What ended up happening to the homeless car-campers who ripped me off is a microcosm of the challenges facing Seattle right now.
The debate about what to do with Seattle’s growing problem of car campers on city streets is tracking along predictable lines of “be compassionate” versus “get tough.”
When the mayor finally decided to act — announcing this past week he would open two homeless car-camping lots — it didn’t appear to satisfy anyone.
To the be-compassionate crowd, it wasn’t enough. They predicted other homeless car-campers who don’t go to these two lots would now be harassed just for being poor.
To the get-tough crowd, the move was off point. This isn’t an issue about helping the poor, they said, but about cracking down on drug criminals.
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“They are not the homeless. The homeless are at Mary’s Place. These are criminals,” a KIRO radio host said after knocking on some RV doors in Queen Anne.
As someone who got personally involved with a trio of homeless car-campers, I have an anecdotal perspective on all this. Which is that homelessness, drugs and crime can sometimes be so intertwined that it’s impossible to sift out any one from the others.
My case was that infamous time in 2014 when someone smashed my car window and stole money, credit cards and an iPhone. We tracked the phone and when we couldn’t get the police to come, it touched off an internal city review of how Seattle is handling property crimes.
When the trio of thieves were arrested by Sammamish police, they turned out to be Washington’s Most Wanted car prowlers.
But that was an incomplete telling of the story. Since then I have been monitoring their cases. I’ve read jailhouse interviews, followed their sentencings, and been questioned by one of their public defenders as a witness to the case.
My anger at having my car smashed up and credit cards stolen morphed a bit when I started to learn more about the perpetrators.
They lived in their van. All were drug addicts. They told the cops and the courts why they had become both homeless and petty thieves. It’s because they were drug addicts.
It wasn’t just a sob story. One was put on suicide watch at the King County Jail because his addiction gave him “nothing to live for.” Another ballooned to 440 pounds due to severe depression. The third told the court she’d never made it past 9th grade in school.
They all pleaded guilty to six counts of identity theft. One admitted this was only a fraction of their smash-and-grabs. But none had any record of violent behavior. It was all fuel for a ravenous addiction.
So the question before the city is, what do we do with folks like this? I’m not saying all car-campers have substance-abuse problems or commit petty crimes. But when they do, does it work to crack down?
What happened next in my case is like a microcosm of Seattle’s current challenge.
My attitude wasn’t the only one that had changed over time from “These people ought to be punished” to “These people need help.” The prosecutors agreed, because all three were offered what’s called a Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative — reduced or no prison time if they enter drug treatment.
Still, one car prowler refused any treatment. He’s currently serving a 25-month term in the prison in Shelton, Mason County. Recidivism stats show there’s a good chance of more trouble when he gets out.
A second accepted a non-prison drug-treatment program. But she failed at this almost immediately. After being rearrested, she was sent to serve out the original hard- time sentence at a state women’s prison. She was released this month.
The third entered an in-prison drug-treatment program. The good news is, he remains enrolled in that program at the state prison in Walla Walla, according to court records.
So on the plus side, they were caught and held to account. This enforcement side has been completely lacking in Seattle. The Magnolia and Ballard neighbors who have raised holy hell about the RVs and lack of police help are right about that part.
But it’s also true the “get tough” approach is no panacea. Soon all three of my car-prowlers will be out. Will any be rehabilitated? Don’t know, but at this point it’s looking like maybe one out of three.
As someone who gave eyewitness statements that helped put these people in prison, I guess the best I can say at this point is: The system may not be working, but it’s trying. With an arrest followed by an offer of drug treatment, it held them accountable, and also gave them a shot at a way out.
Ultimately that’s why I support the much-derided middle-way approach of the mayor and city council. It’s incredibly complex. They are being excoriated by the “be-compassionate” crowd for doing sweeps of trespassing squatter sites around town. And also by the “get tough” crowd for setting up official tent cities and RV parking lots with social services.
But if done right, these should be sides of the same coin. Enforce the laws, but also provide a path out.
Some won’t take that path, may never take that path. But after my own experience I’m stumped at what more the city can be expected to do.