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With more than a thousand living in cars, what’s the city’s next move?

Mike Burns was one of some 30 people who was swept out of a homeless encampment in South Seattle on June 1, 2017. He lives out of his RV, which is too old to be accepted by area RV parks. Credit: Karen Ducey for Crosscut.com

With the disclosure of new draft legislation that would allow more flexibility for people living in their vehicles when it comes to ticketing or towing, Seattle’s most explosive debate has been rekindled: Where and when people without permanent homes may sleep.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who is leading the effort, said shortly after KING 5 reported on the legislation that he hadn’t intended to bring the issue to the public at this stage. But never mind that: Danny Westneat weighed in with a Seattle Times column Wednesday morning, and hours later, at a council meeting, representatives of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, a group of North End neighbors highly concerned about unauthorized camping and parking, showed up in force.

A slightly reluctant O’Brien officially released the legislation Thursday afternoon, earlier than he otherwise would have. Because a copy was leaked, he says he felt it was necessary to make it public.

The legislation would create a “vehicular residences program” that people living in cars or RVs could enroll in. If those residents agreed to a set of rules — not dumping trash, for example — and agreed to work towards permanent housing, they would be allowed greater leeway when it comes to ticketing or towing for many parking violations. These may include parking for longer than 72 hours on public streets, parking with expired tabs, being labeled as a “junk motor vehicle,” or being labeled a “scofflaw” or frequently cited vehicle.

O’Brien was careful to say the legislation would not change parking laws or necessarily wholly exclude certain people from following those laws. But enforcement — specifically enforcement that elicits a monetary penalty — would be deprioritized. Instead, police officers and human services representatives would be encouraged to work with the vehicular residents to find a better place as well as connection to services. Speaking Thursday, O’Brien compared it to the city’s sweeps policies, which, while flawed in his eyes, hardly ever result in arrests or citations.

Because the legislation is coming out earlier than O’Brien anticipated, some specifics are still unanswered. For example, how the city would keep track of the residents is still being worked out. And whether or not some streets would be less prioritized than others is still unclear.

The premature release of the legislation thrusts the city back into a pitched fight over tent encampments and RVs. The city has tried to set up parking lots for people to permanently store their cars or other vehicles serving as homes, but, with the exception of one remaining lot in SoDo, it has had to close the locations because it failed to keep costs under control. This has helped set up a scenario where hundreds of vehicles and RVs with people living in them are parked on public streets.

As they collect tickets or are immobilized with boots, the concern is the city is only heightening the financial barriers to getting off the street. “Getting tickets becomes par for the course,” said Rev. Bill Kirin-Hackett with the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness.

We are destabilizing someone that wants to be stabilized and in housing,” said O’Brien Thursday. “We are making it worse for the individual.”

As was the case when the council proposed loosening restrictions on camping in some parts of the city last summer, north end neighborhood activists Cindy Pierce and Gretchen Taylor scolded the council for granting what Taylor called an “extraordinary right” that would allow people a “total exemption from fines.” Pierce suggested that perhaps O’Brien move into an RV.

In his column Wednesday, Westneat argued the proposal goes too far, advocating for “maybe a little less compassion” from the council.

Kirin-Hackett, a supporter of O’Brien’s idea, allowed, “Some of [the vehicles] may not be so pretty.”

And candidate for city attorney Scott Lindsay, a public safety advisor to Mayor Ed Murray, has already turned it into a campaign issue, calling it a step in the wrong direction.

O’Brien is resolute nevertheless.“We’re not going to make it any better if we continue ticketing, ticketing and towing,” he said in a recent video posted to YouTube in response to the KING 5 story.

The legislation is tied to a broader discussion within City Hall about how to improve on the city’s approaches to people living out of their vehicles, who, by the city’s estimate, make up 40 percent of the total homeless population. Other proposals include: Expanding mobile medical services; exploring avenues for expanding outreach; and offering vocational training and vehicle maintenance programming. The workgroup also suggests setting up a fund to help people in their vehicles pay off tickets and citations.

O’Brien has also set what he called a “stretch goal” of trying again to establish safe lots for RVs. But instead of a few, large spaces, he sees the city setting up 30-50 smaller lots with space for 5-6 vehicles each. As officers interact with RV residents, the lots could be used as a better alternative to public streets. 

One challenging aspect of O’Brien’s upcoming legislation is coming up with a better way to track people and vehicles, a highly precarious act for a population that often finds itself the victim of crimes. But presenters Wednesday noted several times that Seattle police use very subjective standards for determining when a vehicle is a residence — fogged windows, curtains — that would make it difficult to know when a vehicle is abandoned or not.

One recommendation suggests using the city’s existing license plate reader technology to identify eligible vehicles that shouldn’t be ticketed, but Councilmember Tim Burgess noted the city’s new surveillance ordinance was passed to limit exactly this sort of tracking. The practical considerations, he said, would be a challenge.

Seattle and King County are still under a homelessness state of emergency nearly two years after their initial declaration of a crisis. At last count, 5,485 people were living on the streets of Seattle. Mayor Ed Murray has rolled out a plan for addressing the crisis — Pathways Home — and recently re-bid all the contracts between the city and service providers.

Putting aside the long-term effectiveness of Murray’s plan, short-term issues around homelessness are dogging the city council, as it has for years now. The RV question is no exception.

With the controversy again heating up, O’Brien said he hopes to release his legislation in the coming days.

This story has been updated to include statements from Councilmember Mike O’Brien made Thursday. 

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