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Court Declares Seattle Homeless Man's Truck a Home in Case With Broad Implications

Steven Long returned from his job cleaning up CenturyLink Field after a Seattle Sounders' game when he discovered that home was gone.

By Vianna Davila

Steven Long returned from his job cleaning up CenturyLink Field after a Seattle Sounders' game when he discovered that home was gone.

He had been living in his 2000 GMC pickup, parked on a side street, but the city of Seattle towed it because Long had violated a city rule that requires vehicles be moved every 72 hours.

That impound set up an unusual court ruling Friday that advocates for homeless people and the city both say could have broad implications on the crisis of homelessness.

King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer ruled that the city's impoundment of Long's truck violated the state's homestead act -- a frontier-era law that protects properties from forced sale -- because he was using it as a home. Long's vehicle was slated to be sold had he not entered into a monthly payment plan with the city.

Shaffer also ruled the fees the city required Long, 58, to pay to retrieve the truck were too high, violating constitutional protections against excessive fines.

"We believe this case has a lot of implications for other people using their vehicles as homes," said Ali Bilow, one of Long's attorneys with Columbia Legal Services.

"I think Seattle municipal judges should follow this ruling and take a hard look when homeless individuals, who are living in their vehicles, are charged these really excessive fees."

The decision could impact how cities across the state enforce parking regulations when people are living in cars. It also speaks to the complications people living in vehicles pose for the city as it deals with a growing homelessness crisis.

More than 2,300 people were living in their vehicles on the night of King County's 2017 homeless point-in-time count -- 20 percent of the county's homeless population.

Police and parking-enforcement officers could now find themselves in a bind if they can't definitively determine whether a vehicle is simply abandoned or is someone's home, said Assistant City Attorney Michael Ryan.

By following the logic of Long's legal team, Ryan argued in court Friday, "Someone could park right here in front of the court house on Fifth Avenue, and we couldn't tow them, or if we did tow them, we couldn't put them in impound.

"We'd have to put them somewhere else and we couldn't charge them at all for it, because if we did, we'd violate the constitution if they were living in that vehicle."

The city attorney's office is weighing whether to appeal the case.

Long had been homeless since March 2014, when he was evicted from his apartment after the rent got too high and he missed payments. He said he had previously lived out of a camper in the 1980s, traveling through five different states, so he thought he'd try sleeping in his truck.

Long said it seemed safer than a shelter, where he feared his personal items could be stolen. And a truck is warmer than sleeping outside, he said.

In court on Friday, Judge Shaffer called Long "a poster child ... for a lot of other people who are in this situation."

"We are increasingly seeing a crisis of people who are unable to afford not just low-income but middle-income housing, and a shrinkage of the supply of middle-income and low-income housing," Shaffer said before issuing her ruling.

"So people like Mr. Long, who are now finding that they cannot make rental payments and that they cannot find alternative housing, are unfortunately a growing group in our city and our county generally."

In fall 2016, when Long was doing cleanups for the Sounders, he had parked his truck in the 900 block of Poplar Place, near the Interstate 90 and Interstate 5 interchange. "It was out of the way," Long said.

According to Friday's court hearing, officers approached him with reports of a man with a knife in the area. When officers saw the truck, which was not operable, they called a city parking enforcement officer, who tagged it and told Long he had to move it within 72 hours.

Long claimed he told the officers he was living in the truck; Shaffer said it was unclear if the officers knew it was his home. Nonetheless, Long tore off the impound sticker, Judge Shaffer said Friday, and left the truck in place.

The parking officer waited at least four days before having the vehicle towed, giving Long extra time to buy a part needed to get it running. When the enforcement officer returned Oct. 12, the truck was still there but Long was not, and the vehicle was towed.

At the impound hearing, Long said the truck was his residence. The city waived the $44 ticket and reduced the towing and impound fees from more than $900 to $557.

But his attorneys said this still hurt Long in a number of ways: he had no home for a time; he lost income because work tools he used for daily labor jobs were in the truck, and he struggled to pay the fines because he makes between $300 and $600 a month.

Long sued the city but lost in Seattle Municipal Court in May 2017. He filed an appeal, which Judge Shaffer heard on Friday, and she ordered the city to refund Long the money he has so far paid.

This is at least the second instance in recent months in which a court ruling has acknowledged the housing rights of homeless people.

In October, the Washington Court of Appeals heard a case in which a Vancouver police officer looked inside a man's tent in an unsanctioned tent camp and saw a bag of methamphetamine.

The man, William Pippin, was charged with possession of a controlled substance, but appealed. The appeals court ruled that the search, which did not involve a warrant, violated the man's constitutional right to privacy because the tent was his home.

The ruling in Long's case sends a clear message about vehicle enforcement laws, which can have a disproportionate impact on the poor and the homeless, said Sara Rankin, of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law.

The decision also spotlights the city's haphazard way of addressing the large number of homeless people sleeping in their vehicles.

There is only one remaining vehicle safe zone in Seattle, at Second Avenue South and South Spokane Street, which the city hopes to shut down by April 30, although that date is not definite. Parking enforcement officials work with the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness to help verify that people like Long actually live in their vehicles, so they don't face hefty fines.

But it is a patchwork approach, Rankin said, that "just hurts people and creates greater resistance to recovering from poverty and homelessness."

Today, Long is living in a truck that a friend loaned him, a 1982 Chevy with 487,000 miles. It runs well, so he can move as necessary.

The old GMC has been parked the last five weeks on a side street in White Center; he does not have money to get it working again.

For now, Long is unsure about his long-term plans. The high cost of living has put him off finding another apartment. "I don't really like to pay rent anymore," he said.

(c)2018 The Seattle Times

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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