Homeless on wheels


Booted: the fate of hundreds of homeless who live in their vehicles

The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett writes about the lack of government response to the growing percent of the County’s unsheltered living in vehicles

Every year “Point in Time” homeless counts remain part of the national efforts to end homelessness. In years prior to 2017 in King County (WA), the event sustained protocols that were never inclusive of all geographic areas and used methodology estimating count numbers (2 per tent, 2 per vehicle, etc.). In 2017 the area counted extended to all census tracts, and the method to estimate numbers followed protocols using multipliers based on collective count results (in WA and CA; i.e., less than 2 per X).

What matters is that we cannot compare numbers directly between last year and this year quantitatively. But we can compare percentages. The number of unsheltered living in vehicles in 2016 was 35% of the unsheltered count. In 2017, it is 42%. Aside from any disputes about the numbers, we know we have more persons on any given night who are homelessness on wheels. In total this year, the one-night count found 2314 individuals living in cars, vans or RV’s.

Very little to no funding is devoted to this reality. In the City of Seattle, the only jurisdiction devoting funds toward people living in vehicles, the amount is .5% of their total Human Services spending. In fact, Mayor Murray has no policy in place, or any suggestion one will occur. Almost every nonprofit agency funded publicly and raising its own private funding does nothing intentionally to address persons living in vehicles. The largest response currently happening countywide for those living in vehicles is by faith communities. In fact, as Seattle helps to see between 50-100 folks in vehicles hosted with public funding via a nonprofit over the last several years, outside Seattle faith communities over the same period have hosted more than 1,000 folks with no public funding.

This is not intended to awaken the quick-to-judge as a call to turn all such efforts over to faith communities. Their efforts emerge from the mission they follow as people of faith. Their hosting is built on relationships. Occasionally they use their buildings for some needs, such as cooking and bathroom use, but in most cases they simply host persons in vehicles with needs as they emerge. Stabilizing from harm becomes the prime response. Also, outside Seattle, more faith communities have parking lots they can use.

Indeed, living on wheels is a predictor of harm. While we need to do more research, we know that most if not all jurisdictions have various limitations as to where vehicles can be on public streets. Limitations prevent vehicles from being lived in on most owner-occupied private property. Tickets are given for failing to move within prescribed time limits, so keeping a lived-in vehicle operational is necessary. If the tabs on the vehicle are expired a ticket can be given every day, and most often is. If one doesn’t own the vehicle being lived-in, or needs to renew a driver’s license, or get the registration/tabs current, such efforts to become “street legal” are blocked by any unaddressed tickets.

Camp United (2)

This resident of Camp United found a place to park his camper without fear of eviction but most with vehicles do not

These crises are just the tip of the iceberg for vehicle residents. We call it criminalizing the homeless, and it is done by laws that jurisdictions and the State pass for what we all call “good order.” In Seattle since 2011, we have led the Scofflaw Mitigation Project (for vehicles with 4 or more tickets) seeking to assure no vehicle is impounded. This protocol was started by agreement with the respective Seattle departments under former Mayor McGinn. But there is no similar effort in other cities in King County to keep one from losing a lived-in vehicle to impoundment.

When even as brief a rendering as this is heard by most people their response tends to be shock. Some who live in areas impacted unduly, in their view, by vehicle residency foster toxic narratives about who vehicle residents are. While it is true that some vehicle residents may merit public safety scrutiny, for the most part, most simply want to safely survive.

And, this includes too many households with children. What is at play for some housed citizens are various kinds of NIMBY responses based on being afraid. We continue to witness vehicles being swept from areas where several lived-in vehicles have congregated, and being told by public safety to move on. To where, no one knows.

Because we have a countywide strategic plan to end homelessness, called “All Home,” we have started an effort within that plan to foster policy, protocols, funding, and practice toward alleviating the crisis of vehicle residency. It is regional, splitting King County to 4 efforts, East, South, North, and Seattle. It will be slow because the entire plan, the included jurisdictions, and the residents therein, all face disruption in how things have been.

This reality where 42% of the unsheltered homeless live in vehicles with little to no pathway to be safe, to avoid added criminalization and its debt, and to rarely have necessary survival needs available, must change. We aim to do that. And we will need help.

The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett is Director of The Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness in residence in residence at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church 3030 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue WA 98004 (425.442.5418 ) www.itfhomeless.org




About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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