SEATTLE — Seattle’s new, and only, parking lot for people living in RVs is expected to open in August — more than a year after money was allocated for the project and eight months after it was expected to open.
The Low Income Housing Institute was awarded the $1.9 million project in June 2022 by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. It was the only organization to apply for the job.
At the time, authorities estimated the “safe lot,” as this model is called, would open by the end of the year — a pace that some vehicle advocates criticized for being too slow.
The Interbay site comes at a time when safe lots are gaining momentum across the county. The city of Bellevue created funding for a safe parking program, but has yet to find a homelessness services organization willing to run it. The Regional Homelessness Authority recently asked for bids for organizations to stand up one or more safe lots across King County, offering up to $4.2 million in the first year. But with Bellevue struggling to find an organization to even take on the work, and Seattle’s new site taking more than a year to set up, it’s unclear how soon these new programs could open.
This isn’t the first time Seattle and the Low Income Housing Institute have attempted such a program. The nonprofit housing and services provider operated a lot in Ballard in 2016 — homeless services nonprofit Catholic Community Services was in charge of case management — but it closed after six months when the property owner, Seattle Public Utilities, determined it needed the land for a different project, according to Jon Grant, chief strategy officer for the Low Income Housing Institute.
A site in Sodo followed with even less success as almost no one parked there and three people died there in early 2018.
The institute’s leaders say they have better support now to make this program a success. Every person who enters the RV site, called Salmon Bay, will have access to housing case workers and mental health and substance use disorder support. There will be showers and restrooms, as well as a kitchen.
The housing institute said it’s spent most of the last year evaluating more than 50 available properties, looking for lots that can hold oversized vehicles and a landlord willing to lease to a homelessness program.
After several close calls and incidents of cold feet, the homelessness nonprofit announced in May it had entered a leasing agreement to take over a narrow piece of property in Interbay, located along 15th Ave. W. The lot is owned by Seattle Storm co-owner, Ginny Gilder.
“Homelessness is not going to disappear from Seattle without communities engaging, as we all know,” Gilder said in a public statement regarding the agreement.
The site is expected to hold 26 recreational vehicles and other oversized vehicles alongside nine tiny houses — a form of individual shelter the nonprofit is best-known for managing. Moving into the safe lot will come with one major requirement: Residents must be willing to give up their vehicle and eventually move into permanent housing.
The tiny houses will go to people whose current vehicle isn’t deemed safe enough to stay in.
Every vehicle will go through an inspection that looks for potential risks, including black mold, electrical concerns, damaged fuel lines and gray or black water leaks, Grant said.
If an RV is deemed not fit to live in, it will be demolished. And the others, too, will be demolished after their owner finds housing.
“One of the problems with RV homelessness is that the vehicles often stay in circulation on the streets and continue to decline in condition and become unsafe for habitation,” Grant said. “We don’t anticipate any of the RVs to be in a reusable condition.”
In addition to medically vulnerable and elderly RV dwellers, a portion of referrals will also be provided to vehicle residents living in the Interbay area, so that nearby neighbors will begin to see an immediate impact.
“There are some RV clients who would love to stay in their RV, and this isn’t the spot for them,” said Jen Manlief, manager of the Vehicle Resident programs for University Heights Center.
The organization, formerly known as the Scofflaw Mitigation team, Seattle’s only outreach team for people living in vehicles, is subcontracting with the Low Income Housing Institute to help build its referral list for the program. Outreach workers connect with hundreds of vehicle campers every month, Manlief said, to better understand their needs and determine who might be ready for housing.
The last time this population was counted, in 2020, more than 2,700 homeless people were found to be living in their vehicles across King County. It’s a group with a wide variety of needs.
Chanel Horner, who lives in a passenger bus similar to one used for public transit, said that since Seattle reinstated it’s 72-hour on-street parking enforcement — which allows vehicles to be towed if parked on the same street for three days or more — and because many concrete “eco-blocks” have been placed illegally in parking spots outside of businesses and homes around the city, it’s becoming harder for vehicle residents to find safe places to be without fear of losing their shelter or home.
“We don’t want to be a problem,” Horner said.
She’s been advocating in Seattle for more safe lots for years. Currently, there are three small safe parking sites located across Seattle for people living in vehicles smaller than RVs, Manlief said, and only a few can park there at a time.
For example, the University District safe lot offers 10 parking spots nightly. All vehicles have to leave in the daytime.
Horner said that in addition to this new Interbay safe lot that has clear housing goals, Seattle could benefit by offering more permanent parking spots for people living in vehicles and RVs, like a trailer park.
She serves on the Regional Homelessness Authority’s Vehicle Resident work group. And she’s had her bus towed and taken away for months before.
Helping people in vehicles is complicated because they have an object of value and a roof over their head, they just don’t have places where they can park or exist freely, said vehicle outreach manager Manlief.
Many have jobs, like Tiffany Meek. Meek estimates that she’s been homeless, living in vehicles, for about 10 years in Seattle. She said waiting to find out if you get towed is like playing Russian roulette.
In March, Meek said, every time she has to leave her RV to go to work, she worries if it will be there when she returns.
“It’s sickening really,” she added. “We’re waiting for the bottom to fall every day.”
And it did.
Meek was at a friend’s house a few months ago, using the shower, and missed a call telling her to move her RV or it would be towed. She returned to find an empty parking spot.
She hasn’t been able to get her RV back and is currently surviving by the generosity of a friend who is sharing their RV with her.