By The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett
In January 2023, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority announced that addressing homelessness in King County would cost about $12 billion and require “tens of thousands more units of housing.” Local officials immediately balked. Two earlier plans to address homelessness were unable to address homelessness successfully, so why should the region spend billions more?
But the alternative, especially for people living in vehicles, has been increasingly onerous and cruel.
This past summer, I filed public records requests with the city of Seattle for all vehicle impounds between January to May 2023. I filtered these impounds to include only that were most likely to be vehicles used as residences: RVs, Campers, Detached Trailers, and Buses, and found that 1,441 of these four vehicle types were impounded over just five months.
The four most common impound reasons included, in order of severity, were: Violations of the city rule requiring vehicles to move every 72 hours, improper licensing (such as expired tabs), having a detached trailer, and parking in prohibited areas, such as residential neighborhoods and retail zones. The list justifying impounds also included another 17 violations, such as: Parking too close to a sidewalk or a stop sign; blocking a trail; determined to be junk; illegal blocking, such parking in front of a hydrant; parking in a loading zone; improper curb orientation; double-parking; and parking in an intersection, all as determined by a parking enforcement or police officer.
When the KCRHA has to use its limited funds, which come largely from Seattle, simply to keep people cast to the streets by impounds alive, that money is wasted and success continues to elude us. People will blame the regional authority, when in fact, it is as much the failure of every city to address their frequently punitive control of the streets.
The city does not offer people shelter prior to any of these impounds, since in every case, their owners are violating some law. Yet in my view, this appears to constitute a violation of Martin v Boise, the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruling that requires cities to offer shelter before they order anyone living in homelessness to move from a public location.
Why are so few people who are swept while unsheltered—and living in a vehicles counts as unsheltered homelessness, according to HUD—not offered shelter? The city may well argue that Martin does not apply to vehicle residents since the ruling says nothing about people living in vehicles. Maybe more compelling is that there is nothing close to an adequate amount of shelter available. And for people living in any vehicle other than a passenger car, leaving their vehicle for a single bed in a shelter—basically all that is ever offered—is nonsensical.
This shortage of shelter spaces also impacts the formal process the city uses for responding to vehicle residents who are asked to move by the Unified Care Team, which carries out the city’s formal Remediations, Relocations, and Removals program. Under this program, staff from the Human Services Department are required to offer shelter to every unhoused person who must move. Vehicle residents who decline shelter and cannot move have their vehicles impounded.
But even if the city offers some kind of shelter in every case—which some city-funded outreach providers dispute—if the people living in a vehicle are: 1) a couple; 2) pet owners; 3) with children; 4) trans; 5) and so on, there often are no appropriate shelters.
During 12 years of outreach in Seattle to those living in vehicles, I’ve seen that funding is only half the answer to addressing homelessness. Yes, money is needed to provide services and such. Yet elected officials also control the streets and all the public terrain where homeless persons encamp—the other half of the reality of homelessness. By enforcing laws to impound vehicles where people are living, the city is imposing brute force in the form of sweeps, setting back efforts to assist those living homeless to move toward stability.
Elected officials may well balk at the overall cost of addressing homelessness. But the hidden impounds I’ve described have a cost as well. When the KCRHA has to use its limited funds, which come largely from Seattle, simply to keep people cast to the streets by impounds alive, that money is wasted and success continues to elude us. People will blame the regional authority, when in fact, it is as much the failure of every city to address their frequently punitive control of the streets.
In Seattle, there was a better agreement from 2011 to 2020, through the Scofflaw Mitigation program initiated by the Mike McGinn administration. The 2011 Scofflaw Ordinance, which allowed the city to boot and impound vehicles if their owners had four or more unpaid tickets, threatened an enormous escalation of impounds. We in the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness approached the mayor and jointly formulated a partnership with parking Enforcement and the Municipal Court.
The group we formed was, and is, called the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, and for more than 10 years it kept impounds from tickets in the single digits. The current administration ended the program in 2022. Now, 1,441 impounds have occurred in just five months.
The agreement was that parking enforcement would inform us when any vehicle was close to accumulating four tickets, putting it at risk of impound. We would then do outreach to address the tickets and provide whatever the person needed to get their vehicle moving again. The group we formed was, and is, called the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, and for more than 10 years it kept impounds from tickets in the single digits. The current administration ended the program in 2022. Now, 1,441 impounds have occurred in just 5 months, from violations the administration has deemed impound-worthy.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who during World War II sought to halt the harm in Germany, described the attitude of the nation’s leaders, which also spread among many of the German people, as “a contempt for humanity.” Does this describe some of the attitudes we who are housed have toward those unhoused? Does it describe some of the attitudes of those we’ve elected to govern? Do we have a collective “contempt” for the unhoused?
Key questions for our future include: Can we suspend law enforcement long enough to help the vulnerable? Can’t we do better for our vulnerable neighbors than “sweeps?” Are we half-hearted?
These are questions for jurisdictional leaders and for all of us who vote for them. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has stated it is against sweeps as a tool for addressing homelessness. Why? Because it wastes precious money, and because too many people are dying. But the authority cannot change exacting harm via the law without elected leaders putting unhoused people first, or at a minimum, setting aside “contempt.”
The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett is the director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, in residence at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.