Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Car camping law raises questions about the criminalization of homelessness

Life in an RV on a Tacoma street

Felicia Ellerson talks about coping with homelessness as she lives in her RV beside South Tacoma Way.
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Felicia Ellerson talks about coping with homelessness as she lives in her RV beside South Tacoma Way.

On Thursday morning, Felicia Ellefson invited me into her home. It was too cold to talk outside, she said.

Inside, however, it was not much warmer. As the 46-year-old Ellefson shared her story, her breath turned to steam.

Ellefson lives in an aging recreational vehicle — an RV — off the side of South Tacoma Way, not far from the Tacoma Rescue Mission. Previously, she explained, she’d been living in her car.

Ellefson said she and her boyfriend have been in this particular spot for three days. Altogether, she’s been living in vehicles “off and on” for five years.

“I was a college student. … And then I graduated, and I graduated sick, I was in a car accident, so I ended up on the street,” she said. “It’s really hard once you get on the street.”

Ellefson said she chooses to live in an RV because shelter space for women and couples is limited, and because all her possessions are in the vehicle. Sleeping in her RV also makes her more comfortable.

The vehicle is a safe zone.

Felicia Ellefson, a 46-year-old woman living in an RV on South Tacoma Way

“The vehicle is a safe zone,” she said.

Until recently, you might not have realized Tacoma has an ordinance — dating back to 2009 — prohibiting people from living in vehicles on city streets. But earlier this month, in reaction to a 2014 federal court decision that found a similar ordinance in Los Angeles unconstitutionally vague, the City Council modified Tacoma’s law on the habitation of vehicles.

Along with adding a detailed definition of what’s considered the illegal habitation of a vehicle, city officials extended the amount of time someone can park on a Tacoma street from 24 hours to seven days — allowing, in theory, more time to connect people living in cars to social services.

The ordinance includes the possibility of a maximum $250 civil penalty and the impoundment of a vehicle for violations.

Nationally and locally, the living conditions Ellefson finds herself in are unfortunately familiar. In King County, for instance, the annual One Night Count of unsheltered homeless individuals revealed a 41 percent increase in the number of people sleeping in vehicles, from 1,138 in 2015 to 1,608 this January. Seattle has announced a plan to open two safe-parking sites for people living in RVs. They’re considered temporary solutions to a much larger issue.

In Pierce County, the way the annual homeless count is conducted — during the day, and requiring homeless individuals to consent to be counted — makes getting a firm grasp on the scope of the problem more challenging. According to Tess Colby of Pierce County Community Connections, 46 people were found living in a vehicle during the 2015 Point In Time count. In 2014, 51 people were counted living in a vehicle. Those numbers are up from 2013 and 2012, when a total of 27 and 21 people, respectively, were found living in vehicles.

Anecdotally, local homeless service providers report seeing an increase in the problem. Meanwhile, in Tacoma, Homeless Services Manager Colin DeForrest says “we really don’t know” how many people are living in cars in the city.

Many big cities have responded to the growing concern over vehicle habitation by passing laws that make it illegal to sleep in a car, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. A 2014 report by the Law Center found that a survey of 187 cities showed a 119 percent increase in these laws since 2011.

The new laws fit into a national debate over the growing trend of criminalizing homelessness. Tacoma’s ordinance — even with its new emphasis on connecting car campers with services — isn’t immune to critiques.

This law is really a departure from many of the good things happening in Tacoma. This type of policy … is not likely to produce any real results for homeless people or reduce the need for homeless people to live in their cars.

Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

Tristia Bauman is a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Originally from Pierce County, Bauman has become familiar with Tacoma’s homeless story over the last year, doing work focusing on the city of Puyallup with a goal of addressing homelessness countywide.

Overall, she says Tacoma’s approach to homelessness deserves credit, including the way the city has worked to foster communication and cooperation between law enforcement and social services providers.

But when asked to review Tacoma’s recently modified ordinance, she said red flags arise. Even after the changes, Bauman sees a potential for court challenges, specifically in the way the ordinance addresses the impoundment of property and in the possibility that, in practice, the law will lead to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.

Bauman, however, stresses larger issues about just what the ordinance will accomplish.

“This law is really a departure from many of the good things happening in Tacoma. This type of policy … is not likely to produce any real results for homeless people or reduce the need for homeless people to live in their cars,” Bauman says.

“It’s counterproductive,” she concludes.

In fact, Bauman says, cracking down on people sleeping in vehicles can make it more difficult for them to escape homelessness, especially if fines are imposed or vehicles are impounded. She says solutions like a place where homeless individuals could legally park their vehicles and have access to services would be far more effective.

For their part, Tacoma officials acknowledge the difficult tightrope the city is attempting to walk with its vehicle habitation ordinance. Allyson Griffith, a program specialist with Tacoma’s Community Based Services, describes the effort as one trying to balance the respectful treatment of homelessness while still addressing the legitimate safety concerns of citizens — including the associated waste and trash.

“I think the city is very sensitive to this overall conversation of the criminalization of homelessness and what does that mean,” Griffith says. She points out that of the 26 complaints regarding human habitation made to Tacoma’s 311 system last year, none resulted in a civil penalty being issued. She says issuing fines or towing people’s vehicles isn’t the ultimate goal.

I think the city is very sensitive to this overall conversation of the criminalization of homelessness and what does that mean. ... When you look at this ordinance, I think what you see is the city recognizing both sides of that line.

Allyson Griffith, a program specialist with Tacoma’s Community Based Services

“When you look at this ordinance, I think what you see is the city recognizing both sides of that line,” she says.

The real question may be what comes next. DeForrest and Griffith both point to the spring, when the city plans to launch a much broader, regional conversation about homelessness, including how to better serve populations like car campers and couples who don’t want to be separated.

DeForrest says considering new approaches — like a place where folks like Ellefson could legally park their vehicles — should be on the table.

“I think we need to explore any and all options,” DeForrest says.

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