Seattle’s Vehicle Impoundment Policy Betrays Contempt, Not Compassion, for Those Living Homeless

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.

15 thoughts on “Seattle’s Vehicle Impoundment Policy Betrays Contempt, Not Compassion, for Those Living Homeless”

  1. Compassion versus contempt is a misleading framework to guide interventions targeting poverty and homelessness. The worthiness of the individual is irrelevant. The guiding principle should be effect. Is the proposed intervention improving outcomes for individuals experiencing homelessness? Is the intervention reducing harm to both the individual and the community? If yes, it’s a good program which should be supported and embraced. If no the program should be rescinded or modified and improved.

    The intervention discussed in the article. the pervasive ticketing and towing or vehicles used as shelter, is clearly failing on the first point. Anyone living in a vehicle who has their vehicle towed and impounded, or even just ticketed or issued a complaint notice and forced to move on, has not been helped. They are not in an improved situation and are less likely to successfully transition into more socially acceptable housing. The impound has made them both financially and materially worse off and more likely to die or suffer due to a lack of shelter, commit petty crime to alleviate their poverty, and degenerate into more dangerous and unstable housing or encampments. The impound also sends a message of disdain and creates emotional trauma. The community is essentially telling them that they are worth less than a parking spot.

    But on the second issue, does aggressive towing and impounding reduce net harm to the community? The answer is not easily determined. The property owner who now has a parking spot near their business rather than a RV encampment likely thinks so. But how about the property owner three blocks aware where the RV moved to? Or if the vehicle is now gone and the person has downgraded to a tent? Or if the parking spot is now covered with concrete blocks and useless to everyone? No net reduction in harm for any of these very likely scenarios.

    After the tow, a similar level of fear of homeless people will remain in the community. Inappropriate trash disposal will remain a challenge for the City to manage. The need for hygiene stations will remain or even increase. The suffering of the individual has increased as have impediments to sustaining employment, accessing medical care, maintaining mental health or a positive attitude, or successfully fighting drug addiction.

    But maybe impounds drive people to accept shelter and begin the process toward socially acceptable housing? The old carrot and stick approach. Unfortunately, the data available from KCRHA points in the opposite direction. Outreach work supporting the process to get someone into low-income housing is challenging. Instability and inconsistent communication make it much harder. Displacement due to vehicle towing and impounds create disconnects between social workers and the unhoused and actually reduce positive outcomes for individuals and therefore increase net harm on the community. Stability begets more stability while chaos generates more chaos.
    In net, impounding vehicles does not help people transition out of homelessness. It hurts them and sinks them deeper into poverty and ultimately makes them more desperate and more likely to cause harm to themselves or society.

    An intervention which directed those living in vehicles toward socially acceptable parking locations, even with minimal services, appears to me to offer the balance between stabilizing and supporting the impoverished individual while offering the community the respite from perceived lawlessness. This is not expensive. The barrier is social acceptance and political leadership and a pervasive view among the housed population that these people are irredeemable and that their homelessness is their fault. The ugly truth is that most of society just wants these people to stop existing.

    Again, my point is that the worthiness of the individual is irrelevant. Even the most despicable unhoused person is helped by being helped. And even the most worthy person is hurt by being hurt. Hurt people create more problems for themselves and others. Helped people are better able to help themselves and others.

    The solutions are simple. They just are not easy.

  2. What many don’t realize – largely because the media has not been correctly reporting it – is that the violence that occurs at some of the encampments is often directed *at* them. People drive by shooting out the windows of the RVs and others throwing things and screaming at them. They may come home to find their things in the ditch. It’s a hard life there and no one there loves it. The most asked question I get on our outreach to vehicles and tents is “where can I go where it’s legal and safe”? When you hear of violence there please remember to ask “who did what to who?” You may be surprised at the response. The death threats from the community for these people who are NOT all drug addicts and criminals is appalling. If you did outreach you would see these are people like yourselves for the most part, with stories and lives. They just may not be as blessed as you to have family, friends, that are available to provide assistance when they lose a job, become disabled, or get old and can’t manage. Some are drug addicts and they require a different type of outreach but they are all lumped together and it is frightening for those who aren’t and are truly trying. Please have some compassion. If we did, we perhaps could have had this solved by now. The misinformation is not helping.

    1. I agree that the media does not do as much as it could to distinguish between unfortunates who are reduced to living in vehicles/RVs and those who either use them as camouflage while committing crimes or who prey upon them in their vulnerability. The rub comes where that happens though: the unfortunates draw the criminal element, and that element does not restrict itself to preying upon them, but preys upon all in the area indiscriminately.

      Sorting out who’s who? I don’t know how we would do that, but I think that’s one effort that could help us think more accurately about this situation.

  3. If they’re in an RV they aren’t homeless…many consider an RV their home…just head to an RV park like they should and pay their rent like the rest of us in homes do…its simple.

  4. Thank you Bill. This article perfectly describes the situation and allows me a way to explain to colleagues, friends, family and my community the issues facing our neighbors. Mary Sweeney- St Vincent de Paul RV Vehicle Outreach

  5. Rev Bill, let them park in YOUR driveway!
    I dare say the majority of King county citizens are sick and tired of coddling drug addicts. Tough love my friend.

    1. It is a common misconception that all of those homeless and living in vehicles of any kind are drug addicts, alcoholics or mentally ill. That’s just not true and unfair to those who have lost their jobs due to illness or economics and have no family or friends to help – like you probably do – and are completely priced out of the housing market. Come out on an outreach and you will find that these are all people just like you and your neighbors. While it’s true that there are mentally ill and drug abusers, that’s also an issue that must be addressed – we don’t have services or places for them to go. You can’t lump them all together though. That’s just not fair.

  6. Good article. Please expose the extreme tow fees and daily storage fees. $265 for an infraction based tow? Outrageous!

  7. I am glad the Reverend brought up the role of KCRHA. I think the cities of King County intentionally set it up to lose, both in order to deflect the blame that should go to them and in giving it a role it was ill suited for. The cities are clearly the governmental body that need to create 0-30% AMI housing. A regional body can help get homeless from one part of the county into housing in a different part. It can also advise cities on how much housing they need to build, and where might be ideal. But it will never be able to let those cities shirk their responsibilities and duties, and that is exactly what they wanted to do with the KCRHA.

  8. I can appreciate this writer’s compassion for the struggling folks living in vehicles, but no, Martin v. Boise is not implicated here, and where is the compassion for the folks who are being forced to endure the filth and depredations these folks bring either on their own or by attracting criminals who prey on them, and anyone else nearby? Don’t those who are enduring thefts, home invasions, and more deserve some compassion as well? Just because they are able to work hard, some at 2 or 3 jobs, to keep themselves housed, is that enough to make them undeserving of civility and compassion?

      1. @A Joy — you’ve clearly never had a few of these parked outside your residence. @Pat’s experience is all too common.

      2. We all must abide by the same laws. We must have compassion and provide service for those that need it. Safe RV and camping lots with trash service, postal address, and bathing / laundry facilities should be created. We do not live in a free for all however. A homeowner or business owner needs to have some legitimate option to engage with the state to remove long term disruptive campers from public property, right of ways, and private property. If we do not provide a legal avenue for residents to keep blighted encampments, whose residents are in the grips of addiction and mental health problems, where trash rodents and human waste pile up, where loud generators run day and night, where drug sales and violence occur regularly, then we will have dangerous intersections between private individuals. Laws keep the worst of us from each other.

      3. No, today I was menaced with a small sledgehammer that if swung into my head would have killed me. All for walking back from lunch in Pioneer Square at 1:00pm on a weekday. After we have had hammer attacks in our light rail stations. Don’t I deserve safety? Don’t my kids deserve a father? I won’t sacrifice myself so that we can tip toe around the obvious truth and be polite to the people that are victimizing us. We have all been too timid and accommodating. We are permissive marks for people who disdain us and want to take anything we don’t or do nail down.

      4. A Better Way I have an encampment so close to me I can see it out my bathroom window. I had RVs parked outside my place when I lived in Lake City. None of that happened there or here.

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