We need regional off-street parking areas matched with social-service outreach to help those living in their vehicles.
THERE is no easy way to be homeless. Despite opinions about how people become homeless, there is a hardship happening under the noses of all of us who are safely housed.
Despite our collective efforts that started more than a dozen years ago to alleviate the harm of homelessness, the annual unsheltered count went up more than 20 percent in King County. Some progress has been made to address homelessness for families, youths, veterans, singles and domestic-violence survivors. But it is just not enough.
Lost in the shuffle are the homeless living in their vehicles — what we call “the rough road.” It is a problem in most jurisdictions. One-third of the homeless people counted each year in King County are living in a vehicle. And there is no clear nor adequate approach in helping them.
Living in your car is as hard, or harder, as being homeless in any other circumstance. Mostly it has to do with staying “street legal.” That means having current tabs, a license, title, tickets paid and basic repairs made to keep your vehicle running.
Additionally, in Seattle, the vehicle needs to be moved every 72 hours in areas where it’s even allowed. Add in the hundreds of “No Parking 2-5 a.m.” signs — clearly aimed at those living in vehicles — and the dilemma is clear.
Seattle’s “scofflaw” ordinance is particularly egregious. Four or more tickets can quickly lead to losing one’s vehicle and home. Were it not for the volunteer efforts of advocates working closely with city staff members to mitigate the effects of this ordinance, there would be hundreds of vehicles impounded and even more people left homeless. The scofflaw ordinance has failed to help the indigent. And despite repeated requests, neither Mayor Ed Murray nor the City Council has remedied this situation.
What does this harm look like?
• An elderly father, recently hospitalized with pneumonia, and his son had their vehicle impounded and were forced to live on the street for more than a week before friends and advocates could assist them in retrieving their vehicle-home from impound. The resultant cost to the city — likely as much as an estimated $1,000 — reflects the agencies involved, including police, the Municipal Court and human services.
• A young couple (she is six-months pregnant) had their vehicle impounded at 2 a.m., thus leaving them without shelter.
• A young man who resides in an RV had the car he uses to get services and to work impounded.
In none of these cases were volunteer advocates notified so they could attempt to mitigate the harm.
This crisis for people living in vehicles is hardly limited to Seattle. A Kirkland congregation recently reported 21 households residing in vehicles in their parking lot. This congregation works outside any systemic response, because there is none outside Seattle.
By definition, when you “take the high road,” it means doing the right thing even if it’s not popular or easy. What’s needed for us to take the high road?
To begin, we need a commitment by cities and King County to do coordinated harm reduction regarding people living in vehicles.”
To begin, we need a commitment by cities and King County to do coordinated harm reduction regarding people living in vehicles. This requires regional safe places for off-street parking. Add in social services and you can create a pathway to exit homelessness.
Some West Coast cities, such as Eugene, Ore., Santa Barbara, Calif., and San Diego, have been doing this successfully. Current programs, such as Seattle’s “Road to Housing,” are too limited to meet the growing need. Volunteer efforts are overwhelmed. Since we can assume there will not be enough safe places to park for the 1,000-plus in need, make parking on public streets less toxic. Remove the “No Parking 2-5 a.m.” signs. And reconsider Seattle’s move-every-72-hours rule and where it is applied.
Regionally, allow police to partner with service providers, allowing for options to keep those living in their cars from further legal harm. Finally, jurisdictions must consider the indigence when implementing policies and procedures so that harm is reduced for those who are homeless and living in vehicles.