By the end of the year, Seattle will have a new parking lot designed for people living in their RVs, where they can park safely, use hygiene amenities and get support with the hope of finding permanent housing.
This isn’t the first time Seattle has tried safe lots for RV dwellers. Former Mayor Ed Murray funded one in Ballard, which lasted for six months in 2016. Similar programs have started in Seattle, only to later close.
But this new program — the only one of its kind in the city — falls under the recently formed King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and organizers hope that after learning from past attempts, this time will be different.
On June 15, the authority awarded the Low Income Housing Institute, known as LIHI, $1.9 million to create the Seattle RV Safe Lot. The contract begins this month and runs until December. The project was requested by the Seattle City Council, and close to $1.2 million of the funding comes from federal pandemic relief.
LIHI was the only organization to apply for the project, according to Anne Martens, spokesperson for the Regional Homelessness Authority. LIHI is a large homeless service provider that offers hygiene centers, shelter and permanent housing, but it’s possibly best known for the 17 tiny house villages it operates across the region, including 11 in Seattle.
It also ran that short-lived Ballard safe lot back in 2016.
Depending on how long it takes LIHI to find a property to lease, or possibly purchase, and install appropriate utilities to meet hygiene needs, which will include a hygiene trailer with showers, restrooms and laundry facilities, LIHI spokesperson Jon Grant said they “aim to have the program open by winter.”
Currently, the fenced-in safe lot is planned to hold 35 RVs and about 50 people, but who will be prioritized for placement has yet to be determined. But there’s no shortage of people to help.
During the 2020 point-in-time count, more than 2,700 people were found to be surviving in their vehicles and RVs across King County — which makes up around half of the county’s unsheltered homeless population.
Because the initial contract is only for six months, the Regional Homelessness Authority seeks an additional $5 million for 2023, which would maintain the new Seattle site and expand the program to other places.
Nearly $700,000 of the initial $1.9 million budget will go toward safe-lot staff, including an operations manager, 24/7 security, two case managers, two RV support specialists and a behavioral health specialist, according to Grant. Around $350,000 will be used for site development and setup. And the remaining $850,000 will be directed toward meals, operational costs, towing and helping people pay for housing applications and move-in deposits.
The Scofflaw Mitigation Team, which has provided vehicle outreach for years in Seattle, will work with LIHI to set up this program and offer advice, said the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett. He’s the director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, which oversees the Scofflaw Mitigation Team.
Kirlin-Hackett supports the safe lot, but he wants it open sooner than LIHI is planning. “We cannot wait until winter to only provide 35 spaces,” he said. “Unless we enlarge the scope [of the program], it’s going to take five years to make a dent and we think that’s too long.”
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who leads the council’s committee on homelessness, said this program is badly needed, and he wants to work with LIHI to decrease permitting timelines to get the site up and running before winter. “I am down to do whatever is in our power as a city to expedite the timeline,” he said.
Providing support to people living in vehicles looks different from helping someone living in a shelter or outside in a tent, said Martens, spokesperson for the Regional Homelessness Authority.
A report on vehicle residents, released by the authority last week, found that people living in cars or RVs have a greater sense of autonomy and, naturally, feel a strong attachment to their property. To create a program that can successfully get these people into permanent housing, Martens said, creating vehicle storage is critical.
“Storage is an essential part of helping people understand that they’re not going to lose anything,” she said.
In the past, the homeless system hasn’t really been designed to work well for vehicle dwellers, said Karina O’Malley. She is the coordinator of the Safe Parking Program at the Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, which serves 100 to 200 people a year.
“The current shelter system is just leaving out vehicle residents,” O’Malley said. “For a long time that was the only way to get case management. You could go into a shelter and risk losing your vehicle.”
Many vehicle dwellers in Seattle are facing greater risks after the city’s Department of Transportation began enforcing its 72-hour parking ordinance again in October after largely abandoning it during the pandemic.
Since October, Seattle has issued about 3,650 citations and impounded 1,900 vehicles due to the 72-hour rule, but not all of those were for vehicle dwellers, according to Ethan Bergerson, a spokesperson for the city transportation department. He said the majority went to unoccupied or abandoned vehicles. However, examples of stronger enforcement are beginning to play out across the city. Last week, a group of vehicles and RVs were cleared in West Seattle.
When O’Malley founded the Safe Parking Program in Kirkland in 2011, she couldn’t find any programs to model it after in the region, and certainly nothing like the RV safe lot was happening back then.
She’s glad to see that some things have changed.
“I love that they’re finally acknowledging that there’s a responsibility to come up with some kind of path forward for folks living in vehicles.”