Images from a 2012 Seattle University report on the ways parking laws that affect people living in their vehicles.
Images from a 2012 Seattle University report on the ways parking laws that affect people living in their vehicles. seattle university

Getting signatures from mayoral candidate Cary Moon and both Seattle City Council Position 8 candidates, Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda, a group of advocates delivered a letter yesterday urging the city council and mayor to change the city's approach to the homelessness crisis.

"To criminalize people for performing necessary life-sustaining activities in public spaces when there is no housing available to them is ineffective, costly and inhumane," the letter reads.

The recently launched Housing for All coalition is advocating for fewer sweeps of homeless encampments, increased funding for affordable housing, and alternatives to ticketing or towing vehicles used as homes.

People living in their vehicles run the risk of violating traffic laws, like the city's ban on parking on a city street for more than 72 hours. That can result in tickets or towing, a result advocates and some on the city council say only makes it harder for people to get housing.

Speaking to reporters about those demands Monday, Real Change vendor George Sidwell said he's been living in his van for 16 months.

"There is no way I can afford housing in Seattle and also pursue my goals I have in my life," Sidwell said. His van has been towed once without notice or a ticket, Sidwell said. "My van was just gone," he said. "I had to call the police department to find out how to retrieve my home." Sidwell missed a day of work and used his savings to pay to get his van back.

Council Member Mike O'Brien has a proposal to create a diversion program that would allow people living in vehicles to avoid tickets and towing for one year if they access social services. The council has not yet taken up the proposal.

O'Brien also proposes new safe lots for people living in their vehicles, an idea the city tried but ended the program after months when it became too expensive. Mayor Tim Burgess's recently announced city budget includes funding for a new team of outreach workers and cops to work with people living in vehicles. The budget will also fund a "needs assessment" to figure out what would help people living in cars get into housing.

It's hard to tell exactly the scale of the problem O'Brien is trying to address (or, conversely, how likely it is that the neighborhood activists who oppose his plan will see their nightmare scenario of widespread vehicle living).

Last year, Seattle Police impounded 27,676 vehicles, according to a list SPD provided to The Stranger through a public records request. However, neither the police nor the city's Finance and Administrative Services Department, which oversees homeless encampment cleanups, could say how many of those vehicles were believed to be used as residences.

The SPD impounds cars for various reasons, including parking in a tow-away zone or in front of a fire hydrant, improperly displaying a license plate, expired tabs, getting a DUI, and so on. Some laws may be particularly relevant to people living in their cars, including the 72-hour rule. Of the 2016 impounds, 2,346 were for violating the 72 hour rule, 455 were for scofflaw (meaning they had four or more unpaid parking tickets), and 186 marked abandoned. Of the total 27,676 vehicles, 125 were RVs, according to the city's records. Violating the 72-hour rule was the most common cause of RV impounds.

At last count, nearly 4,000 people slept unsheltered in Seattle, 40 percent of them in vehicles.

"How does the city expect us to be able to get into permanent housing if you continue ticketing us for living in our vehicles?" Sidwell said Monday. "How does the city expect us to save to get inside if you are towing our vehicle and it is costing $400 to get it out of impound. Even though it is safer than being outside, you still wonder if your vehicle is going to be gone when you get back to it. It's a small fear that I have every day when I leave to go sell the paper, speak on homeless issues, or advocate on homeless issues."