Mayor Ed Murray will soon propose the creation of several reserved parking lots for at least 50 homeless people living in RVs and campers, several city council members said this week. Murray’s spokesman Jason Kelly said they wouldn’t be able to comment on their plan until next Tuesday, when, presumably, they’ll be rolling it out publicly, although he did say the exact number of parks Murray will propose is still an open question.
Council member Sally Bagshaw, who is spearheading the effort after a recent meeting in Magnolia left her horrified at photos of needles and piles of trash, says she doesn’t know yet where the camps will be, but says it will be a matter of “weeks, not months” before they’re up and running. Council member Mike O’Brien says he hopes to see a lot up and running within a month. “I think it’s going to be way accelerated,” O’Brien says. “It’s a state of emergency.” (Literally: Mayor Ed Murray declared homelessness an emergency in November, allocating $5 million to address the problem, although some advocates are skeptical.) “I am willing to put myself on the line and say look, I support this. Do I wish I wish I had a year to work a process and find a lot that has everybody’s buy-in? Yes. But I don’t have that right now. We’ve got to do this.”
Another reason for the city’s accelerated response? “The neighbors are screaming,” O’Brien says. Asked why the city was moving so quickly (when Tent City, in contrast, went through a tortuous year of debate before opening), Bagshaw says, “There’s a ton of pressure being applied.” For example: At last week’s meeting in Magnolia, homeowners in west-side neighborhoods told lurid stories about people living in “illegal RVs,” cooking meth, dealing hard drugs, running sex-trafficking rings, and leaving needles, garbage, and feces all over their parks and streets. (SPD spokesman Patrick Michaud tells me, “I have yet to see [a report of a mobile meth lab] come through our office—that doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but I have yet to see it. At press time, he was checking in to crime reports related to RVs and specifically the “mobile meth lab” claim; I’ll update this post with any additional information he provides.)
Those complaints sound an awful lot like NextDoor-fueled hysteria, and, even if they are accurate (Bagshaw says she doesn’t know if the police have actually found even one mobile drug-production site), the private social-media network has whipped some neighbors into a rapidly escalating frenzy. Meetings of Magnolia and Ballard homeowners have reached a pitch that I haven’t heard in many years of reporting on neighborhood issues in Seattle, and seem to serve mostly as firing squads for neighbors to take aim at what I’ll call the messy homeless: Those whose presence is visible, annoying, and potentially (though not likely) a danger to others around him. These people are generally dismissed as unwilling to let themselves be helped, and many neighbors (or at least the most vocal ones) have said in public and on NextDoor that they should be arrested or told to “move along.” (Even Bagshaw, who wrote that she heard neighbors’ “concerns loud and clear,” says “some of these neighborhood blogs have gotten themselves wired up” with escalating stories that may or may not be accurate).
The new RV parks won’t serve the messy homeless. Instead, they’re meant for the much larger group of homeless people who want permanent housing but are down on their luck and would welcome the presence of services, restrooms, and occasional food. “My belief is that most of the people who are living in their vehicles, they’re just trying to get along. They’re just trying to survive,” Bagshaw says. “If we can provide them with a stable place to be where they can either save money or get services if they need something, we can provide that and then help them find regular, permanent housing.”
O’Brien, who has subjected himself to many angry neighborhood meetings (about rogue RVs but also about organized, city-monitored tent encampments) says large parking lots are not his preferred solution. A few years ago, he launched the Road to Housing program, which provided people who were living in their cars a safe place to park at several churches around the city. But even at its peak, that decentralized program only served 26 individuals, and that program cherry-picked people considered most likely to succeed and find permanent housing. “I know that as we expand the program to get bigger and bigger, we’re going to run into more challenges. That’s just the reality,” O’Brien says.
Among those challenges: Multiple people with a range of problems living in tight quarters; a greater need for restroom and garbage facilities; and the simple fact that, whatever happens in this first rush to get RVs off streets and out of homeowners’ hair, multiple neighborhoods are going to have to accept a large RV parking lot in their midst, and RVs are even more visible and obtrusive than highly-controversial tents.
O’Brien is skeptical that the RV detractors in Ballard and Magnolia will welcome RVs back into their neighborhoods, even in an organized parking lot. “I asked that community [Magnolia], ‘Will you support it if I bring them back to Magnolia?” They didn’t yell,” O’Brien says.
“I mean, that would be extremely hypocritical to say ‘not in our neighborhood.'” We’ll know soon where the parking lots will be, but good money says they won’t have views of the water.
As for the messy homeless–those with major addiction problems that make them “resistant to services,” those who don’t want to abide by the rules of the RV compounds, or those who are engaged in serious criminal activity–they’ll be dealt with on a case by case basis, though it’s unclear exactly how.
“The guys that are committing crimes, that are selling drugs, or even building their own drugs inside the vans and having their own labs—that’s criminal behavior and it’s not going to be tolerated,” Bagshaw says. “I know the difference between the low-level [drug dealers] where we really need to be able to provide them help and the people who are committing crimes and causing harm to others.”
Even three parking lots won’t come close to serving the 175 to 200 vans Bashaw says police have counted in Magnolia, Queen Anne, Ballard, and the South Precinct, and more people are ending up homeless every day. O’Brien says he anticipates a day when, after the parking lots have been open six months or so, neighbors from Magnolia will complain that there are now 30 campers on Thorndyke Ave. W, even worse than the current dozen, and charge officials once again with failing to do their jobs.
“The thing that scares me, I guess, is that I can walk through all the other steps we have to do—we’re going to set up some places for vehicles to go, maybe there’s more tent cities, we’re going to add a couple hundred more shelter beds—even if we do all those things, and let’s just pretend for a second that we can do them really well and we’re successful, it’s highly likely that even after we do that there are going to be more people on the street,” O’Brien says.
“That’s why I can’t ban RVs,” as some at last week’s meeting demanded, he continues. “I don’t want another person to go buy an RV and go park on the street, but there are people who don’t have a better option other than to go and buy an RV. And every month, we have more and more of those. Until we address the pipeline of people that are entering poverty, we’re not going to fix this problem.”