A fatal motor-home fire raises the question: What happened to the plan rolled out by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray last January to help people living in their vehicles? In short, the plan largely collapsed.
It was the kind of death that doesn’t usually get much attention: a man under a bridge, lying face down on what appeared to be his bed, in an RV that was his home.
Daniel Jackson’s motor home, parked under Sodo’s Spokane Street Viaduct, caught fire around 3 a.m. Jan. 5. Smoke killed the 37-year-old. Fire officials said smoking materials likely ignited a couch and debris.
As far as the fire investigation went, the case was closed.
Yet it served as a reminder that hundreds of Seattleites still live in motor homes despite an emergency plan rolled out by Mayor Ed Murray last January, raising the question: What became of that plan?
It largely collapsed.
“We tried it,” said Sola Plumacher, a Human Services Department strategic adviser. “We realized it wasn’t the most effective use of dollars.”
The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, said, “The city has no plan in place for people living in their vehicles.” In fact, said Kirlin-Hackett, who often works with people living in recreational vehicles, it never had a plan far-reaching enough to tackle the problem.
The One Night Count of homeless people last January estimated that 900 or more people were living in vehicles in Seattle — about a third of the city’s overall homeless population.
But the city, facing both urgent calls to stem the growth in homelessness and vociferous neighborhood complaints about crime and trash believed to be associated with people living in RVs, hoped to at least make a dent in the problem.
Murray announced a year ago that the city would open two “safe lots” where a total of roughly 100 RVs could park without having to worry about getting tickets or having their vehicles impounded for violating parking rules. The city would provide security, sanitation and garbage service, and case management to help move people into housing.
While the city was getting those lots set up, it would open three interim parking “zones” with basic services.
In the end, though, not all those sites were opened, and the city scaled back to only one, for 15 RVs.
In the bitter January cold, a few hundred yards away from charred debris and shattered glass left by the deadly RV fire, Robert “Robz” Archibald summarized the situation. “This is the only lot left,” he said.
His RV, with a “Keep Washington Green” sign on the windshield, sits on a 2,600-square-foot parcel just north of the viaduct between some train tracks and Second Avenue South.
The location is not ideal, Archibald said, struggling at times to make himself heard above the roar of passing trains. He cited noise, lights and fumes, and the distance from any amenity other than a Burger King a block away. The 56-year-old, who lives off disability payments, said health problems make it hard for him to walk.
Despite a short nightly visit by a private security officer paid for by the city, Archibald said, people wander through at all hours, trashing the port-a-potties and overfilling the dumpsters placed there by the city. They leave a trail of intravenous needles.
Still, he noted, caseworkers from a city-funded program, called Road to Housing, come by regularly.
“I know they’re trying,” he said. “They’re good people.”
Because of their help, Archibald expects to move into subsidized housing run by a nonprofit in the next month or two. It will end two years of living in his RV, ever since he separated from a longtime partner.
So he’d like to see the safe-lot program expanded. “There should be more places for people like us,” he said.
Closing the lots
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The city was spending $35,000 a month, or about $1,750 per vehicle — as much as it costs to rent an apartment — to run its first intensively managed safe lot in Ballard, opened in February and providing drinking water, electricity, round-the-clock security and an on-site case manager. The RVs that came there were so large the site could accommodate only 20 of them, less than half the number planned, said Plumacher, the Human Services adviser.
After a month of that, the city decided not to open a second site in Delridge.
And when it could no longer use the Ballard location for RVs due to a construction project, the city closed that site too, last summer. Just a handful of people had gotten housing, according to Plumacher.
The city cast about for what to do with the rest; it had already decided to close its interim lots. Officials settled on opening one more lot that would be cheaper, by the Spokane Street Viaduct. The city said it didn’t have figures available for exactly how much the lot cost, but the old interim sites, with similar services, cost about $5,300 a month.
The city is not planning to open others, Plumacher said.
Aside from that 15-spot lot, officials are doing what they did before Murray’s emergency plan: funding Road to Housing to provide outreach to RV dwellers wherever they’re parked. That includes several church properties where a collective 12 spaces are reserved for RVs, and out-of-the-way streets from Sodo to Ballard that have become motor-home magnets.
Of 123 people served through the outreach program last year, 29 got housing, according to Plumacher. She noted that the city is also working with Public Health-Seattle & King County on a program that provides medical care to the homeless, including motor-home residents.
Asked whether the city is working on any other plan for this population, Plumacher said “not at this time.”
The city has instead spent a lot of time figuring out what to do with encampments after the deadly shooting at The Jungle, which happened soon after Murray announced his plan for RVs.
Since mayoral announcements can go by the wayside, Kirlin-Hackett said he would like to see an ordinance laying out an RV policy. Otherwise, he asked: “Who’s going to hold them accountable?”
The mayor’s office declined to comment, referring questions to Plumacher.
And so, similar patterns are re-emerging, including gripes about RVs. Joe Palumbo, owner of Magnolia’s 3D Total Health, told KOMO News that customers are voicing concerns about a line of motor homes parked across the street.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, Palumbo said his gym was previously located near the interim RV lot in Interbay, and he had hoped to get away from that by moving. “If they’re supposed to be in a designated lot, then that’s where they need to go,” he said of the RVs, being under the impression that the city’s emergency plan was still in operation.
The lives inside
Danny Fletcher, who had parked at the Interbay lot for months, spending his days in a friend’s old school bus and his nights in a Pontiac Aztek, is back on the city streets. When the city closed the lot, it forced him out. He said he tried to settle in the Sodo lot but was forced out of that, too, because he didn’t have a permit.
Plumacher said she couldn’t comment on why he didn’t get one, but speaking generally, she said space is limited and reserved for people who agree to participate in Road to Housing.
Fletcher, 33, a sometimes-defiant voice against city policies, maintains he tried Road to Housing but his paperwork was lost. “I don’t want anything to do with the city anymore,” he said.
The former military police officer, who says he cannot find a steady job, now parks near a fence on a Sodo side street. “I like it over here,” he said. “There’s less traffic. There’s grass against the fence. At nighttime my dogs can run around.”
At the moment, his green-striped, 36-foot-long RV — bought for $50 recently at an auction for impounded vehicles — houses three people and four dogs.
Ryan Shandera also parks outside the city’s Sodo lot. Standing by his van on a recent day underneath the Spokane Street Viaduct, he was using a tool plugged into a generator to sand small rocks into marbles.
Although he didn’t want to live in the lot, he said it had drawn him there. Because the city knows it’s a homeless area, he said, people who park there don’t get hassled.
Like a number of other RV residents, Shandera doesn’t want to live in a lot designated for homeless people — another challenge the city has faced in coming up with a workable policy. “I don’t want to be a homeless person,” he said.
He wants to be normal, the 33-year-old said, like he was before he started living in his van a year and a half ago. He had gotten an MBA at Pepperdine University and spent two and a half years at the University of Washington law school, both schools confirmed. He said health problems, including HIV, interfered with his UW studies.
You never know who might be living in their vehicles. And there’s little that’s still publicly known about the Jan. 5 fire victim. Jackson once had a fiancée, according to court records. He had done cage fighting in Alaska. His driver’s license listed an address in the Eastern Washington town of Ephrata, Grant County.
He also was on medications that made him angry, his fiancée wrote in a July petition for a protection order, after an alleged assault.
Who knows whether or not he would have gone into a city safe lot? At the Sodo site, there wasn’t any room.