This morning I saw Seattle in a completely new way. Guided by a kind gentleman who lives in his RV and an amazing Road To Housing outreach worker, we drove through the streets of Seattle to count the number of people living in vehicles. Last year over 1,600 were counted.. The growing number of tents and unsheltered individuals sleeping in doorways provide a visible reminder of our homelessness and housing crisis,. But people staying in vehicles often blend into our busy streets and go unnoticed - unless you live or work (or have an awesome guide) in the area where they are parked. My guides not only knew where to look, they could name the people living in many.
The journey was part of the annual Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness. The annual event, newly branded Count Us In, provides an important snapshot of the most vulnerable people in our community. The count is one of several data points that help inform our policies and strategies to prevent and end homelessness.
Like many, my guide became homeless because of our housing crisis. He paid very low rent in a good neighborhood, where the neighbors liked him and his beloved cat. Then his landlord passed and his family sold the property. This could happen to any of us. If you are middle class, you move somewhere else. If you are poor but have family and friends, maybe you borrow money or stay on someone's couch. If you are poor and lack supports - you often fall into homelessness. And once you become homeless, it can really hard to get out.
Homelessness takes away a lot. Your basic right to a roof over head, your dignity, and too often your hope. Having a vehicle to stay in gives you a place for respite. It's warmer than a tent, more private than a shelter, and gives you some control over when and where you sleep. And while you wait to access affordable housing - by saving money, accessing a subsidy or winning the housing lottery - keeping that vehicle can be important and complicated. As we navigated the dark streets of Seattle, I learned about the challenges people living in their vehicles - everything from where to toss your trash to where to legally park. It's clear that we can and should do more to help folks living in their vehicles.
The Seattle Times recently published an editorial urging for Real Solutions For Vehicle Campers. I agree. Ending homelessness will require bolder strategies and substantially more affordable housing, but while we work toward that let's make it easier for people to park safely.