by Erica C. Barnett
This is a story about a new park for people, a proposed park for dogs, and how confusion among at least four city departments has left more than a dozen people living in RVs and trailers in a state of limbo, living on disputed territory amid neighbors—including a permitted tiny house village—who want them gone.
It’s also, inevitably, a story about homelessness: A reminder, in a city where people without permanent places to live are routinely swept from place to place, that even the urgency of a global pandemic has not produced lasting solutions to a problem that is currently more visible than it has ever been. Because while the city’s policy of removing people from public spaces based largely on neighborhood complaints has subsided in the past year, that short-term reprieve hasn’t been coupled with enough new shelter or housing to get more than a few hundred of Seattle’s growing homeless population indoors on even a temporary basis.”
“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land.” Greg Ramirez, board chair, Georgetown Community Council
The story begins, as a lot of stories about homelessness seem to, in the Georgetown neighborhood, where the Seattle Parks Department is just starting construction on a new park facing the Duwamish River across from Boeing Field. The Gateway Park North project will improve and provide better access to a tiny piece of riverfront land that’s partly occupied by the out-of-commission Georgetown Pumping Station.
Since March, the city tacitly allowed people living in RVs, cars, and trailers to occupy the site, which is owned by the Seattle Parks Department. In early December, however, the department put up signs announcing it was about to start work on the new park and warning RV residents that they needed to be gone by the following week. REACH, the nonprofit that had been doing outreach to the vehicle residents for the last eight months, worked quickly to figure out where the residents wanted to go and how to get them there; since many of the RVs had been sitting in place for longer than usual, 11 of them no longer ran.
“We talked about who needed to move and asked them, ‘Where do you guys want to go?’,” said Dawn Whitson, a REACH case manager who works in Georgetown. “They had already identified the site—the Georgetown Flume.”
The Georgetown Flume—so named because it was the site of a flume that transported water from the Duwamish to the Georgetown Steam Plant, which closed in 1975—is another disused property a few blocks north of the pumping station site. Seattle City Light owns the land, but plans to give it to the Parks Department in exchange for a street vacation (the permanent closure of a public street) on property it owns in SoDo. Street vacations require some kind of public benefit; hence the trade to Parks. The plan is for the property to become a dog park for the surrounding neighborhood.
“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land,” Greg Ramirez, the board chair for the Georgetown Community Council, said. “We want to assist these individuals to find a better location, but this is not it. The flume is not that spot. Gateway Park North is not that spot.”
“If the city is going to pay for [RVs] to be towed to the impound yard, why won’t they pay for people to have places to go?”—Dawn Whitson, REACH
Georgetown is already the site of one longstanding tiny house village run by the Low Income Housing Institute, which the community council and other local groups initially opposed but which, according to Georgetown Tiny House Village Community Advisory Council chair Barbara Grace Hill, has since become “a big part of the neighborhood.” (According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, “we are on record supporting the dog park.”)
The issue, Georgetown residents say is that nobody at the city asked them what they thought of the idea. This, they say, is part of a pattern that has included not just the tiny house village but the proposed relocation of an overnight sobering center into a historic building in the neighborhood core—a proposal that would have put the sobering center far away from other city services. “It’s been a pattern with the city,” Hill said. After a neighborhood lawsuit helped sink the sobering center proposal, “it was like, again, ‘Would you please communicate with us? Would you please let us know what’s going on?'”
LIHI director Lee said her organization, which worked hard to establish the tiny house village as a respectable and integral part of the Georgetown community, also opposed the move. “We have a lot of residents who have been [unsheltered], and if people come over and say, ‘We need to use the shower or toilet or kitchen,’ our residents are caring and loving and inclusive but during COVID, this is not the right time to have people going back and forth,” Lee said. Without restrooms, handwashing stations, or basic hygiene services, she added, “it’s just not set up to be a good place to stay long-term.”
It doesn’t take a graduate degree in sociology to know that drawing distinctions between “good” and “bad” people experiencing homelessness can be problematic—the “good,” neighborly, clean and sober homeless people in the tiny house village over here, the “bad,” recalcitrant, potentially criminal RV dwellers over there. Hill described some of the RV residents as “people who are living outside any law that the rest of us, as community members, would abide by.” Ramirez said some of them were “involved in illegal activity—selling drugs” and stealing items from nearby homes, and that “there is concern about bringing some of the illegal activity closer to the neighborhood.”
When Hill and Ramirez draw distinctions between law-abiding tiny house village residents and RV dwellers who exist outside the law, they are both describing their own experiences and perceptions as longtime Georgetown residents. But distinctions like these can create a powerful backlash. Whitson said her clients tell her that they’re often treated like “this disease that needs to be eradicated.”
They can also pit homeless people themselves against each other, creating class distinctions among a group of people who are already at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The residents of the tiny house village are clean and sober, and work to keep the area around the village clean and free of unauthorized campers, which tends to improves their standing in the eyes of their neighbors as well as the city itself. The people who live in RVs, in contrast, are often seen as problems to solve, and described as “service-resistant” when they turn down “opportunities” to give up their vehicles and most of their possessions and move into congregate shelters.
Georgetown residents aren’t the only ones who have objected to the RVs’ new location. So did City Light, which apparently informed HSD that the trailers weren’t welcome on their property. (When I called the City Light employee most familiar with the situation in Georgetown, a spokeswoman responded by sending me a terse, generic statement from the city that did not answer any of my questions.)
So how did they end up there? By policy, officials with the city are not allowed to tell people living in their vehicles, or the agencies that advocate for them, where they’re allowed to be. But there is a loophole: Human Service Department employees can tell organizations like REACH whether a certain location—a large, empty lot owned by City Light, for example—is the site of imminent development or not. In this way, they aren’t telling homeless people that they can be in a location, but they aren’t not telling them that, either.
Whitson said she sent a pin of the location, along with a photo of the site, to a former member of the city’s recently diamantled Navigation Team, who reminded her that the city couldn’t tell her where RVs were allowed, but noted that nothing was happening at the site in the immediate future. As a result of this not-quite-go-ahead, REACH assumed the RVs would be safe at the Flume location until construction started on the dog park at some point in the future. At that point, Whitson—aided, she said, by a representative from Seattle Public Utilities’ “purple bag” encampment litter removal program—called Lincoln Towing and used REACH funds to have the company tow the non-running vehicles and trailers to the Flume site a few blocks away.
Problem very much not solved. Days later, Whitson said, both she and REACH diruector Chloe Gale got calls from HSD officials telling her they had been mistaken—the RVs and cars, most of which still didn’t run, had to get gone.
Whitson said she was blindsided by the news. “I was hoping it would be a chance for us to show a different model,” she said. “To my way of thinking, if the city is going to pay for folks to be towed to the impound yard, why won’t they pay for people to have places to go? Now, in hindsight, it makes sense because if they tow somebody anywhere, they’re going to catch all kinds of heat.”
CDC guidelines explicitly recommend that cities allow unsheltered people to stay in place during the COVID pandemic unless “individual housing options” are available. With some high-profile exceptions, the city has pressed pause on homeless encampment sweeps since last March. Although no one I contacted at the city provided specific information about whether and why people living in RVs are treated differently than people living in tents, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities did let me know that, since the RVs were moved, SPU has started “providing services to those in RVs who relocated, including purple bag trash collection and wastewater removal assistance.” There are still no handwashing stations, toilets, or running water on the site.
The City’s vague statement about the RVssays that “[s]teps are currently being taken to address this situation and move the vehicles from the site” by the end of the year. But it’s unclear how the city plans to make that happen, and where the RVs are supposed to go. Whitson says the city needs to give “some reason that extends beyond the fact that they have a plan in the future for a dog park here” to justify uprooting people who have been moved over and over again. Hill, from the tiny house village advisory council agrees. “They’re just going to be moved and moved and moved again,” Hill said. “This is not a plan. No one wins, including the people in the RVs.”
Whitson believes that unless the city “provides a space and a plot of land where they have permission to be,” they shouldn’t kick the RVs off the Flume site. She says that she, too, likes the idea of a dog park. But it’s telling, Whitson continues, that the city took the time to prepare a disused property for a dog park while continuing to punt on providing safe spaces for RVs. “What that tells me,” she said, “is that you are prioritizing dog parks over the right for these human beings to exist.”