hasn’t changed its enforcement policies; and solutions that officials have come up with to make it easier for vehicle residents have been short-lived. Former Seattle mayor Ed Murray began so-called safe lots, allowing those living in vehicles to park in designated areas—but the plan failed miserably after public safety concerns, neighborhood complaints, and costly upkeep. Critics also pointed out that the lots were isolated from any services homeless people need to access. Only one safe lot remains in SoDo.

“It’s like throwing spaghetti up on a wall and it didn’t stick and saying, ‘Well forget it,’” says Sara Rankin, a Seattle University law professor and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project. “You can’t make policy that way.”

In September, mayor Jenny Durkan’s newly proposed 2019 budget included $250,000 for vehicular response, which offered another overnight parking program for those “who are largely self-sufficient and require a relatively low level of services.” Human Services Department spokesperson Meg Olberding says she expects that money to serve 90 households, through “flexible dollars” for whatever gets them on their feet. Need first and last month’s rent? The city can pay that. But beyond a pilot program, there’s no known plan. Seattle officials still haven’t said what the effective “targeted outreach” will look like, how they’ll do it, and whether enforcement policies will change.

In the meantime, Ellie and her husband, the couple parked on Harbor Avenue, are saving, maybe enough to move into a place in a week or two. Eventually they hope to buy a plot of land, where they can park the RV.

But for now they’re just two of the thousands of residents living on Seattle’s streets.

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