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by Samira George
(This article originally appeared in Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
“I used to live in those apartments,” Dee Powers, a 38-year-old Seattleite, said wistfully, “but I got priced out.” Standing in Seattle’s Occidental Park, coffee in hand, Powers stared at the distinctive white point of Smith Tower where across the street rests the old apartment Powers called home for five years.
The burst of the housing bubble in 2008 allowed Powers to rent a downtown apartment for $650 a month, but in 2015 they came home to a 60-day notice and a warning of a 40% rent increase. Since then, Powers has called a 40-foot RV home.
On April 13, five vehicle residents gathered at an action meeting in Occidental Park to share their unique car-living experiences in a city with a checkered past. All of the residents, including Powers, have either lived or are currently roaming Seattle’s streets in vehicles.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s reinstatement of the 72-hour parking limit law has unleashed a wave of anxiety among vehicle homeowners. Neal Lampi, a current RV homeowner, said at the action meeting that ticketing and impounding is a form of eviction when your vehicle is your residence.
Durkan implemented a year-long pause on the ordinance to give people living in their vehicles respite from the pandemic and encourage them to stay indoors. On March 15, Durkan announced she was lifting the suspension on April 1 in preparation for businesses reopening, despite simultaneously supporting a need to extend Seattle’s residential eviction moratorium.
Durkan said that there would be a grace period before the resumption of ticketing and impounding of vehicles, but citizens reported that 18 days in, an RV sweep at Ruby Chow Park forced roughly 50 RVs out of the park and into neighboring streets.
“We need funding for maintenance,” Powers said. “We’re looking at a situation where more RVs are going to be non functional than they are functional at this point because of the time that they’ve been left sitting.”
Powers said people living in their vehicles are often colloquially labeled as “service resistant,” but they argue that the services they need don’t match those who are living in tents.
“There’s no point in going to a bunk bed shelter or mat-on-the-floor shelter when I’ve got a locking door,” Powers said. “We really aren’t [service resistant]. We’re just waiting for the appropriate measures to come along.”
The overwhelming concern at the action meeting was access to safe parking. Currently, none of the safe lots operating in King County allow motorhomes; RV residents believe that hookups with services could make all the difference.
“I have a feeling we’d have a waitlist for it,” Powers said. “It’s the equivalent of an RV park in a homeless shelter format.”
Powers doesn’t want to live in an RV and believes that’s the case for most people, but affordable housing prospects are low. In one instance, Powers was competing against 35,000 people for 3,000 housing spots in King County.
“I have never been able to make it onto a housing waitlist,” Powers said. “I have been applying to every Section 8 lottery in Washington State for 15 years.”
“Half of Seattle’s unsheltered homeless are in vehicles, but less than 1% of the City’s funding goes toward them,” said Bill Kirlin-Hacket, who directs the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, a City-funded, faith-based program that helps people living in cars avoid losing their vehicles for violating City ordinances.
Kirlin-Hacket said the City of Seattle last estimated that 2,500 people live in vehicles and a quarter of them live in RVs. Currently, there are roughly 10 safe lots operating in King County for cars, and most are affiliated with faith organizations.
Kirlin-Hacket said people living in vehicles should be allowed to live in areas populated by services, like supermarkets, clinics, and bus lines, not church parking lots and definitely not in industrial landscapes permeated by concrete.
“We should give them a place that’s worth coming home to,” Kirlin-Hacket said. “Not big giant trucks rumbling past your vehicle at three in the morning.”
Kirlin-Hacket said one idea could be a pod system where four to six RVs are parked in a non-residential area and a case manager watches over them, gradually helping those people get out of RV living.
Unlike in the past, Kirlin-Hacket says Washington is expected to get federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and he hopes the money will be spread more evenly. “Take all the money that’s being spent on the unsheltered homeless in the city; we want half,” Kirlin-Hacket said.
He plans to attend the upcoming May 4 meeting of the Seattle City Council Finance and Housing Committee, which will discuss ARPA money. Kirlin-Hacket hopes to present his argument for RV safe lots funding.
Dr. Graham Pruss, postdoctoral scholar at the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative in the University of California San Francisco’s Center for Vulnerable Populations, says large populations like those in San Francisco and Seattle are making radical changes in how they approach unhoused citizens who can’t keep up with exorbitant rent and housing prices. “No one has even considered what it means to open up City properties for low-income mobile home parks,” Pruss said.
At the same time, Pruss explained that he is seeing more mobile home parks closing down and it doesn’t surprise him that people are flocking to public pockets like residential streets and parks.
Pruss believes that cities like Seattle can create RV safe lots relatively easily, pointing out you can put them on temporary locations with minimal infrastructure already available to the City. “It’s about finding those locations that exist and are not being used for the next several years,” Pruss said. “For the longer-term ones, there’s a push to actually allow for municipal properties to be developed into low-income neighborhood RV parks.”
Pruss said the job of creating safe parking lots can’t fall only on the well-intentioned shoulders of faith-based organizations. The sites themselves need to be designed and located in neighborhoods that support people transitioning into housing.
“There is, in my opinion, an emergency imperative to develop out the entry points into our system of care [for people living in vehicles] that is the same that was needed in the 1980s to develop the emergency shelter system,” Pruss said.
Pruss further explained that he supports a varied approach, stating a lot of work is going to need to get done to get safe parking lots operating in communities, but Pruss cautions that the more people operate safe lots outside of systems of care the more disjointed access to professional care becomes.
Samira George is a reporter for Real Change. Samira is driven by a passion for community journalism. She enjoys writing on subjects her community members feel strongly about and helping to elevate those voices. In her free time, you might find Samira hanging from a rock or backcountry skiing.
📸 Featured Image: Dee Powers poses for a photo in front of their RV. Currently, Powers parks their RV on a strip of property that is privately owned after coming to an agreement with the landlord. This is not Powers’ first time being unhoused. They have tried for the Section 8 housing waitlist for 15 years. (Photo by Samira George)
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