They picked the spot randomly: Briar Rose Williams, 21, and her boyfriend were running out of time on the truck they’d rented to haul their travel trailer Tuesday night, and they couldn’t put it in front of the apartment complex where they were staying with a family friend.
They happened to park the trailer in front of Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s home.
“We were under the impression it wouldn’t be an issue,” said Michael Cox, 25, who plans to live in the trailer with Williams, who is 10 weeks pregnant.
That random decision, combined with a few other coincidences, would put them at the center of a storm of politics and community uproar.
In the days preceding the incident, Ari Hoffman — a vocal critic of councilmembers like Herbold and their handling of the city’s homeless crisis — had been threatening in emails, online and on multiple talk-radio shows to tow illegally parked trailers and RVs to city councilmembers’ homes if they didn’t deal with the problem.
Even though Hoffman hadn’t left the trailer there, word of its appearance made it to local media outlets, including the KIRO Radio show hosted by conservative personality Dori Monson.
Monson didn’t think Hoffman was responsible. But he saw a good story.
“I had nothing to do with this,” Monson wrote on KIRO’s website Wednesday, the day after the trailer appeared. “But am I enjoying it immensely? Yes, I am. I can’t hide that. This is what has been happening around the city. This is the nightmare with which residents have been living.”
What followed was a firestorm of frustration toward homelessness that sucked in Williams, her family and several media outlets, including The Seattle Times. Before it was over, Williams would be threatened with a knife, the trailer vandalized and she and her boyfriend would become public figures across the city, when all she wanted was a home.
A cascade of coincidences
The couple parked the trailer Tuesday night with the help of Williams’ godfather, Robert Fredriksen — struggling with homelessness himself due to health issues — whose family they’re staying with. They’d found it online for $1 and bought it, even though it was full of trash and clothing. They planned on cleaning it out and living cheap in a campground in the Seattle suburbs while Cox got a job.
Williams and Cox both had rough childhoods and absent fathers, they say. Williams’ mother kicked her out when she was 14 and she’s bounced from family, to her godfather, to youth shelters. Cox struggled with mental illness and drug use as a youth, but he says he’s eight months sober and cleaning up his life.
As they were parking in front of Herbold’s West Seattle home, a neighbor saw the trailer and sent a photo to Matt Watson, an activist who often criticizes Hoffman online and was aware of his threats to tow trailers to councilmembers’ homes. Watson posted the photo and said Hoffman, or someone working with or inspired by him, was to blame.
Hoffman couldn’t be reached at that time, as he had turned off his phone in observance of Yom Kippur from Tuesday to Wednesday evening.
When The Times called Monson to ask if he or Hoffman was involved, Monson denied knowing anything about it, but he spoke about it on the air that afternoon, amused by what he assumed to be an act of protest from a listener or admirer.
With word out on the radio, the trailer quickly became a spectacle. A self-proclaimed fan of Monson showed up and spray-painted ‘Dori 4 Gov’ on the side of the trailer, according to a video posted to the show’s Twitter feed, with “This is pretty great!! #RVgate #FedUp #WakeUpCouncil.” KIRO Radio reporter Carolyn Ossorio apparently entered the trailer and tweeted a video showing the mess. That tweet has since been deleted.
Mike Salk, the director of Seattle programming for KIRO’s parent company, Bonneville International, said in an email that the issue “is an internal matter we are in the process of investigating.”
“We understand and are sympathetic to folks that find themselves in a situation where they are living in a trailer and we are also sympathetic to the homeowners and business owners that are impacted by those same RV’s (sic),” Salk said Thursday. “Hopefully, the end result here is a deeper and more meaningful discussion in our community.”
The politics around homelessness, in a county with one of the largest homeless populations in the country, can feel like a contact sport. Debates about the issue are highly charged, from last year’s repeal of a tax on large businesses to fund homeless services, to the ongoing discussion about the connection between homelessness and mental illness and substance abuse.
Hoffman and Monson often spur controversy when they talk about homelessness. Monson has compared homeless people to deer he chases out of his yard when they eat his plants and once built an encampment on a Seattle sidewalk to see how long it would stay up.
When Cox and Williams took a bus back to check on the trailer and clean it out, they were shocked. TV news crews were there, parking enforcement was notifying them they needed to leave in 72 hours, and there were several onlookers.
As they stood there trying to make sense of what had happened, two of the onlookers started insulting them for being homeless, Williams said. Cox began yelling back, and then one of them threw a glass bottle at Williams, according to a police report. When she threw it back, one of the onlookers drew a “what appeared to be a long kitchen knife,” according to the report.
As Williams and Cox did more interviews, word spread that the whole thing was, in fact, a coincidence.
When Watson, the activist, found out about the mistake, he was floored.
“I and virtually everyone else that looked at it saw there was this mile-high stack of circumstantial evidence, that turned out to not be true,” Watson said. “All reasonable signs pointed that way, and it turned out to be this one-in-a-million fluke.”
Watson decided to try and make it right: After contacting Williams and posting on Twitter and Facebook, Watson raised over $5,000 to pay for the vandalism and to help Williams with the baby.
When Williams woke up Thursday morning, she was blown away.
“The most I’ve ever seen in my bank account was $600,” Williams said.
Monson, meanwhile, turned the debacle into the lead segment on his Thursday show, inviting Fredriksen, Williams and Cox into the studio and giving them $100 of his own cash on the air, to pay for cleaning the graffiti.
“KIRO radio’s not paying for this, I’m paying for it, even though I had nothing to do with it,” Monson said.
When a Times reporter reached Hoffman on Wednesday night and alerted him, he said it “was bound to happen eventually.”
“I feel bad for everybody in this situation, but at the same time, what does the City Council expect when they let this situation get so out of control?” Hoffman said.
But Williams and Cox do feel as if some good came out of this. Standing in front of the trailer on Thursday night, almost 48 hours after they originally parked it, Williams and Cox met Herbold for the first time as she headed out to a debate.
“I’m really sorry those people threatened you,” Herbold said. She offered to park her car on the street and let the couple park the trailer in her driveway. They say they plan to temporarily take her up on the offer.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.