Republicans want to fine people who live in RVs for parking in public places.
Republicans think people who live in RVs pose a big environmental threat. The truth is nobody really knows. They just want to keep demonizing the homeless. ADAMKAZ / GETTYIMAGES.COM

On Monday the Environment and Energy committee considered a proposal to address the potential environmental damage caused by people who live in their own vehicles. I do not know which overpaid think tank freakazoid wrote this nonsense and handed it to Republican Rep. Morgan Irwin, who is sponsoring the bill, but that person needs to be escorted out of the room.

I do, however, know why two Democrats—environment and energy committee chair Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon and Rep. Mari Leavitt—signed on as cosponsors, but we'll get to their reasoning in a bit.

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First, let's look at the nonsense.

Though it's already illegal to dump raw sewage into storm drains, Irwin's legislation requires counties and cities to establish a program specifically to prevent people who live in RVs from doing it.

The proposal presumes that any RV with a toilet presents a "substantial potential to pollute," and if someone from the Department of Ecology sees one of these vehicles parked in a public place or "located within a high concentration of vehicles," the bill directs the department to mail a violation notice to the person living in that vehicle. Washington State Patrol officers who see an RV with a privy can also slap a notification on the windshield. If the vehicle's resident cannot prove their innocence within 30 days of receiving the notice, they can be fined up to $50.

So much for the presumption of innocence, and never mind the fact that Winnebagos don't come equipped with mailboxes.

The other provisions included in the bill are slightly less dumb, and some are actually pretty good.

Though vehicle residents live all over Washington, the bill specifically requires Seattle (i.e. "cities with a population of at least 600,000") to provide "low-cost" pump-out facilities for people who want to dump their wastewater the right way. (We already do it for yachts! Why not for RVs?) It also authorizes cities and counties to tap into stormwater fees to pay for those facilities, and requires the state to study the impact of these illicit discharges on Puget Sound's vulnerable marine animal population.

Criminalizing Survival Strategies

During public testimony, opponents argued the creation of a new, extremely broad civil infraction essentially criminalizes homelessness, which could run afoul of the Martin v. Boise ruling and render the bill unconstitutional.

Others pointed out that imposing another fine on a low-income population risks exacerbating the homelessness crisis. If law enforcement ends up towing and impounding mobile homes for failure to pay fines, more people will end up on the street.

Dr. Graham Pruss, an anthropologist who has studied vehicle residents for a decade and who serves as a liaison for the unhoused community in Seattle, pointed out other glaring problems with the bill's underlying assumptions.

In a phone interview, Pruss said many people who live in a vehicle with the capacity to store wastewater don't actually use their own toilet because there's no good place to dump the sewage. Many of the RVs don't even have a functioning system in the first place, so there's nothing to dump.

Those who do dump down storm drains, Pruss added, tend to be new to living in a vehicle and just don't know any better. Longtime vehicle residents are often the first to report illicit dumping because the sewage rolls under their own RVs, and they would prefer not to live in a Honey Bucket.

"But illicit dumping is more the exception than the rule in these communities," Pruss said. "A handful of bad apples are doing this."

But on to the Important Question: Are People Living in RVs Killing Orcas with Their Poop Water????

Though everyone recognizes that illicit dumping is bad, nobody seems to know where raw sewage dumped by vehicle residents ranks on Washington's list of major water pollutants.

The Seattle Times published an editorial from two business leaders who guessed that "Seattle RV campers likely discharge more than 1 million gallons of untreated sewage annually into our waterways" based on "Environmental Protection Agency wastewater pump-out and treatment statistics."

But Ecology says the state has "no specific numbers" on how discharge from RVs compares to other discharges. In an email, a spokesperson for the agency said the number from the Times editorial was presented to them in a meeting, but they have yet to analyze it.

A spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities said the agency can't speculate on the editorial's accuracy because they don't know "the background, source information or assumption made in creating that discharge estimate."

Nevertheless, there are already systems in place to deal with illicit dumping. If someone sees anybody dumping wastewater into the drain, the city cleans out the affected catch basins and ditches and conducts encampment cleanups in coordination with social services and law enforcement.

"Addressing the issues that cause homelessness so people aren’t having to live in RVs is the best solution to this problem," said a Department of Ecology spokesperson. "Until then, there are more humane options to prevent pollution, such as providing low-cost to no-cost facilities to dispose of waste and safe and accessible restrooms."

Okay, So Why Are We Even Talking About This in the First Place??

Over the phone, Reps Fitzgibbon and Leavitt said they don't support criminalizing homelessness. Fitzgibbon added that the bill won't pass out of committee if it includes any civil infractions for people experiencing homelessness. "I don't think that's a remedy that's likely to be successful," he said.

Though we have no data, he also doesn't think that wastewater from RVs is "anywhere close to the top of the list in terms of inputs of nitrogen and fecal chloroform bacteria into the Sound."

And yet—though he doesn't think criminalizing homelessness is a good idea, and though he thinks wastewater from RVs probably isn't a major pollutant—he still signed onto the legislation. Why? Because it does contain a few good solutions, and because he wanted to "convey that I thought there was a legitimate issue for us to think about."

In other words, Fitzgibbon has constituents who see homeless people and vehicle residents largely as an environmental problem that needs to be "cleaned up." Instead of ignoring or pushing back against that narrative, which demonizes homeless people and gets us further away from actually solving the root cause of the problem they're identifying, he'll hear a bad bill so he can signal to constituents that uninformed concerns are "legitimate."

As lawmakers keep reminding us, they only have 60 days this session to address several major crises facing the state. Spending a whole morning on a little political move like this is a waste of time, and it's just more evidence that Democrats aren't using their majority to pass the bills necessary to solve those crises. If you want to allow cities to tap into wastewater fees to offer free pumps, just drop that bill and move on! Why do we have to waste time on this other nonsense?

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How Do We Fix the Problem for Good?

The trouble with getting people out of RVs and into housing is that many people who live in RVs don't consider themselves homeless. They've got their house, it's on wheels, there are no other affordable housing options available, and they'd just like a place to go to the bathroom please. Until we build more affordable housing for people living on 30% of the area median income, it's going to be hard to convince vehicle residents to abandon the home they already have.

Washington doesn't have an estimate for the number of vehicle residents in the state, but in King County the estimated number has more than doubled over the last decade, from 881 in 2008 to 2,147 in 2019. That number is down significantly from 2018's estimate of 3,372, but Pruss attributes that drop to a change in the multiplier they use to make the estimate, not to the number of people who are actually out there.

If the legislature actually wants to fix this problem, Pruss thinks lawmakers need to find places for these vehicles to park off the street.

"We have thousands of people across Washington state who live in vehicles in public space because there is no private place to park those vehicles. Without that private space, they don’t have the access to pump-out facilities that might be provided at a mobile home park," Pruss said.

Seattle's history with safe lots has been contentious and unsuccessful, and the latest proposals exclude people who live in RVs from the plans.

Pruss says the problem is cultural. "We see that vehicle as an inappropriate form of housing despite the fact that we have had mobile home parks for decades. Because of that it’s exceedingly difficult to find a space within our system," he said.

Other cities, however, don't seem so shy about having trailer parks in town, close to places where people work and connect with services if they need them. Last month San Francisco opened up a safe lot that serves 30 vehicles. Los Angeles plans to expand its program to provide nearly 300 spots. These programs aren't yet large enough to solve the problem, but they're a start.

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