Thousands of Seattle residents live in their vehicles, leading a fragile, dangerous existence on the margins
by Will Sweger
In the concrete wasteland of Seattle’s Sodo industrial district, the only hint of the native Pacific Northwest is in the jungle of trees climbing Beacon Hill to the east and the blue skies hemmed in by clouds above.
The air is filled with a crushing onslaught of transportation. Cars, train whistles, and passenger jets come together in a roar of the cavernous lungs of the city. Asphalt is crusted with a glaze of tobacco, exhaust soot, and human urine. For those sleeping here, traffic tearing by can lead to swaying beds and 2 a.m. wakeups. Inevitably, there’s a sense in this place of living on borrowed time.
These are the elements of living in a vehicle in the city. For thousands of people in Seattle, this is everyday life.
Many staying outdoors are from other places: California, Colorado, and beyond–hoping to find some work in this green place in the heart of Cascadia. Many are working in construction, a booming industry without enough laborers in the community. They join temp construction agencies with the short-term aim of fulfilling the labor shortage.
In a city divided into two camps—those who own and those who rent—people living outdoors make up an untouchable underclass that both sides look down on and fear.
Housed Seattleites are bombarded with coverage of the homeless crisis. Dark images of homeless people emerge as mentally-ill drug addicts at best, and weapon-wielding maniacs at worst. Local media outlets circulate reports of shootings in homeless encampments, fueling a sense of urgency and danger. Anyone wanting to know what it is to join Seattle’s lowest caste only needs to forgo a bath for a few days, put on dirty clothes, and shuffle up to the nearest sales cashier to ask for the key to the bathroom.
Yet in the encampments the reality is different. Mental illness and addiction are real and present, but during the course of writing this story I stayed at several camps and was offered everything from a bottle of water and a bean burrito to access to a generator to charge my laptop. Many people living on the street are generally friendly and mostly they want to be left alone.
One of these people is Scott Owens. He stands over six feet tall, is in his forties, and has a waistline that betrays a diet rounded out with fast food. His hair is cut short and usually matted from a sweaty helmet. His daily routine starts before dawn. He rises, takes his dog, Evona, on a short walk, then drives to a construction temp agency to see if there will be work available that day. In the evenings, he returns to his van and sometimes splits a pizza with Evona.
Owens speaks with the nasal drawl of a Coloradoan that wouldn’t be out of place in South Park. At one point while we were having a conversation, a Hispanic man camped in the same parking lot walked by and offered a greeting. Owens responded in Spanish. “I’m from Denver so I speak Spanish,” Owens said with a shrug.
He works full-time as a construction worker specializing in carpentry, with a skill set he picked up in the military while working with the Army Corps of Engineers. Jobs in construction are a mainstay of many people living in vehicles. Seattle’s construction boom has left many companies in the lurch for labor, which makes the field easier to enter for people suffering from drug addiction or carrying a criminal record. But there’s also a downside: many are paid under the table, and without adequate health care, injuries on the job can lead to further drug use.
Owens broke his ribs digging a hole at work in January. In the emergency room, after being given a CAT scan, he found out he has an infection in his intestines, spleen, and liver. A Labor & Industries claim covered the medical bills for the broken ribs, but he lacks the ability to pay for the antibiotics he needs to prevent the infection from spreading. “It ain’t that bad,” he said. “It’s just, it’s starting to become a problem because I have a lot of gut pains at night that keep me up all night. I gotta work all day and it sucks when you’re up all night staring at a black ceiling in a van.”
As he spoke to me, he finished the nub of a joint and drank his nightly Four Loko, an alcoholic, caffeinated, canned drink. “Two of those get you drunk, dude,” he explained as he went over his bedtime ritual. His recent efforts towards sobriety have been waylaid ever since he stopped communicating with his estranged wife. “I never understood alcoholism,” he mused, “until after I became an alcoholic.”
Owens’ path to Seattle is a confusing mess of FBI agents tailing his van, vehicle searches, and Colorado State Patrol engaging in pissing contests with the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms. According to Owens, he was living in a camper owned by his boss in Colorado. When his boss was brought up on weapons trafficking charges, Owens was caught in the middle. He described to me how at one point, he found himself holding his hands up while red laser points from the rifles of agents danced on his chest. Soon after that, Owens moved to Seattle to pursue work.
Once he arrived in Seattle, Owens began living in his van to save money. Sleeping in a vehicle through Northwest winters has been tough. Sometimes, after he shows up at the construction site, the mold residing in his clothes is triggered by sweat. One time it got so bad he asked his supervisor if he could get changed because he reeked so badly it made him nauseous.
Owens isn’t alone—some 2,300 people live in their vehicles every night in Seattle, according to a 2017 count. More people live in their cars than camp on the street in tents.
The city’s response to the crisis so far hasn’t decreased the number of people on the street. Under Mayor Ed Murray and at the urging of city council member Mike O’Brien, the city of Seattle opened two safe lots which incurred large costs per vehicle due to the need for on-site administrative staff. When the costs were revealed to the public, the city stopped actively managing the lots.
Sweeps, or patrols to forcibly remove homeless encampments and the garbage around them, have ranged throughout the city. Tent dwellers are the most frequent targets, but those living in vehicles haven’t been immune. Vehicles parked on private property, or near a pile of garbage can attract unwanted attention. For this reason, enclaves of people living in vehicles will sometimes work together to keep the immediate area around their vehicles clean. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a homeless person picking up garbage they didn’t drop.
Enclaves of vehicle dwellers gather at various locations, following one brute rule of the street: the more able bodies you have, the greater your ability to protect your own. On dead-end roads in Sodo, near forested lots on the outskirts of Rainier Valley, and next to dock warehouses in Ballard, small tribes of vehicle dwellers band together in a spirit of camaraderie in what is often a dangerous environment. Sleeping in a van in Sodo for this story, I was woken on more than one occasion by a verbal altercation that had spilled into the street from a vehicle or tent.
In a group of RVs in Ballard, a camper related an incident with a thief that the camper surmised to be a housed person attempting to steal the generator on the bumper of his RV. When this camper shouted for the man to leave, the assailant assaulted the RV dweller and his girlfriend before they managed to chase him off. Calling the police isn’t always in your best interest when you’re not sure if you’ll be allowed to stay when the cops show up.
Yet even on the street, class distinctions remain. Associated with the #vanlife label, people are choosing to live in vehicles well-kept enough and small enough to “stealth camp” on residential streets. Stealth camping involves showing up to a location late, leaving early, with an emphasis on avoiding creating any kind of a stir. By carefully blocking out light coming from the interior, stealth campers are many times able to remain parked near single-family homes without being bothered by police.
This option is attractive to many young people looking for an inexpensive way to stay in a city with housing costs threatening to take a sizable chunk of their income. With means unavailable to those living in vehicles without a choice, stealth campers tend to travel in solo modern cargo vans converted for use as living spaces – in many cases complete with beds, sinks, and hipster-coveted exposed wood.
In the course of writing this story I visited PeaceVans, a Sodo-based restoration shop for Volkswagen Buses and Vanagons, favorites of the #vanlife crowd. While I sat in their waiting room, made up of old van seats, a well-dressed white man arrived to drop off his van. He carefully listed the issues with the vehicle he’d just purchased, explaining which windows refused to latch, prepared to drop large sums on the project at a place where some of the employees live out of their van—on the same streets where unsheltered people are dying.
According to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, 169 people died last year while they were experiencing homelessness, 32 more than the previous year. The majority of those deaths took place in public parks, the crawlspaces of abandoned buildings, and staring at the black ceiling of their vehicles.
What connects these disparate experiences is the reality of living in a van: a large part of your day is consumed figuring out where (and how) you’re going to go to the bathroom. For an individual battling addiction, mental illness, or trying to hold a full-time job, maintaining access to somewhere to clean themselves is a sketchy proposition.
Public showers are few and private businesses generally guard their bathrooms against the unwashed crowds on the street. So, whether it’s in bottles or the bushes, the refuse ends up on the ground. That human waste is the magnet that will net complaints and oftentimes bring an eviction for people living in vehicles.
In a statement last week, Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant urged the city to stop clearing homeless encampments. “The mayor is continuing to spend on sweeps,” she said. “How many millions are being spent on these kinds of sweeps?”
Last summer, council member Mike O’Brien introduced legislation to allow people living in their vehicles exemptions from tickets, “boots” designed to immobilize vehicles, and towing. Neighborhood groups and business organizations worked to block the proposal, circulating early drafts of the measure. As a result, the proposed legislation didn’t go anywhere.
Then, in March, King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer ruled that Steven Long, a man living in his vehicle who’d had his home impounded, faced a violation of his rights by having to pay a $500 fine in order to have his possessions and home returned. Judge Shaffer asserted that Long’s home/vehicle was protected under Washington’s Homestead Act, which prohibits evicting homeowners for certain debts. The ruling was one of the first of its kind in the country and set the scene for the current legal gray area that most vehicle campers exist in.
In response to the crisis, some council members have proposed a Seattle business “head tax”—a $500 per-employee tax applied to companies with more than $20 million in annual gross revenues. The tax is expected to generate $75 million annually, and would be used to fund new affordable housing and services for the homeless.
Councilmember O’Brien cited the city’s budget in his arguments for the head tax. He points out that the city currently spends a little over $60 million a year on homeless services. With a budget of $5 billion, that makes up a little over one percent of the city budget. Comparatively, Seattle spends about $600 million on public safety. “We need accountability, we need transparency,” O’Brien said. “Every dollar at the human services department needs to be spent wisely. But to spend so much attention on this one little aspect of the budget that’s impacting the poorest people in our community when we overlook other aspects, I think that’s an unfair act.”
Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan has yet to announce a change in the city’s response to the housing crisis. In a statement she explained, “…unfortunately, the city has not had a comprehensive strategy focused on transitioning people from vehicles to permanent housing while reducing the impacts on our neighborhoods. While the Law Department evaluates and appeals the case [regarding] the city’s ability to tow and impound vehicles, our departments will continue implementing a series of proposals to help move people out of RVs and cars and into permanent housing. We also will take additional actions to address the public health and public safety issues, including removing the large quantities of trash and waste.”
A solution to reconcile the city’s housed and unhoused residents remains elusive, with the fate of thousands waiting on the response. Despite his predicament, Owens had words of praise for the city: “You can get on your feet in Seattle with the $15 minimum wage. And they allow you to sleep in your car. I can sleep in my van without police harassing me.”
This article first appeared in Cascadia Magazine, a non-profit online publication dedicated to covering ideas and culture across the Pacific Northwest.
Will Sweger is a regular contributor at the South Seattle Emerald. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle, and The Urbanist. Find him on Twitter @willsweger
Nia Martin is a Seattle-based photographer, writer and editor. Her work has appeared in both print and online publications including Seattle magazine, Cold Mountain Review, Seattle Refined, Snohomish County Magazine, The Plunge and Real Change newspaper.
Cover image by Nia Martin.