The 2017 One-Night Count found 5,485 homeless individuals sleeping outside in Seattle and King County.  That’s in addition to 6,158 men, women and children who found a bed on the same night in overnight shelters or longer-term transitional housing.

Of those outside,  2,314 individuals spent the night in their vehicles. As many as 1,500 inhabit Seattle neighborhoods in about 1,000 cars and RV’s, a 50 percent increase since the 2010 One-Night Count.

For those living in their vehicles, it’s not just a place to sleep, but their principal lifeline to finding a job, going to school, getting to services they may need and ultimately returning to the world of the housed.

The vast majority of vehicle campers are constantly on the move to avoid running afoul of the 72-hour limit on parking in any one place. Eventually most get ticketed. Those who cannot pay wind up losing their vehicles and belongings, driving them further to the margins and deeper into chronic homelessness.

Effectively, we’re throwing all vehicle campers into a carceral net, not just the few who may cause problems.  Sara Rankin, Seattle University Law Professor who’s extensively studied the problem sums up the governmental response this way: “Cities both embrace direct criminalization of vehicle residency while turning a blind eye to the disproportionate impact of traffic penalties — including both fines and vehicle impoundment — on a population that has no reasonable alternatives.”

Until we solve homelessness — and that begins with stopping the accelerated loss of existing low-cost housing in our city to redevelopment -- we’re going to have more and more people spending the night in their vehicles.

Despite the urgent need for responsible and compassionate solutions, little has been done by city leaders. While the Mayor launched an effort in 2012 called the “Road to Housing,” it largely consisted of allowing a handful of churches scattered around the city to open up their lots at their own expense to a total 40-50 vehicles. The city did open three sanctioned lots, but without adequate staffing; only one now remains serving a handful of campers. That too soon will close.

There also is a ‘scofflaw’ program run by the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness to help vehicle campers pay their parking tickets and get their cars out of impound or obtain relief from the judge from paying fines they cannot afford. Operating on a shoestring without city funding, this program is only able to reach a relative few.

To date, among city elected leaders, only Councilmember Mike O’Brien has shown the courage to step forward and offer a more compassionate approach to this issue.  For his efforts, so far, he’s been met with outright hostility and his proposals grossly mischaracterized and even exploited for political gain by City Attorney candidate Scott Lindsay.

So what is O’Brien offering?  First, he’s set in motion a process — far from complete that will rely intentionally on continued community input--leading to establishment of 30-50 city-sanctioned safe lots, each serving no more than 4-6 vehicles placed throughout the city on either public, private, or church property. Unlike the city’s earlier attempt to sanction sites, these would be fully funded, supervised, and with outreach workers and counselors helping to ‘navigate’ vehicle campers into services, jobs, and permanent housing. This fall at budget time, city leaders must commit the dollars to make this program work.   

O’Brien’s other key proposal, also still in flux, calls for some kind of tolerance policy for vehicle campers who agree to participate in city and church programs aimed at moving them into permanent housing. This doesn’t assume waiver or removal of restrictions now on where vehicle campers may park or the 72-hour limit. However, police would deprioritize ticketing participating vehicle campers. And of course this would not waive enforcement of drug offenses or other criminal offenses whether committed by a housed person or a vehicle camper.

These are starting points for discussion that O’Brien has offered when no one else in power has truly stepped forward. Those who simply call for more punishment, tickets, jails and social control only make the problem worse.  It’s an unacceptable status quo.

We need to stop dehumanizing people whose only ‘crime’ is that they have no choice but to sleep in a tent or in their vehicle. Among them are women, children, and youth who are victims of domestic violence, seniors, veterans, the disabled, and disproportionately people of color. Study after study over the years always show the great majority want a job, want services, and would gladly accept housing if they could afford it.

Instead of allowing a situation to ferment with angry neighbors taking photos of homeless vehicle dwellers and hysterically labeling and stereotyping and calling for more police and more crackdowns, our city electeds need to demonstrate leadership by proposing, discussing, refining and funding practical solutions. Mike O’Brien is trying to do just that.

We applaud O’Brien and other electeds, the churches, the ACLU, and those neighborhood leaders willing to make an honest and sincere attempt to address this crisis realistically and compassionately.