SEATTLE — Joe Ingram doesn’t have a good memory for most things, but when he meets someone living in an RV or a vehicle, he doesn’t forget them.
“This is Anne — she and her son live here,” Ingram said last Thursday as he pointed at RVs and trailers as he passed them in Georgetown. “This is Christine.”
When the 66-year-old outreach worker, who chain-smokes and walks with a cane, doesn’t know a vehicle, he’ll knock on the door and deliver his pitch: “Hi, I’m Joe. I’m with the Scofflaw Mitigation Team; here’s my card. I can help you with a parking ticket or if you get towed. I can help you potentially get into housing.”
He often points out that in the five years he’s been doing this, he hasn’t lost a car to the tow yard yet.
More and more often since COVID-19 hit, Ingram runs into campers who live in increasingly broken down vehicles. The mayor lifted a rule that said a vehicle can only occupy a parking space for 72 hours months ago, and now, homeless campers are letting their batteries die and their belongings pile up outside their RVs and vehicles.
“When they reinstate it, it’s going to be a cluster-f—,” Ingram said conspiratorially to a van-camper, pulling down his mask and lighting a cigarette. “We can help you on the road to housing.”
There were close to 3,000 people living in their vehicles in King County at last count, according to a January tally that advocates say is an undercount. Though large, it’s a population that’s largely ignored by Seattle’s homeless services providers: there are less than 20 parking spaces set aside for vehicle campers at churches around the city, and this year was the first time Seattle spent money on outreach specifically for this population.
For years, the Scofflaw Mitigation Team was a volunteer-run operation focused on people who have nowhere else to live but a van or RV and rack up large unpaid fines. This year’s budget gave $100,000 to the team, making Ingram and another staffer paid employees.
But under Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2021 budget proposal, that team could lose its funding.
Vehicle campers are a tough group to get off the streets, according to the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, founder of the Scofflaw Mitigation Team.
“For a very short term, it can feel better than a tent,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “That doesn’t make it good.”
Further upstream, once the state rent moratorium lifts, many homeless advocates expect a wave of evictions. The first place many will likely live is in their car.
And as soon as the parking-fine moratorium lifts, Kirlin-Hackett said the impact would be a different wave, sweeping people out of their vehicles and onto the streets.
Kirlin-Hackett has been in a weekslong back and forth with city council aides and the Human Services Department trying to figure out why his program is getting defunded at a time when car-camping is likely to rise.
On the surface, the reason seems simple: There’s a budget crunch with low revenue forecasts next year, and the Scofflaw Mitigation Team’s primary focus has largely been on helping people with legal problems, not housing, which is the city’s focus, said Will Lemke, a spokesperson for the Human Services Department.
“(Our) policy has been to fund homeless services that are proven to end someone’s experience with homelessness — that’s why we’ve pursued things like tiny house villages and enhanced shelters,” Lemke said.
Lemke said that the team does alleviate some of the challenges of living outside, but it often does not end someone’s homelessness.
“So when we’re faced with a budget crisis, we’re going to prioritize funding for programs that meet our top priority,” Lemke said.
There are bureaucratic problems, however, below the surface — ones that often plague understaffed nonprofits. Ingram and the team have been working for years as volunteers and aren’t part of a formal homeless-service-provider organization, so the Urban League, an outreach organization that already contracts with the city, acts as fiscal sponsor and subcontracts to the Scofflaw Mitigation Team.
“(The Scofflaw Mitigation Team has) always been a volunteer group, and I believe they’re a bunch of well-meaning people doing volunteer work. But they’re not used to paperwork,” said Linda Taylor, vice president of housing at the Urban League. “And the things that we’ve been asking for haven’t happened. Or have happened haphazardly.”
Kirlin-Hackett argued that the slowness in getting the program formally started was because of COVID-19, and now that they’re up and running, they’re building good momentum. For instance, Kirlin-Hackett said they unsuccessfully spent years trying to meet with Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best. Her successor, Adrian Diaz, met with Kirlin-Hackett recently and assigned an assistant chief to act as liaison to the group when parking enforcement writes tickets for people they suspect are living in their cars.
City council could still return funding for the program — a final vote will be cast Nov. 23. Likely, another program would have to be cut instead, though.
The cost of the program is relatively small compared with what the mayor has proposed for homelessness spending in 2021: $151 million, higher than this year’s record spending. But it means a lot to Ingram: He started volunteering with the team because he’s been homeless on and off for much of his life.
In fact, he expects to move in with a friend in Woodinville next week, a more permanent roof after living in the South Lake Union Holiday Inn for three months. The rent will eat up all the Social Security money he receives because of his disability. He’s lived in his car before, and hopes he won’t end up parked next to the people whose doors he’s knocking on.
“So I’m going to put in as many hours as I can before the end of the year, so I can pay ahead a couple months’ rent,” Ingram said.
If he doesn’t get paid to do this work anymore, though, Ingram said he’ll keep on doing it as a volunteer, money allowing.