SEATTLE — In the past year, there have been two false alarms at the RV encampment along Southwest Andover Street in West Seattle.
Each time, officials placed red “no parking” signs and pasted bright orange notices to windshields, warning that the vehicles were at risk of being impounded if they weren’t moved, said Garth Carroll, also known as Gizmo.
Carroll has lived on the street for more than two years, since Seattle stopped enforcing the rule that vehicles can only be parked on the same block for 72 hours because of pandemic concerns. In October, the city resumed enforcement, but it said that city crews would provide warnings and education before more serious consequences.
Since then, the Seattle Department of Transportation has issued about 3,350 citations and impounded 1,700 vehicles.
This month, the Seattle Department of Transportation announced that the city will resume “full parking enforcement” for any vehicle that has not moved for longer than 72 hours and return to pre-pandemic standards.
“Public streets are not an appropriate place for long-term vehicle storage,” the announcement said.
Around Thanksgiving of last year and recently last month, Carroll’s RV was tagged with the familiar orange sticker and Carroll braced for the worst. But both times, no one said he had to leave.
Recently, Carroll has heard the rules around towing vehicles have changed, but largely he is confused given the false alarms.
“It creates a whole tsunami of panic and fear and worry and feeling threatened and terrorized by parking enforcement or the city,” he said. “We’re afraid of losing everything, our home, our property, our tools.”
Other RV encampments across the city also have recently seen “no parking” signs and orange stickers in recent weeks and other people have been similarly confused, trying to navigate where exactly parking enforcement stands on the issue, said Bill Kirlin-Hackett, the director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, which now runs the Vehicle Residency Outreach Program/Scofflaw Mitigation.
When enforcement resumed in October, it was unclear at the time what that would mean for people living out of the vehicles after a Washington Supreme Court ruling in 2021 that said impounding and auctioning off a vehicle that someone lives in was a violation of a frontier-era law called the Homestead Act.
At first, the city said it would focus on towing only vehicles that were unoccupied and presented a hazard, such as leaking sewage or fire risk.
Now, city transportation officials say the ruling still allows the city to impound illegally parked vehicles but prevents them from charging an “excessive fee” if the owner lives in the vehicle.
Advocates say they are frustrated by a lack of clear communication on how consistently the city intends to enforce the 72-hour rule and whether that means impounding RVs. Advocates also say that even with the legal ruling, the rules around impounding vehicles still criminalize homelessness and prevent people from fully recovering their vehicles.
“It’s just a giant mess, and nobody’s running the ship,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “Everybody is doing their best not to address the Supreme Court rule. They’re doing their best to make it very confusing around the 72-hour rule.”
Jamie Housen, spokesperson for Mayor Bruce Harrell, said the city still provides warnings before moving to ticketing and impounding vehicles. Impoundment is only used as a last resort if someone “ignores the warnings and refuses to temporarily move.”
“If a person is living in a vehicle, then we will make multiple attempts to notify or talk to that person to encourage them to move their vehicle,” Housen said in an email.
Seattle has scheduled six removals of RV encampments throughout June in North Lake, Ballard, Georgetown and in West Seattle along the street Carroll is now parked, according to the Vehicle Residency Outreach Program.
Since moving to Southwest Andover Street, Carroll has accumulated a box truck, where he stores his tools, a vehicle he’s fixing up and two other small vehicles that he intends to eventually sell — in addition to the RV he lives out of.
Carroll said he has gotten to know his homeless neighbors, who keep an eye on his stuff when he’s away picking up groceries or getting water.
Carroll’s RV now runs but isn’t drivable partially because of the weight of a battery bank and a tarp fixed to the top to prevent leaks, he said.
In the past two years, car and RV encampments have become somewhat permanent features in some neighborhoods, drawing ire from locals and business owners both as an eyesore and as a source of property crime.
JW Harvey, one of the owners of the Orcas Business Park in Georgetown, said he and his 70 tenants have struggled with break-ins, catalytic converter theft and siphoned gas for more than 10 years. After installing nearly 30 security cameras, Harvey said it could not be clearer to him that the local homeless population is the cause.
The issue has gotten particularly worse during the pandemic, he said.
Harvey said he often lends the RV residents outside his business tools to fix their vehicles, provides water, and has in the past towed people’s vehicles to different blocks to help them avoid impoundment. However, Harvey said he needs the city to do more to help businesses like his.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction. I am glad that they’re bringing [the 72-hour parking rule] back so at least something can be done,” he said.
In Seattle, vehicles over 80 inches wide cannot park overnight on any street unless they are in an area zoned for industrial use, like in parts of Ballard, Interbay, Sodo and Georgetown.
Before the pandemic, people living out of their vehicles moved around regularly because of the 72-hour rule, but since then, many vehicles haven’t moved in months or years. In some cases, vehicles are still running or only need minor repairs. In other cases, the vehicles are completely inoperable or hazardous because of mold or pests.
The city facilitates a pump-out program and a trash pickup service for RV encampments, which has shown success at reducing sewage spills onto city streets. But there are still few services targeted to people living in vehicles.
Within that group, there are diverse needs. People who live in cars are often newly homeless, and more eager to stay in shelters than people who live in RVs, said Maureen Ewing, the executive director of the University Heights Center, which serves as the fiscal sponsor for the Vehicle Outreach Program. RV dwellers are more resistant to staying in shelters where they cannot store all their belongings and tend to have been homeless longer.
Kirlin-Hackett, of the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, is one of the few people focused on helping this population. He said the city’s parking enforcement system is cumbersome for homeless people.
If a vehicle is towed, the owner can request a Seattle Municipal Court hearing within 10 days to contest the action or request a payment plan.
The vehicle can still be auctioned if the owner does not contact transportation department contractor Lincoln Towing about an expedited hearing or if the court determines the impound was proper and storage fees were appropriate and the owner is unable to pay.
People can also request to collect belongings from the vehicle if they contact Lincoln Towing within 20 days of the impoundment.
But, Kirlin-Hackett said that in his experience, even when people contest excessive fines in court, judges do not always consistently forgive fines.
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority wants to use $1.9 million allocated by the Seattle City Council to create a safe lot for oversized vehicles to park during the day and overnight, with services to connect vehicle dwellers to permanent housing as well as showers and restrooms.
The authority hopes to have an operational program by early June, homelessness authority spokesperson Anne Martens said.
The authority is also requesting an additional $5 million in its 2023 budget for additional safe parking for about 130 vehicles, which could serve RVs or passenger vehicles depending on need, Martens said.