King County's striking vehicle homelessness increase, explained
This year’s point-in-time count of people living without homes in King County showed yet another increase of those living on the streets.
But among people who are experiencing homelessness, the sharpest uptick — by a whopping 46 percent — came from people increasingly living in their cars, RVs, and vans. This year, vehicle residents made up more than half of the people counted who were living outside.
Here's what we know about this growing population of people without homes, and what the city is — and isn't — doing about the problem.
Who are the people living in their cars?
According to this year's point-in-time report from All Home King County, the majority of people living in cars, RVs, and vans are white, male, and 40 years old or younger. A third of vehicle residents surveyed were chronically homeless.
Behavioral health issues were common for people living in cars. Those respondents also had slightly lower rates of criminal justice system involvement than the rest of those surveyed.
People living in their cars accessed services from the city and county less often than other survey respondents. Nearly two-thirds of respondents living in their cars said they had trouble accessing services, like not qualifying for the service they wanted, not hearing back after applying for help, and not knowing where to go to find help.
What is Seattle doing to house people in their cars?
Seattle has struggled to implement an effective program to get people out of cars and into housing.
A plan to open places for people to park and access services proved to be expensive and less effective than hoped. The city currently has only one designated parking lot for people living in their cars and RVs.
The lot is full, currently home to about 10 vehicles. The people living in them represent just a fraction of the total population living in vehicles in the city.
A contract for the Road to Housing program, which connected vehicle residents with case management, expired at the end of 2017. And the Department of Human Services says no service provider has applied for funding to do outreach to people living in cars.
What kind of obstacles do vehicle residents face?
Bill Kirlin-Hackett, the director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, has worked with vehicle residents for years. He said the rise in the number of people living in cars, vans and RVs doesn’t surprise him.
But he said that’s not where people want to be.
"We usually think around 90 percent roughly really do want to get out of the vehicles and probably need to because they're just not great places to live," he said.
Kirlin-Hackett said mold and mildew that develops in vehicles can be harmful.
Vehicles can also become a financial burden if they need repairs or attract parking tickets. More than 70 percent of those surveyed said law enforcement had asked them to move from the spot where they were sleeping— much higher than the number of homeless respondents asked to move who weren't living in their cars.
What could the city do?
Kirlin-Hackett said his group has presented the city with short and long-term solutions in the past, including creating smaller parking areas in multiple locations with trash services, agreements with neighbors nearby, and access to case management. But he said nothing has been done.
“The reality ends up being the people who are making the decisions, both policy and funding, simply aren’t engaging on actually leading something here,” Kirlin-Hackett said.
Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien has introduced legislation to aid people living in vehicles in the past, but is hasn’t gone anywhere.
He said he wants to see legislation come from the mayor’s office.
“This is a problem that the mayor is going to need to solve, I want to support her in that,” O’Brien said.
He praised Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan’s recent proposal to add 500 extra shelter beds for people living on the city’s streets, “but we need a similarly bold step for folks living in vehicles,” he said.