Seattle is aiming for a humane response to homelessness and complaints about RVs with its new “safe lots.” But it is coming into conflict with those who have something others on the streets lack: a home, of sorts, and with it autonomy and a sense of ownership.
Danny Fletcher waxed ecstatic last week about the temporary Interbay motor-home lot recently set up by the city of Seattle.
“I love it. This is beautiful,” said the 32-year-old Army veteran. “Every day I get to wake up, use the bathroom and feel human again.”
He was referring to the port-a-potties placed in the middle of a row of 17 motor homes, right next to the dumpsters — another welcome convenience for people who have long lacked a way to dispose of their trash.
Even then, Fletcher remained guarded about whether he would move to one of two permanent “safe lots” the city plans to open in Ballard and Delridge as early as Friday. “If my stomach says don’t do it, and my dogs are not happy with it, I’m not going to go through with it,” he said.
Cautiousness erupted into full-blown revolt this week, after social-service providers hired by the city came around the West Amory Way lot with a three-page document outlining rules for the new areas. No use of cooking stoves, propane heaters or power sources in the RVs, no unauthorized guests, no alcohol, drugs or smoking of any kind in vehicles. No exit or entry into the lots from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“There’s a whole bunch of can’t, can’t and can’t,” said Fletcher. “There’s no freedom.” He added: “I should be able to do whatever I want in my home.”
He won’t move to the permanent lots, he insisted, and seven others gathered Wednesday in the Interbay lot said the same. Their stance sets up a possible confrontation with the city. The vehicles in the Interbay lot — and two other temporary motor-home sites set by the city — have permits due to expire within days.
The city says it is willing to negotiate the rules. The contractor managing the lots says it will now allow guests and loosen the curfew, and is considering other changes. But there is no decision yet about what to do if motor-home owners still refuse to leave, said Sola Plumacher, who is overseeing creation of the safe lots for the Human Services Department.
Officials, however, are under pressure to do something. For weeks, North End residents have been complaining bitterly about RV dwellers in their midst, perceived to be responsible for crime and trash. Mayor Ed Murray pitched the lots as a humane response — not only to complaints, but to the rampant homelessness that has driven hundreds of people to their vehicles. Their advocates have long called upon the city to do just this.
But RV dwellers have something those living on the streets lack: a home, of sorts, and with it autonomy and a sense of ownership.
“It’s not as unpleasant as people might think to live in an RV,” said Neal Lampi, sitting in his unusually spacious, neatly maintained 34-footer, parked near the new city-sponsored tent city in Interbay. “It can be comfortable. It can be yours.”
He bought his off Craigslist for $4,500 — far more than many pay in the RV marketplace, where shabby impounded vehicles are sometimes auctioned off for as little as a dollar. Still, it’s next to nothing when compared to local real estate. “This is affordable housing in Seattle,” Lampi said.
So as Seattle police officers have gone around the city over the last month, knocking on RV doors and urging those inside to move to the new lots, they have not always been greeted with enthusiasm.
“Trying to keep it simple”
“Hey, Mr. Major?” bellowed Sgt. Paul Gracy, outside the door of a worn RV on West Nickerson Street one morning around 10.
Bearded and shirtless, 57-year-old John Major opened the door and leaned out.
“It’s day number two,” Gracy said, alluding to the city’s three-day time limit for parking in any given spot. Will he be moving to one of the city’s temporary lots? Grady inquired.
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“No, absolutely not,” Major declared. “I’ll actually be leaving Seattle city limits tonight.”
“I’m not going to be around people who have drug issues,” he explained, echoing a stereotype of RV inhabitants. “These people are lost.”
In truth, he seems lost himself. He said he and his wife moved into the RV years ago when he lost a fuel-hauling job. Sick with cancer, she died in his arms last June.
“I’m trying to keep it simple,” he said. For him, that means pushing on to Everett and looking for a new place to park.
A handful of other RVs that had been parked nearby also have left town. According to those who knew their owners, they feared an unsavory element in the city lots, and didn’t like what they saw as a government attempt to control them.
Fletcher is prone to those fears himself but was persuaded to relocate by conversations with city officials. They have some history.
Last summer, he was living in a cluster of RVs residents called “Bangarang Village,” which sprang up on North Northlake Way near Gas Works Park. Dealing with complaints even then, the city pressured the villagers to move on. Fletcher and others refused. Just as police were ready to evict them, they relented and migrated to an out-of-the-way spot overlooking the Fremont Cut.
That spot, however, was claimed by a shipping business that soon decided it wanted a parking lot. As the business and Bangarang villagers clashed, and the city began its push for safe lots, Fletcher made a deal with Sgt. Gracy: Tow his friend’s immobile school bus to the Interbay lot, and he would follow.
“We were the first ones here,” Fletcher said.
At night, Fletcher and his two dogs sleep together in his Pontiac Aztek, bought for him at auction by the nonprofit Facing Homelessness. Daytime, he hangs out on the bus with his friend, Joshua Madrid.
Cleared of its seats, it’s a cavernous space that accommodates three dogs (Madrid has one, too), a double bed, two flat-screen TVs and assorted makeshift tables on which lie, among other things, a hookah, a jar of peanut butter, a carton of milk and a Mickey Mouse lamp. A wire snakes out the window to the Aztek, providing power.
The two friends — both with corkscrew hair falling to their shoulders — don’t work. Madrid, 23, who grew up in foster care, said only that he doesn’t “really do well in a work environment.”
Fletcher said employers won’t hire him because he received an “other than honorable” discharge from the Army in 2004 after serving as a military police officer in Hawaii.
“Danny is a really good guy and really smart,” observed Facing Homeless executive director Rex Hohlbein, who considers Fletcher a friend. “But he’s got anxiety in his world that makes it difficult navigating societal expectations.”
In moving to the temporary Interbay lot, however, Fletcher signed up to try. The city hired Compass Housing Alliance to provide services to help residents get mainstream housing.
According to Fletcher, that will take “a slow reconditioning of the mind. ” In regular housing, he explained, “the air is different. The bed is different. You can’t hear the sounds of passing cars.”
A few years ago, he tried to sleep at his parents’ home in California. “I couldn’t do it,” he recalled. “I had to go back out and sleep in my truck.”
“Comfortable doing what I’m doing”
Originally, Lampi leaned toward joining the safe lots, too. In fact, he toyed with a proposal to run one. He wanted to create a self-governing model that focused on what he called “harm reduction and trauma care.”
Lampi, 59, works at Real Change, the newspaper and homeless-advocacy group, doing outreach to vendors and retailers. He said he’s also managed residential communities, like a clean-and-sober facility in Sacramento.
But before Lampi got a serious proposal together, the city chose the Low Income Housing Institute to run its permanent lots, which will hold some 45 vehicles and be fenced and guarded by 24-hour security.
As of last week, Lampi was not inclined to move to either the temporary or the permanent lots. “I don’t think they could offer me anything I’m not aware of,” he said.
He’s tried to get his finances in order, but it’s a tough task with his student-loan debt, accumulated while getting an online B.A. in organizational management. He said he knows he could make more money driving a truck but feels that life would be meaningless.
So he’s staying where he is, in work and in the RV. He explained it this way: “I’m comfortable doing what I’m doing.”
That makes Lampi’s one of the few RVs left on the streets in Gracy’s domain, the West precinct, encompassing downtown, Interbay and Magnolia.
A month or two ago, the community police team sergeant had 24 RVs he was trying to shepherd to the temporary lots. By the time he knocked on Major’s door, he was down to four.
But if the conflict between the city and those in the temporary lots continue, Gracy may soon find that trend reversing. “I’ll just go somewhere and park on the street,” said Jarett Schickling. He was particularly incensed about the no electricity rule, which would prevent him from using his TV and other gadgets that he said made him feel normal. Others said the rules treated them like children.
Plumacher explained the city was concerned about health and safety, particularly after one RV caught fire last week at the Interbay lot, due to a propane heater coming into contact with fuel from a stove, according to the Seattle Fire Department.
“This is an endeavor we haven’t engaged in before,” she said. “We have a lot to learn.”