City Plans RV Parks, Crackdown on Scofflaw RV Residents

Magnolia activist Cindy Pierce holds up needles found in her neighborhood.

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.”

21 thoughts on “City Plans RV Parks, Crackdown on Scofflaw RV Residents”

  1. Erica — Perhaps you should saddle up your high horse and ride out to actually SEE the areas where the RVs are parked. You may have attended the meeting at the church not far from the “million-dollar houses and a water view,” but you need to go look under bridges and along railroad tracks instead.

  2. What we need in Seattle are legal, nice trailer parks and RV parks, as well as nice tiny home parks. The problem is that so many assume that trailer park=slum, RV park = worse than slum, tiny houses also=slum. If these are done on land that is supposed to go to help the homeless with housing, according to federal law, we have a good start on fixing this problem.

  3. Erica – Stereotype much? I don’t know where you live, but Ballard and Magnolia are both very diverse neighborhoods. My neighbors in our blue collar, rail-yard/industrial area of Magnolia range from those in the Tent City in Interbay (who we have neighborly delivered a lot of food to), to multi-millionaires and everyone in between. One of the best things about this part of the city is that diversity. Unfortunately some in City Hall have the same roll-your-eyes response to complaints about criminal behavior. Demographic majority/minority has jack to do with it, it’s the fact that the city is allowing known criminal activity to persist because officials don’t want to be seen as criminalizing homelessness.

  4. Not all “homeless” are drug abusers, and not all needle users are drug addicts…. It is sad that the rich only see the homeless as drug abusers and filthy. I see more garbage on the streets of homes after trash trucks roll by them I do in homeless areas. I have seen non-homeless dump trash near the homeless and then take pics and blame it on the homeless. It is disgusting.

  5. Erica – why such a negative tone? You express a lot of anger in your ramblings. Don’t believe residents in Seattle neighborhoods should expect a reasonable response from SPD for crimes being committed in our city? Don’t like your view from your residence? Get out and explore this wonderful city and neighborhoods, you may be able to expand your narrow, silly perception of Seattle. Be open to the good!

  6. Christian: No, I don’t live in Magnolia or west Ballard or any neighborhood with million-dollar houses and a water view. Instead, I live in a neighborhood where I am demographically in the minority, where a guy with a backpack doesn’t elicit 911 calls, and where crime is about four times higher than in Magnolia. Ya got me.

  7. how to “address the pipeline to poverty”

    That will come when the economic inequality in our country is effectively addressed. In the meantime we must cope with the fallout from our inaction on the subject. Coping involves spending money and devoting resources for those who have fallen to the bottom. These short term solutions will be complicated because “delayed maintenance” on our economic system only serves to complicate the immediate problem and makes it more difficult to solve.

  8. Regarding the mobile meth lab fear:

    our neighborhood has experienced waves of the problem RVs, often at the same time as non-problematic RV denizens.

    One in particular was problematic even for the other homeless RV inhabitants, threatening them when cops would come to investigate reports of disturbances and so forth. This specific RV at one point experienced a loud explosion in the living quarters that blew out windows and (I was told by one of the RV people who was being harrassed by this RV’s tenants) tore a hole in the shell of the RV. He stated that he understood it to have been an explosion associated with cooking meth.

    When one of the problem RVs arrive, property crimes in the neighborhood immediately increase, usually along walking routes to and from the location of the RV to the nearest arterials (Northgate Way and Aurora, in our case). The crimes are largely package and mail theft, car rifling if left unlocked, and somewhat weirdly, baby strollers, which are commonly left on people’s front porches i guess. there are waves of break-ins in the area as well but they do not seem tied to the RVs.

    Attempting to deal with the police on this stuff is intensely aggravating. The nature of mail theft is such that there’s no meaningful local enforcement mechanism, and the RV issue is well-discussed. The net result is that the neighborhoods feel abandoned by the city and resentful toward the police.

    One response from police regarding this has been that it is necessary for the neighborhoods to organize to bring political pressure on the city, and that seems to be happening. An implication I have perceived in conversations with the police is that one of the goals of this political pressure should be to release the department from DOJ oversight, which I think is wrongheaded.

  9. Doing something on a scale of 40 to 60 RV s is absurd. The situation requires a lot for 1,000 RVs. Mike and his predictions – of course it will come true because the vision behind the “solution” is so inadequate. He cannot even get the scale right.

    Please notice OBrien doesn’t say how to “address the pipeline to poverty”

    He doesn’t have a plan – just empty words and implied criticism for those who find the City’s efforts a failure

  10. If you think this is purely “NextDoor-fueled hysteria,” then clearly you don’t live anywhere near these areas. Don’t get me wrong, I have great sympathy for those in a bad way, and who just need a dry place to sleep. But in amongst those people are plenty of people who get by with theft and drug dealing. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of used needles in the areas where these guys park and camp. We (and our neighbors) have had numerous things stolen from our property, and I have actually watched a guy walk up our alley and steal something from a neighbor’s carport. When I called 911 to report the crime in action and actually tailed the guy from a safe distance, there was no police response at all. Zero. It seems that if you want to be a criminal in Seattle these days, all you have to do is buy a crappy RV to use as a basecamp, and you’ll essentially have free reign. If RV’s parked in the neighborhood, but were good neighbors, and not stealing and throwing garbage and feces all over the area, then we wouldn’t mind at all.

      1. incorrect, the original poster’s usage is accurate: “free reign” means having free rule or dominion. “free rein” is a malapropism based on the mistaken understanding that the term derives from a horse whose rider is not excerting control via the reins.

        As the RV inhabitant in the lassage above is not a horse to be guided but an individual with free agency, the correct usage is plainly apparent.

      2. @Mike Whybark:

        You’ve got it reversed. At least, according to OED, “free rein” is the earlier, as well as more common, usage.

  11. Advocates have been asking for such a program for a long time. Happy to see it is finally going to happen.

    That said, it remains to be seen how these sites will be managed and what the screening criteria will be, i.e. who will be allowed to park there.

    The solution to the crisis, however, lies with more housing and supportive services. Be sure to vote for the renewal of the Seattle Housing Levy. That will definitely help.

  12. Good policy imo, but it’s sad to see that policy is accelerated when, “The neighbors are screaming”. Policies should be implemented on their own merit.

    1. No Zach people were mostly articulate and spoke intelligently. The city is way behind on dealing with this problem. I had a local Ballard homeless man tell me that Washington State is just too generous, Did you know we have the 3rd largest homeless population in the county in Seattle? Do you think that is right?

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