The Mayor’s plan to get RV’s off the streets is a total bust

Remember back at the beginning of the year when there was all the fuss about homeless people living in RV’s on the streets of Seattle? And the Mayor put forth a plan to create RV “safe lots” to get them off the streets, provide some basic support, and help them plug into the human services system? Well, two weeks ago Scott Lindsay, Special Assistant to the Mayor, admitted to the City Council that the RV safe lot plan is an expensive failure. Oh, and everything else in the Mayor’s plan related to RVs has also failed.

 There were actually three parts to the plan:

  1. Build at least two safe lots, one in Ballard and one in West Seattle, with some basic sanitation and housing support and outreach services;
  2. As a stopgap measure until the safe lots were ready, permit some public areas as “safe zones” for RV’s to temporarily park, with porta-potties, trash dumpsters, and some late-night security patrolling;
  3. Reach out to churches to solicit parking lot spaces for RVs to park in during the week when their lots are unused.

Two safe zones were created, one in SODO and the other in Interbay, using industrial-zoned land. The safe lot in Ballard was built, and around 20 RV’s have moved in. The West Seattle safe lot never materialized, so the safe zones, which were never intended to be permanent, have remained open; the SODO zone has about 18 vehicles, and the Interbay one has around 21.

It gets worse: the Ballard safe lot costs $35,000 per month to operate — $1,750 per RV. For that much, you could rent an apartment for the people living in the RV.

The RV safe zones are cheaper to operate: they only cost about $5,350 per month combined for the two. But they have created issues for the surrounding communities, and are quickly wearing out their welcome.

Here is what Lindsay told the Human Services and Public Health Committee, when Council member Herbold asked him what would happen to those parked in safe zones in May when the permits expire:

It’s also proven to be very expensive to support people living in that situation. And the safe lot right now is costing an exorbitant amount of money that probably nobody here would feel comfortable continuing to invest on an ongoing basis. The safe zones are a much smaller investment and have as a result much more issues in terms of the community impacts, and safety concerns, health concerns. And already the safe zones are requiring very intensive policing engagement, so there’s a cost here that you all haven’t yet seen in the hundreds, at this point now thousands of hours that SPD officers have committed to interacting with that population, in effect trying to regulate it for lack of the city investing directly in others to regulate that. There are also very real siting problems… I myself have scoured the city, scoured the streets, talked to private property owners — it’s very difficult to figure out where to site locations for these and also provide the amount of community guarantees, protections, law enforcement, plus the outreach in order to support a substantial population. So right now I think the thinking is: how do we transition people humanely from living in these conditions into a much more stable and affordable form of shelter that’s not living in RV’s. And I agree May would be precipitously too early to make a hard cutoff, but for a long term investment it’s a very expensive proposition.”

You can watch Lindsay here; jump to 40:00.

Oh, and the churches. The city has spent $300,000 trying to organize a network of churches to host RV’s. The net result: 12 parking spaces, none of which can accommodate a 40-foot RV (which is what they are seeing out on the streets).

Even if the city wanted to spend extraordinary amounts of money on it, the lease for the Ballard safe lot expires in August. So we are quickly coming up on a moment of truth, and to-date every option has failed.  I asked Lindsay earlier this week what the city was doing to address the issue; he responded, “The City is evaluating options that will help those temporarily residing at the safe lots and safe zones to get more stably housed and to address community concerns.” In other words: they’re working on it, but right now they’ve got nothing.

This afternoon I spoke with Council member Sally Bagshaw, chair of the Human Services and Public Health Committee. Her reaction to Lindsay’s testimony to her committee:

“I think he’s genuine. He believes that’s what’s happening. But you can’t just close the lots. We have to continue to have spaces somewhere. We’ve got some now, and I want the Mayor’s office to acknowledge that if we do nothing the RV’s that run are going to end up in the places they were before.”

Bagshaw emphasized that she is pushing for permanent housing solutions for those living in cars and RV’s on the city streets, which is of course the ultimate goal for the city’s response to the homeless crisis. But as is the case with the rest of the response, it is taking time and effort to spin up the housing and services to meet the huge need. Her prediction as to what will happen in August when the lease runs out on the Ballard safe lot:

“I predict that we will have spaces for these people to be. They will not just be shooed away… it may be in broader King County, but we’ll find a place for them.”

And on what level of service the City will provide:

“Porta johns and garbage cans, and maybe needle disposal. Do I think it’s good? Of course not. But these things take time.”

The one bright spot is that right now there are about 60 lived-in RV’s and cars that are currently off the streets, and their owners are receiving some level of humanitarian aid. Also, many people are actively and sincerely engaged in trying to find long-term and short-term solutions. But we’re back at square one: by August the existing safe lot and two safe zones will be gone, and no one can say state with certainty that their residents will have a place to go other than back out on the streets.