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LIVING IN YOUR CAR IS NO CAMPING TRIP
People living out of their vehicles is a phenomenon largely out of sight.
But look closely, and it becomes easy to spot in many areas of Portland — condensation fogs the windows while back seats get heaped with clothes and other supplies.
There appears to be a growing number of folks living this way, and city and county officials aren't coming up with any quick solutions or clear strategies to address it.
"This little spot right here is mine," says Cynthia Coffey, 59, parked in her 1996 Buick at Lents Park near a pair of porta potties. She's been in the same spot since January, and says she's on wait lists for three different apartment complexes.
With the increase of people living in vehicles has come a rising level of complaints from neighbors about unsightly motor homes. Residents complain of more trash and biohazards collecting around some of the motor homes, as well as the sheer mass of RVs that are taking up public rights of way.
Some vehicles have been slapped with pesky green stickers from the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), stuck on the
windows, indicating it's time to move within 72 hours or be towed. Though it says 72 hours, PBOT doesn't actually get to it for about a week. If the vehicle is still there, they order a tow truck.
However, due to a lack of legal camping options, little shelter space and a deficit of affordable housing units, homeless people in their vehicles usually just find another spot to park, similar to what those in tents do when they're evicted in sweeps.
Some cities, such as Eugene, have designated overnight parking lots for those sleeping in their vehicles. Seattle established one city-sanctioned RV lot for homeless people with basic services, and has a "Road to Housing" program that works to put those living in vehicles on a path to housing.
Portland city officials aren't sure what to do, but they aren't enthused about parking lots, and while aware of Seattle's endeavors, are searching for the right solution for Portland.
"We are not actively exploring the idea of parking lots at this time," says Michael Cox, Mayor Ted Wheeler's spokesman.
Cox and other local officials haven't identified what specific strategies they are working on, though, noting that talks around motor homes are preliminary.
Hales initiative dropped
During former Mayor Charlie Hales' administration, the city considered building a system for organized, sanctioned car and RV camping. That idea fell by the wayside following the sunset of Hales' controversial Safe Sleep Guidelines that allowed tent camping on sidewalks, and his exit as mayor.
"We know that RVs are a big concern ... for neighbors who are watching what's happening with those," says Denis Theriault, spokesman for the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services. "And we're having conversations with PBOT and others about what kind of strategies we might want to look at."
Reports of abandoned autos have nearly quadrupled in the past few years, from 7,000 in 2012 to 27,000 in 2016. Last year, there were 4,111 abandoned auto cases involving motor homes, and PBOT estimates that 90 percent of those were actually occupied.
An abandoned auto is defined as a vehicle illegally parked more than 24 hours on the street that either doesn't have valid license plates or appears broken down and undrivable. RVs aren't supposed to park on the street at all, except for loading purposes.
The city deploys a complaint-driven system. But there's an unwritten city policy that the bureau doesn't tow automobiles that are occupied. For now, the tow lot of the city's lone towing contractor, Sergeants Towing, is full.
The city transportation bureau has a partnership with the Portland Police Bureau to use a police evidence lot for overflow. Meanwhile, it's looking at invoking an emergency purchasing contract to add three towing contractors to the program, providing more space for abandoned automobiles.
"Over the years, that contract has been limited to one tower; because of the volume in years past, we only needed one," says Dave Benson, parking services manager at PBOT. "And clearly things have changed."
Reports around Lents Park were so prevalent that PBOT attempted to mitigate it by installing No Overnight Parking signs on poles around the park this month. People are still parking there, though.
What surveys found
In 2015, the most recent Point-in-Time Count of homeless people mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development noted that 23 percent of unsheltered families with children slept in their vehicles, while 12 percent, or 195 people, of the overall unsheltered homeless population slept in vehicles. The results of this year's Point-in-Time Count are due in coming months, and Shannon Singleton, executive director of JOIN, a nonprofit that works to house those on the streets, is curious to see what it will yield.
Anecdotally, while conducting the count in the southeast area of Portland in February, she noticed more people living in cars and RVs than in 2015.
JOIN handles outreach to those living in vehicles in the same way it does for those in tents or elsewhere — by a knock, and leaving a card if no one's home.
The city's One Point of Contact system, which tracks reports of homeless campsites by the public, has received 650 reports of people living in vehicles since June 2016.
The reports are available online and delivered weekly to City Council members, bureau directors, outreach organizations and other agencies.
'You've got to start somewhere'
While PBOT supports efforts to more quickly move out abandoned autos and RVs, Benson says it would be helpful if "people could be asked to leave these vehicles that meet the definition for abandoned and find another shelter situation. Outreach workers could engage with them and help them find a place other than a public right of way."
Liora Berry, senior director of clinical services with Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, says there are many obstacles in housing and sheltering people right now.
"Our small team of six outreach workers conduct regular weekly outreach and each carry a caseload of 10-15 households who are either in housing search (and) placement or receiving housing retention services," she says. "Each housing placement is complex and time consuming. The majority of those engaged have no income and other apartment screening barriers."
RV parks often selective
Singleton would like to see Portland work toward a place where people can legally park the vehicles they're sleeping in. Many privately owned RV lots in the city have strict requirements for vehicles that park there, such as only recent-year makes and models, security deposits and credit checks. Occupants also must prove to be the registered owner of the mobile home. A call to several RV parks around Portland showed that many of those lots were full, too.
In Eugene, they're going on their second year of the Dusk to Dawn program, managed by the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County. Eugene's permitted overnight sleeping ordinance allows folks to sleep overnight in a vehicle, camper, trailer, tent or Conestoga hut in a parking lot of a religious organization, business or public entity as long as there is an occupied structure on site. The property owner may grant permission for up to six vehicles used for sleeping.
"We're dealing with a limited number of parking slots," says Paul Neville, spokesman for St. Vincent de Paul, "but you've got to start somewhere. It's tricky to find a place that's authorized. If you have a willing property owner, you have to be approved by the city as well."
He says there are at least 35 sites for overnight parking, and that there have been few incidents of serious problems. Seattle, on the other hand, seems to have had more trouble with a city-sanctioned RV lot, as recent news headlines detailed neighborhood frustration with drug dealing and prostitution.
It has also been a costly effort. The Seattle Times reported that the city closed down one RV lot when they were spending about $1,750 per vehicle. It provided folks with electricity and water, as well as security and an on-site case manager.
Bedding down in cars
Since the Portland Bureau of Transportation's no-overnight-parking signs were installed this month, RVs around Lents Park have mostly disappeared. But there were still several people living in cars during a recent spot check.
It was easy to spot Cynthia Coffey, with her pet bunny rabbit, Fruit Loop, hopping in the back window atop a pile of cardboard.
Coffey, in that spot since January, has been living out of her vehicle for two years since being kicked out of a living situation with roommates. Surviving on only $756 monthly Social Security checks, she says it's been difficult finding an apartment.
For the most part, no one bothers her at Lents Park. She likes watching the squirrels and keeps entertained by Fruit Loop. Her husband, Joseph, who was staying in a nearby tent, visits her in the car.
"I was here this last winter. It was really bad here; it was cold. Luckily I got a good little car with a good little heater," Coffey says. She stays in the spot she's in, she says, because she's "older and I need to be next to the bathrooms."
Parked a spot over from Coffey was Richard Mathes, 30, living in his girlfriend's Dodge Avenger with their dog, Zip. He says his criminal history makes it hard to get ahead. He served five years in prison starting at 18 for delivery of cocaine. Meanwhile, he and his girlfriend take turns staying up at night to walk the dog and keep watch while they rest.
"We keep our area cleaned up. A lot of people don't, though, that's what gets them kicked out of here," he says. "We found a couple parks that are 24-hour parks where we can walk the dog. (We) just kind of stay up and take turns, so we can stay on the go. It's kind of rough."
Near Southeast 122nd Avenue and Clinton Street is another "hot spot" for abandoned automobiles. The length of the street was lined with cars and RVs and people living in them. One of them, Michelle Wood, has been going place to place for four years, and was frustrated when 24-hour Walmarts stopped allowing people to sleep overnight in their parking lots.
"The cops bother us every day. They tell us we gotta move, but don't give us options," she says. She previously camped in a tent along the Springwater Corridor Trail and later was able to acquire a vehicle. She says she would consider parking in a city-sanctioned lot if there was one.
Difficult to dispose of RVs
If the reported abandoned vehicles are occupied, the Portland Bureau of Transportation will not move them. The bureau estimates that most of of the reports they receive are for occupied vehicles. Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who overseas the bureau, says he may revisit the policy.
But the rising number of abandoned RVs has posed a particular obstacle for the city.
In November, the City Council authorized $150,000 to PBOT's abandoned auto program to help cover costs to recycle derelict RVs, or repair costs for folks with RVs that just need a minor mechanical fix to get them back on the road.
To recycle an RV, it costs anywhere from $250 for camper shells, to $1,000 for 30-foot RVs full of trash, according to PBOT.
In 2016, out of 27,000 reports of abandoned vehicles, 1,900 vehicles were towed. Since November, only 50 RVs have either been recycled or are awaiting recycling.
Tyson Thurston, an employee of Sergeants Towing, which has a five-year contract with PBOT to tow abandoned autos, says RVs are the biggest waste of time and money, and that even the nicer motor homes they pick up are "90 percent garbage." The manpower that goes into dismantling them doesn't get recouped from scrapping the metal, he says.