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Businesses: Seattle lacks plan for RV 'homesteaders' as rats, garbage proliferate

KOMO News photo

SEATTLE - Tony doesn’t hesitate to show off the filth he is living in.

“It stinks, it smells, I kill all the rats, 30 last week,” says Tony in a mix of English and Spanish.

He is one of a half dozen campers that remain in Seattle’s only city-sponsored RV lot for the homeless located on Spokane Street near 4th Avenue.

“I feel bad I poison the rats” says Tony showing of a paper bowl of rat poison mixed with peanut butter inside his run-down trailer.

The trailer and what’s inside is all he has. He blames the city and a business for tearing down a shack he had been living in for 16 years off Airport Way near the infamous Jungle homeless camp.

“I lose my kitty cats, I lose my dog, everything when they destroyed that,” says Tony. “I need to get out, God will open the door for me, God’s going to open the door, I’m going to find some job and a place to move my trailer.”

But he doesn’t know where he will move his trailer and he doesn’t want enter the merry-go-round that is parking on the street only to be told to move every 72 hours by parking enforcement.

The City of Seattle is slowly phasing out the RVs on the city-owned lot. There are only six RVs or trailers left. The only people allowed to stay here on a "waiting list" for temporary or permanent housing. It’s the last place where the city allows someone to park long term for free without fear of getting ticketed or towed.

After these last campers leave, a spokesperson for Seattle’s Homeless Response says tbe lot will close, leaving only a church in Ballard as the only "safe" lot for vehicle camping by the homeless - and it doesn’t allow RVs.

“You told me you going to get me an apartment, give me my apartment, no play games, no play games,” says Tony, referring to the city of Seattle.

The plight of Tony exemplifies what critics say is a lack of a city policy for people living in vehicles. The One Night Count in January showed nearly the same amount of people living out of their vehicles than were living on the street in King County – a rise of 46 percent from the 2017 count.

Seattle’s Customer Service bureau has received nearly 10,000 complaints of abandoned vehicles over the last year in the city and some of the vehicles are homes for people who have no home.

The city of Seattle plans to spend $84 million on homeless services in 2018. Millions will be spent on providing temporary shelter for people living in tents, but some argue the city could take some pressure off the shortage of shelter beds by establishing a policy that lets people stay in their RVs safely.

“There’s actually a greater burden for people living in vehicles than in a tent - you can be swept in a tent but in a vehicle you can actually end up losing your vehicle and have substantial fines,” says the Rev. Bill Krilin-Hacket, director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness.

He and volunteers often get calls from Seattle police before someone is about to get the vehicle impounded so they can find a way to move the vehicle or provide shelter space.

He points to City Hall for not making a decision on how to handle people living in vehicles or not providing a designated area where they can park without the fear of getting ticketed or towed.

“I take it back to leadership; it’s a leadership decision,” says Kirlin-Hacket. “Ask Mayor Durkan, we’ve been trying to meet with her since she got elected, we can’t get an answer from the city.”

Overshadowing any decision on vehicle camping is the case involving Steven Long. The homeless man was living out of his truck in 2016 when it was towed and impounded. He couldn’t get it back because he couldn’t pay off the ticket and impound fees.

A legal team took on his case and presented a unique defense, claiming under Washington state’s homestead laws his personal property was his home and was not subject to seizure because he had no money to pay the impound fees. The law was intended to protect one’s home on real property from being taken during a bankruptcy.

The argument worked and in March a King County Superior Court judge ruled the city could not seize his truck because it was his home and the city violated Long’s 8th Amendment Right to excessive fines and penalties.

Homeless advocates like Krilin-Hacket saw it as a victory but Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes did not and is now appealing the case.

“If this ruling is allowed to stand, my fear is the City would effectively lose control of its streets,” says Holmes. “If Mr. Long can declare a homestead by parking on the street than anyone can, and the ability of the city to police its own streets would be severely compromised.”

Business owners in SODO where a majority of vehicle camping takes place inside the city are already seeing the effects.

“What has happened since that court cause is a sense of entitlement and a sense of 'we don't have to move,'" says Erin Goodman, executive director of the SODO Business Alliance. “So the garbage has exploded, we have huge piles of human waste in the streets and a real heightened aggression.”

Holmes predicts the case won’t be heard by the Court of Appeals until the summer of 2019. In the meantime, he says the city should go about its business of continuing to enforce its parking enforcement rules, including no parking in one spot for more than 72 hours.

When asked if there was a plan for a new policy on vehicle camping and designated parking areas, the mayor’s office responded with statistics relating to a new 2-month-old initiative involving community policing officers and Seattle Public Utilities to move and clean up targeted camping areas.

The mayor’s office says 17 targeted clean-ups have been completed so far in eight neighborhoods. Some 302 vehicles left voluntarily, 29 were towed and five were junked. Of the 171 people contacted, 40 were interested in services and 102,061 pounds of garbage were taken away from those sites.

Holmes says cities around the surrounding area and outside the state have contacted his office to ask questions about the Long ruling and how the city plans to handle it going forward.

Holmes is not afraid to forecast what could happen if the Court of Appeals rules against the city, thereby giving a person whose primary asset and home is their vehicle the right not to move when asked.

“Because they can simply say, 'Nah I’d rather not. I want to stay here, and the law is on my side."

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