Seattle is cleaning up trash around clusters of homeless vehicle campers — and sometimes towing them.

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The city of Seattle has launched a new effort to clean up, and potentially break up, clusters of homeless vehicle campers with trash bags and, if necessary, tow trucks.

The program, which quietly started in mid-May, has resulted in the collection of almost 42,000 pounds of garbage and waste from cleanups around RVs and other vehicles parked in Sodo, Georgetown, Ballard and the Central District.

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But in the meantime, residents of these vans and RVs continue to play a cat-and-mouse game with the city to avoid getting towed. At a cleanup in Sodo last week, several RV and camper residents simply moved a few blocks away from where they had originally parked.

The new initiative comes as King County’s annual homeless Point in Time count found, once again, that homeless vehicle camping outpaced homeless people sleeping in tents. The snapshot count found more than 3,300 people sleeping in vehicles in the county, a 46 percent increase from the previous year.

The cleanup program started on a smaller scale in Sodo in November but has been expanded citywide, in an effort to address serious public-health hazards around vehicles doubling as people’s homes.

Until this program, that was largely done on a case-by-case basis, said Stephanie Formas, communications director for Mayor Jenny Durkan.

City officials reiterated they aren’t trying to force people out of their vehicles or make them move out of a neighborhood. The concern is trying to address the vehicles that are generating large amounts of waste and other public-health hazards.

A man comes back for a wheelchair that had been left behind. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
A man comes back for a wheelchair that had been left behind. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

In eight cleanups planned since May 11, Seattle has towed seven vehicles, while 101 others left voluntarily. In fact, the city canceled two of those cleanups because all the vehicles had pre-emptively moved and left behind no trash, Formas said.

One person living in a towed vehicle moved into a tiny-house village, the city said.

Seattle has struggled for years to address the needs of people living in vehicles — caught between businesses and neighborhood leaders who want the city to consistently enforce parking laws, and advocates for homeless people who say those vehicles are a last resort in a city with increasingly high rents and home prices.

Currently, Seattle has just one lot where the city allows a handful of vehicles to park long-term without fear of being ticketed or towed.

Formas, with the mayor’s office, emphasized the new cleanup program is separate from the city’s strategy to deal with vehicle residency. Durkan said last week she’s studying safe-parking programs in other cities, including a program in San Diego featured in a recent Seattle Times story.

The tension over vehicle residency was highlighted in a King County Superior Court ruling in March, when a judge said that, because a vehicle can be defined as someone’s home, imposing high towing fees and attaching a lien to the vehicle violated the U.S. Constitution and the state homestead act. Seattle is appealing.

Moving and cleaning

By 9 a.m. last Wednesday morning, police officers, public-utilities workers and cleanup crews had gathered near the intersection of Sixth Avenue South and South Snoqualmie Street, a spot where vehicle campers had been living for months.

Five days earlier, the city had posted a notice there announcing an area cleanup. Vehicles that had been parked on the block for more than 72 hours, in violation of a city parking rule, were tagged with orange stickers, warning them to move by the day of the cleanup. Otherwise, they’d be towed.

A sign posted on a tree tells homeless people living on the street at Sixth Avenue South near South Snoqualmie Street in the Sodo neighborhood that they will have to leave.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
A sign posted on a tree tells homeless people living on the street at Sixth Avenue South near South Snoqualmie Street in the Sodo neighborhood that they will have to leave. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

The pilot program, a city blog post said, is designed to “engage RV occupants to voluntarily move their RVs,” allowing city crews to remove trash and “immobile vehicles left behind.” The post, however, does not explicitly say that vehicles could be towed as part of the program.

“The goal is to encourage cleanup around the vehicles,” Formas said. “This is also to make sure people’s belongings aren’t improperly cleaned up,” and they have time to move their possessions. Anything left behind, she said, is assumed to be garbage.

Sites are selected based on the number of vehicles clustered in the location, and “safety” and “health” conditions, including fire-damaged RVs, documented criminal activity in the area, needles, rats or the presence of human or chemical waste.

These are similar to rules set by Seattle to justify cleaning up unsanctioned tent encampments.

Unlike residents of tent camps, there is no requirement that vehicle residents be offered shelter.

And also, unlike tent camps, the city’s Navigation Team — a collection of outreach workers and police officers who connect campers to shelter — isn’t involved in the vehicle cleanups unless there are tents nearby, the city said. Instead, Seattle police officers will do outreach at the sites.

“Help each other out”

At Wednesday’s cleanup, most vehicles parked along Sixth Avenue were gone when city workers from an alphabet soup of departments — utilities, parks, police, transportation and administrative services — showed up.

For the few campers that remained, it was a race to get their RVs running before tow trucks arrived.

One man with a beat-up green minivan helped tow away two of his friends’ RVs. Another couple got help from a friend who hitched up their blue and white camper to his pickup. Down the block, two men used jumper cables to help another man get his RV started.

“If people would keep their area clean, we probably wouldn’t have as bad a problem as we have,” said a woman who asked to be referred to only by Sheila, whose RV was towed out by the man in the green minivan.

“We all move in the same area. We all stay together. We all help each other out,” Sheila said.

Many of the vehicles simply relocated farther north along Sixth Avenue, finding another curb along which to park.

A Seattle police officer and a woman helping watch Wednesday as a tow-truck driver tows away a van in which a homeless man had been living in Sodo.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
A Seattle police officer and a woman helping watch Wednesday as a tow-truck driver tows away a van in which a homeless man had been living in Sodo. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Just before 11 a.m., the first Lincoln Towing truck arrived.

Calvin Hawk had been living in a Chevrolet Astro minivan along Sixth for the last two months. But the battery was dead and the van had a steering-wheel problem. He was out of luck.

Getting it back was unlikely. His sister gifted him the van. He didn’t have the title.

Vehicles that are towed can be retrieved after the owner pays impound and storage fees, but that requires proof of ownership. Often people living in the vehicles don’t actually hold the titles, buying them in under-the-table deals.

“I knew they were coming today,” Hawk said of the cleanup. “I didn’t know exactly when. I didn’t know if someone was going to help me move it. So I didn’t have all my stuff prepared.”

A worker with Seattle Public Utilities stood beside him, trying to help him find shelter and decide what items he wanted to keep or discard. He shrugged. Maybe he’d just abandon all of it, he said.