Today, City Council Member Mike O'Brien will unveil legislation reforming the way the city tickets and tows parked vehicles when people are living in those vehicles. His proposal seems destined to set off another shitstorm pitting homelessness advocates against NIMBY types, similar to the highly charged debate over the city's homelessness sweeps policy last year.
At last count, 3,857 people were sleeping unsheltered in Seattle and 40 percent of them were living in cars and RVs. If passed, O'Brien's policy would exempt people living in vehicles from paying tickets or having their vehicle booted or towed for one year if they enrolled in a diversion program to connect them to social services.
The law, O'Brien said yesterday, recognizes that "someone who's living in poverty and doesn't have the tools and resources to get into permanent housing and the best resource they have at the moment is a vehicle to live in, for the city to continually ticket and tow and impound them so that they're now living on the street without any of their belongings makes the situation worse for everyone."
Predictably, neighborhood types are already losing their shit.
Over the last two years of worsening homelessness in Seattle, people living in RVs and cars have become a bogeyman for north end neighborhood groups like the Neighborhood Safety Alliance and Safe Seattle, which once mapped where homeless people lived and is now tracking homeless people it says are dangerous.
Earlier this week, Scott Lindsay, former public safety adviser for Mayor Ed Murray and current candidate for city attorney, stoked their fears when he released an outdated draft of O'Brien's RV ordinance. That version exempted vehicles used to by people to commit sexual exploitation (paying for sex). That language has since been removed and does not appear in the version O'Brien will introduce to council. Still, it's out there. KING 5 and others reported on the leaked version of the ordinance yesterday and panic reached the city council.
At a council committee meeting yesterday, the Neighborhood Safety Alliance's Gretchen Taylor said the law would give “extraordinary rights” to “people who will have free will to squat on any and all streets on Seattle.”
Critics of diversion programs for the homeless say they're unfair because they exempt some people from a law others have to follow. But that argument ignores a fundamental economic reality, says Sara Rankin, a professor with the Seattle University law school's Homeless Rights Advocacy Project. "It's assumed the issuance of a ticket would impact a person who’s poor or homeless the same way it would impact most of us," she says. "What [that argument] fails to do is not only appreciate the disproportionate impact our laws have on poor and homeless people, but it also fails to understand the impact that punishing them has on all of us." Slapping poor people with tickets they can't pay or towing a vehicle with all of their belongings can make it even harder for them to get services, jobs, or housing in the future, Rankin says.
Another member of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, Cindy Pierce, scolded O’Brien yesterday, asking him to consult neighborhoods, “not the same political machines that you always put together. Bad idea, Mike, bad.” (The “political machine” O’Brien consulted for this ordinance, by the way, was a group of homeless service providers, legal advocates, and people who’ve experienced homelessness.) Another speaker called RVs in which people live “rolling meth labs" and asked O’Brien if the law would attract “more homeless junkies."
“Let’s start with them camping outside your house first,” the speaker told O'Brien. (Wonder where he got that idea.)
Today, O'Brien will unveil the new ordinance in an effort to calm everyone down. Here's what the current draft of the ordinance would actually do:
• Direct Seattle Police and the city's Human Services Department to create a diversion program (a "Vehicle Residences Program") to connect people living in cars and RVs with service providers.
• Deprioritize parking enforcement for people living in their vehicles if they are participating in that diversion program. That means vehicle residents may still get tickets, but if they were enrolled in the diversion program, they would not have to pay those tickets or risk having their vehicle booted or towed for one year.
• The program would apply to cars and trucks on residential streets, but only to RVs in industrial areas, not residential neighborhoods.
"Nothing in this Section shall be interpreted as preventing or discouraging the Seattle Police Department from enforcing impoundment laws to address criminal conduct or otherwise maintain public safety," the ordinance reads.
O'Brien also intends to seek more funding for services for people living in vehicles and to again attempt to offer parking lots for people living in cars and RVs, similar to city-sanctioned tent encampments. The city has tried this previously but it proved too expensive. In an email to other council members last night, O'Brien said he wants to "develop a streamlined, more affordable parking program." Some details remain to be refined in the ordinance. For example, the program will require tracking vehicles that people are living in, which will bring up some privacy concerns.
The debate over people living in cars and RVs is really familiar. Ten months ago, the City of Seattle was on the verge of making a radical shift in the way it treats people experiencing homelessness. A proposal advanced by O'Brien and several advocacy groups would have reduced the number of homeless encampment sweeps when the city did not have sufficient shelter or housing to offer people living outside. The effort was crushed. In the span of a few weeks, neighborhood and business groups flooded council members with calls, emails, and public comment, raising fears about allowing people to camp in parks and other public spaces. Mayor Ed Murray and his staff opposed the effort, too, and released misleading maps that were reported by some media outlets. Council members were spooked, and the legislation never reached a full vote.
With backlash already swirling, it's hard to imagine this effort going differently than last year's encampment proposal. But that will depend on who shows up.
During yesterday's meeting, several formerly homeless people and other advocates spoke in favor of O'Brien's proposal.
"The fact is that we do not have nearly enough affordable housing," said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. "Until we as a community create that housing, we will have people sleeping outside in tents and unsheltered in our public space and we will have people trying to find some measure of stability and safety living in their vehicles. We need to do better by those people and I believe we can do better."
The TRU is fresh off a successful campaign for a city income tax, in which they pressured council members to support the tax by holding town hall meetings in their districts and then flooded council chambers with supporters for multiple meetings and votes. During last year's encampment debate, a few supporters reliably showed up, but it was angry neighborhood groups who overwhelmingly flooded council chambers and council members' inboxes, pressuring them to oppose protections for homeless people. That's how they won. ("The temperature out there is so high it's difficult to get anything accomplished right now," O'Brien told me at the time.)
If the TRU and others can mobilize and flip the dynamic, O'Brien's new legislation may have a shot.