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 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- (expletive),” 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.