Tue September 2, 2014
Car Dwellers Could Get The ‘Boot’ Under Proposed Parking Law
Just east of Gas Works Park, there’s a road with a row of back-in parking spots. Some modern buildings have sprouted up here, but the winding street still feels like a road people drive through without stopping.
But for Jim Hogshire, this is home.
Hogshire was once a national journalist, who wrote for Esquire and GQ. At one time, he said he was offered a five-figure contract for his next book, but a legal battle and personal troubles derailed that plan. (He and his wife of 23 years, Heidi, were once arrested for possession of dried poppies bought from a florist.) Now the Hogshires live in a recreational vehicle.
Inside the camper, Heidi washes her hair in a bucket. Jim gestures to the cramped interior. Everything they own is crammed into its nooks and crannies.
"This is the step you get before you become totally homeless," he tells me.
The Hogshires live on the edge, at the whim of parking officers who might impound their home. The Seattle City Council voted Tuesday to slap a sticker on a car, rather than send a letter to the vehicle’s driver. A sticker allows people with no known address to receive some warning that they could be towed.
But advocates for the homeless say the change helps only slightly, and say the scofflaw ordinance disproportionately affects people living in their cars.
Hogshire says he has lost four cars because he couldn’t pay the parking fines and was towed. He says it’s cheaper for him to get a different car. Now, he's worried about losing this one, too.
"It's very easy to break parking laws," he says. And if his home gets towed, paying the tickets and springing the vehicle could cost him as much as buying a new RV. At this point, $300 or $400 comprises his life savings.
"I can't pay a fine like that,” he says wearily.
It's not that he doesn't want to, he says. It's just that it's a physical impossibility given his current finances.
A Patchwork Solution
The Hogshires recall the reception they got from neighbors when they first parked their car in the area.
"Remember that one lady came out and said, 'Hey, hey, you’ve got to leave. These are young families around here,'” Hogshire says. “What does that mean?"
They laugh about it now. But the pain is still apparent in Jim's voice as he recalls his feelings. "'Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot I'm a ghoul. Of course you don’t want a ghoul around young families. You’re on the way up. I’m on the way down.'"
The city has been trying to ease up on those people “on the way down” like the Hogshires. Before they tow a car that looks lived in, they contact the Reverend Bill Kirlin-Hackett. He and his colleague Jean Darsie spring into action.
"We can look at the court record on that vehicle," says Kirlin-Hackett. "We can figure out how much (financial) harm that they’re facing."
The advocates call the court and develop a strategy to help the person. Then they attempt contact. Sometimes it's by phone, and if the person doesn’t have a phone, then in person.
One time, there was a car that showed signs of being lived in, but the owner was never around when parking enforcement officers came by. So the reverend took over.
"At 6:20 in the morning, I knocked on the vehicle windows," recalls Kirlin-Hackett. "And somebody finally rousted up and said, 'Oh yeah, I’m in here.'"
Sometimes, Kirlin-Hackett will accompany the person to court, where he makes some variation on this argument before a judge: "You can’t really squeeze the money out of someone who doesn’t have it. And escalating the punishment to try to do that is foolish."
Most of the time, Kirlin-Hackett succeeded in reducing the fines. Sometimes, he'll pay the remaining fees out of his own pocket.
The City Council struggled with how much it wants to engineer the system. On the one hand, the United Nations says safe housing is a human right. Sometimes cars are the safest housing people can find. But the city also wants people to obey parking laws. And fines are an obvious way to deter people.
Meantime, any leniency homeless people find depends largely on the legwork of Kirlin-Hackett and Jean Darsie.
"If we weren’t there, I don’t know what the city would be doing," says Kirlin-Hackett.
The reverend says he can’t keep up this crusade forever and wants the city to take on some of his work.
But he has bigger dreams, too. He has asked the council to create more protections for people living in cars and to help connect them with services, rather than fining them. There's an emerging program that offers some car campers a place to safely park their cars off the street until they can get ahead of their tickets again. But Kirlin-Hackett says that program has a long way to go.
More Carrots, Fewer Sticks
Back in their RV, Jim and Heidi Hogshire say big changes are long overdue.
Heidi Hogshire says for people living in their vehicle, getting towed is similar to having a bank foreclose on their home. Like victims of the foreclosure crisis, they're asking for relief.
Jim Hogshire says he’s trying to keep up hope, but this dance with parking attendants is wearing him down.
"As you get deprived of more and more things, and avenues to escape poverty get shut off, you just get depressed. You get fed up."
He struggles to find a way out of his thoughts.
Then, Heidi leans over and offers a suggestion. "I think it boils down to we need more carrots and fewer sticks."
"Well said," Jim agrees, breaking into a smile.
For now, the Hogshire’s financial stability depends on the kindness of parking enforcement officers. And so far, they have been kind. Because by law, Jim’s Winnebago RV, and most RVs, are too wide to be parked overnight on any street in Seattle.
KUOW's Deborah Wang contributed to this report.