It was a chilly October night, and Steven Long just wanted to crawl under his covers after a long shift of working out in the cold. But his covers and pillow were gone, along with everything else he owned—jackets for beating back the Seattle rain, pots and pans used to cook, and the tools he uses to make his living. The only things left from Long’s home were a rain-spattered green tarp and a few half-broken bicycles he’d been fixing up for friends.
Long called 911 to figure out what happened, and learned that his home—a 2000 GMC flatbed with a four-door crew cab and sturdy metal boxes to hold his trade tools—had been towed away because he violated a city rule that prohibits parking in the same spot for 72 hours.
A storm had rolled in while Long was at work, sweeping the aisles and picking up plastic beer cups at the city’s soccer stadium after the hometown Sounders played to a scoreless draw with Houston. So Long took a brisk walk to get his blood flowing, then wrapped himself in the tarp and tried to sleep.
“Wind was blowing, rain was coming, there was a young kid who came by and was going through the bikes, trying to buy them from me,” Long says. “I was just in total shock because I was like, ‘What the heck?’”
It was then, Long says now, that he realized this was part of the plan.
“Before I parked there I had a vision,” says Long, an enrolled member of northern Montana’s Flathead tribe. “I knew they were going to tow it and that I was going to have to sue them to get my truck back.”
Long went to court. He got his truck back. In March, after more than a year in the courts, he became the first person in America to win legal recognition of his vehicle as his home.
The court’s decision has roiled Seattle, and sent shockwaves across the country. The Los Angeles Times dispatched a correspondent who warned that “Seattle could become one of America’s most crowded, and socially lenient, places to live and sleep in your vehicle.” That reporter hinted that California could be next.
Police and prosecutors in the Seattle suburb of Everett have now stopped towing vehicles that people live in, citing the Long case, much to the chagrin of angry neighbors.
Conservatives like KIRO radio host Ron Upshaw have been railing against the decision, theorizing that the Long case was “a pawn” in a larger conspiracy.
“If you thought the homeless population was brazen before, now all they have to do is park wherever they want and just invoke this ruling,” Upshaw said on the air. “A homeless person in any vehicle they choose can now drive up to a spectacular multi-million dollar waterfront view and boom, it’s now their home.”
A Seattle Times columnist put it more diplomatically, writing that “the city clearly is worried Seattle is about to become a rule-free drive-in campground.”
Long won his case based on the State of Washington’s 1862 Homestead Act, which prohibits the state government from selling someone’s home, and because the judge found that the city violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines.
Such a development has long been anticipated by homeless advocates, who believe people have the Constitutional right to survive even if they can’t afford a home.
The city is now appealing the Long decision, sending the issue to precedent-setting courts with massive policy implications. Though the details vary widely, 48 of 50 states have a Homestead Act. The decision could therefore have a huge impact on how cities handle their homeless population, says Sara Rankin, a law professor at Seattle University and Director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project.
“Homelessness is a circumstance that is beyond most people’s control,” she says. “If cities are not providing reasonable alternatives to homelessness then they can’t punish people for surviving in public when those people have no reasonable alternative—and the Long case is very important in that context.”
Seattle was a very different place in 1988, when Steven Long moved north from his native Wyoming.
Long had a rough upbringing. He left home at age 13 and dropped out of high school. He got in trouble throughout his teenage years and into his early 20s before cleaning up his act. But by the time he arrived in Washington at age 28, he’d had a clean record for six years. It’s now been 35 years since he faced a criminal charge.
The soft-spoken 58-year-old wears a long gray beard, a plaid patrol cap and narrow black plastic spectacles. Among friends—he mostly hangs out with Nepalese immigrants—he’s known for his even temperament.
“My friends will try to make me mad and they get so upset because they just can’t,” he says.
Long is an enrolled member of northern Montana’s Flathead tribe and says he comes from a line of medicine men and diplomats. He grew up with his grandmother passing along visions of his future, and he’s come to experience them himself with age. Now, he says, the supernatural is “really understandable to me.”
He moved to gritty old Seattle, a hard-scrabble port town that bears little resemblance to its current identity as a hipster Disneyland home to the two richest humans on the planet. When he arrived, Starbucks had just started making espresso and neither Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder lived there. Bill Gates was barely a billionaire, and Jeff Bezos was toiling away at a failing telecommunications start-up in New York.
Seattle was then a place where a blue-collar guy could live in a downtown apartment and enjoy a decent quality of life. For 15 years, Long lived at 20th and Yesler, just south of tony Capitol Hill and about 20 blocks away from his lawyer’s office today.
When he moved in, Long paid market rent of $290 for a 1,500-square-foot apartment—that’s $450 in today’s money.
“What I really miss is the all-day bus passes, you used to get on the weekend,” he says. “Seattle went down the tubes.”
Long and his friends would cruise the city by transit, chatting and looking out the windows at the Space Needle and Mount Rainier. On summer weekends, they’d head out to the Ballard Locks and the Arboretum. In the winter, he was in a bowling league.
“I met a lot of exotic, really cool people” Long says, citing a friend who’d been raised in a circus with a chimpanzee. “He had a dance company in Seattle, and it was my job to go find dancers for him—and I was the guard of the whole situation, which was awesome.”
He’s always done manual labor and fix-it work. He was on the first power-washing crew that cleaned the retractable roof of Safeco Field, which opened in 1999. But by March of 2014, those gigs would no longer cover his rapidly rising rent—not even with Seattle’s $15 minimum wage.
Seattle’s homelessness issue is so intractable partly because someone like Long, who does odd jobs and janitorial work, can’t possibly afford a market-rate apartment in Seattle.
Long works part-time, mainly around the downtown stadiums, and only makes about $300 a month. But even if he could secure full-time employment at 40 hours a week at Seattle’s highest-in-the-nation $15 minimum wage, he’d only make $31,200. The average studio apartment in the Seattle area now rents for about $1,400 per month, according to a recent study conducted by Seattle rental analysts Dupre+Scott. Even if he could find full-time employment, Long would have to spend more than half of his income on rent.
This is a new problem—Seattle rent has tripled over the last 20 years and is up 60 percent over the past decade alone, according to an analysis by Dupre+Scott.
“It would be very difficult for him to be able to settle down in one apartment that he could afford,” says Long’s attorney, Ann LoGerfo of Columbia Legal Services. “The suburbs aren’t affordable. South King County isn’t affordable anymore. I don’t know where you’d have to go to find an apartment that was affordable at this income level.”
Which is why Long gave up his apartment and moved into his truck.
And that’s where he’s been since, with the exception of a few months when he lived in a rundown house while helping remodel them for flippers.
“No pay—it was sad,” he says. “But electricity and hot showers and all that.”
In her ruling, the judge who heard Long’s case called him “a poster child” for the side-effects of spiraling rents spurred by Seattle’s rapid growth in population, wealth and cultural relevance. “We are increasingly seeing a crisis of people who are unable to afford not just low-income but middle-income housing,” she wrote.
Homelessness is a nationwide issue, but Seattle’s problems are more intense than most. Though Seattle is only the sixteenth largest city in the country, nowhere but New York and Los Angeles has more residents without a place to live. Per capita, the unhoused rate in Seattle far exceeds that in those cities, the Seattle Times reported.
About 40% of Seattle’s unhoused live in vehicles, according to a Seattle University study. Nationally, there are no reliable numbers on the number of people who live in vehicles, but many municipalities are moving aggressively to outlaw it.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty tracks laws related to homelessness across 187 American cities. The group’s latest report found that bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased by 119% over the past decade, by far the biggest jump in any specific type of law criminalizing homelessness.
In Seattle, the media has largely romanticized Long’s “Gypsy-style life” with “freedom that most people need to experience.” The local Fox station quoted him as saying that “If I paid rent, I’d be broke all the time and I’d be depressed.”
That distorts the situation, says LoGerfo, Long’s legal aid attorney.
“It’s the easy way out for people just believe that homelessness is a choice, and it allows even the most liberal among Seattle city residents to say this is one issue they don’t have to concern themselves with,” says LoGerfo. “We have this level of poverty—I mean third world poverty—in our city, and we’re not fixing it quickly enough. And, more importantly, we’re not treating people well as the solution is being implemented.”
Unhoused people in vehicles tend to be lightning rods in Seattle, says Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, a Lutheran minister who is the director of Seattle’s Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness.
Angry neighbors yell because they have the impression that people who can afford a vehicle are somehow scamming the system, Kirlin-Hackett says.
“As a clergyman, when someone says that, I just want to say to them: ‘Get behind me Satan!’ Get out of the way, you don’t know what the eff you’re talking about,” he says. “A tent could never be as toxic as the inside of some of those RVs are. Three-quarters are covered with tarps, which means they’re leaking. A lot of them are filled with mold and mildew. Sure, it’s better than a tent in the wind, but a tent doesn’t have the legal problems. It doesn’t need tags, it doesn’t need gas, it doesn’t need repair.”
Steven Long’s case clearly illustrates the pitfalls of living in a car.
When he first moved into his truck, Long moved it every few days to avoid being hassled by the police. But then the truck developed transmission problems. He was scared to drive it, so he found an out-of-the-way place to park, near an abandoned warehouse and the freeway. He lived there uneventfully until the police were called about someone breaking into a nearby building to sleep there.
“It’s viewed as such a shocking crime to not have shelter, so three cops come out to look into the alleged trespass involving an abandoned industrial building because someone was sleeping there,” says LoGerfo.
The cops didn’t cite Long, but they did tell him to move and then called a parking patrol officer to give him a ticket if he didn’t. Three more tickets followed.
While he was at work, they took everything he owned and handed him a bill for $577, plus a daily impound fee of $27. The total tab ended up being about $900.
For three weeks, Long lost access to the wrenches, ratchets, power-washer and drills he’d have to use to make the money to pay off the ticket and towing fee. He didn’t have a winter jacket, change of clothes, sleeping bag, toothbrush or a way to cook his meals.
In December 2015, 11 months before Long’s truck was towed, the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency for the city’s homelessness crisis. That’s when Long’s legal aid attorneys, Columbia Legal Services, got involved in representing homeless clients.
The group’s early work was on behalf of people in tents. But as their name got around, people in vehicles started calling, LoGerfo says. That included Long.
“You know those stories on the news when a family’s house burns down and they lose everything?” LoGerfo says. “Talking to Steven about what he felt when he found [everything he needed to live] taken away with no means to get it back, it just reminded me so much of that level of devastation when your home burns down. And that’s what I could relate to as a middle-class person.”
Most people in Long’s situation have experienced intense trauma and are not equipped for the fight, says the Rev. Kirlin-Hackett, but Long seems ready for the legal battle.
“He lets a lot of things roll off him, like water off a duck. Not everybody can’t absorb this stuff that Steven went through. They won’t all survive going through court,” he says. “Most of them won’t even go down to the municipal courthouse when we tell them it’s safe.”
After a rigorous internal review, the legal aid group took the Long case. Which is when someone suggested using the Homestead Act to fight the city’s fines, which were massive for someone in Long’s shoes.
“I was consulting with another attorney who has worked with us but wasn’t involved in this case and she said ‘is there a reason you’re not looking at the Homestead Act?’” says LoGerfo.
The Homestead Act is mainly cited in bankruptcy court, but LoGerfo immediately saw a connection.
“And I was like, ‘As a matter of fact, there’s no reason!’”
Washington State’s Homestead Act is a creature of the state constitution, which directs the assembly to establish a statute protecting people’s homes from seizures over fines.
The subject of protecting a truck that someone lives in from seizure was actually discussed in an amendment to the law made in the 1990s—which makes his case even stronger.
“There’s a whole discussion in the legislative history about protecting vehicles and protecting boats,” LoGerfo says.
No one has ever pushed this argument past the first levels of the court system, though, so there is no published law–as upper court decisions that establish a precedent other courts will later follow is called.
That will change now.
On March 22, the city of Seattle filed to appeal the Long decision. This raises the stakes—if the city loses at the court of appeals, the decision will become a precedent that other courts in the state must follow in the future.
Steven Long now lives in a 1982 Chevy truck given to him by a friend, which is parked in a dirt lot at a tiny park in Georgetown, south of downtown. The surrounding neighborhood is a mix of industrial squalor and trendy New Seattle spots. The pot-holed road leading up to where Long’s truck sits is lined with RVs, cars and trucks in widely varied states of repair. Some of the cars are filled to the brim with clothing and cardboard. Some of the SUVs look like they could be parked outside a townhouse in Ballard.
On one side of the lot where Long now lives, there’s a recycling center. On the other, the Duwamish River feeds into Puget Sound. In the field near the river, sit a few wind-whipped dome tents covered with blankets out to dry in the sun.
“I always make sure there’s trees and water where I park because I get my strength from the trees and the water,” Long says. “It gives me the wisdom I need to float with.”
The fresh sports seasons mean more steady work for Long, and he’s got new digs in the form of a camper top he bought for $100, which gives him more headroom than he had in his truck. It was in good shape—except the holes drilled into the roof by a previous owner.
Meanwhile, things appear to be coming to a head at Seattle City Hall.
On one side, several city council members and the new mayor are proposing a $500-per-worker tax on large employers that would raise $75 million a year for housing and homeless services.
The city’s tech overlords and a Tea Party-style conservative movement led by a large Facebook group called Safe Seattle have staunchly opposed the tax. Amazon and Zillow have both come out hard against it, with Amazon stopping construction of a new building in protest.
That drew fierce fire from Vermont socialist senator Bernie Sanders, who attacked Amazon saying “this is what corporate power and oligarchy is all about.”
Amazon is using its enormous power to dissuade the city of Seattle from passing a modest tax on profitable corporations to address their severe housing crisis. This is what corporate power and oligarchy is all about. https://t.co/qVNxMX5CKZ
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) May 3, 2018
Politics over the proposed tax to pay for homeless services have gotten nasty by the standards of the normally mild-mannered city—Safer Seattle has been overlaying maps of crime and homeless camps around the city, and is now demanding the resignation of the city council’s top advocate for the homeless, councilmember Mike O’Brien.
O’Brien—who was recently physically assaulted at a museum gala over his support of a bike trail opposed by fishermen—says the city’s politics are getting Trumpy.
“It definitely feels like things are boiling to a head—and I don’t know what that means, what comes next,” he says.
Homelessness is not new to Seattle, he points out, but vehicle residents have made it visible in neighborhoods were residents were not used to encountering poverty.
“People show up on streets, and everyone has a street next to them—not everyone has a greenbelt or an overpass near them,” O’Brien says. “Seeing signs of poverty elicits a certain reaction in human beings that’s somewhat biological, and you can’t avoid seeing it in most communities in our city.”
He’s seen the conversation devolve, as people stop genuinely looking for solutions and start demanding a “crack down.”
“The narrative on shout radio is ‘Oh, so we can just live in vehicles and no one can ticket us, park wherever we want and just tell them it’s our house when they try to ticket us!’” he says. “This is not a game, folks, we’re actually trying to solve a problem in a humane way.”
Rankin also sees political pressure to “solve” the problem by rousting homeless campers and aggressively targeting people sleeping in cars.
“The most expedient way to give the illusion of addressing the problem is to remove visibly poor people from sight—displacing them through sweeps, incarceration or move along warnings,” she says. “They just want them not here. People think that the solution is removing them from their view.”
Which is why the current web of anti-homeless laws exists, says LoGerfo.
“Everything that a homeless person needs to do to stay alive can be connected to a crime. Sitting for too long on a sidewalk? A crime. Parking too long in particular areas? A crime. Having to go to the bathroom outdoors? A crime,” says LoGerfo.
“So people are left with no way to live but committing infractions all day long.”
Both women pointed out that studies repeatedly show the punitive approach to homelessness only makes it worse by ensnaring people like Steven Long with fines he can’t pay, while wasting law enforcement resources and potentially harming his health.
This is why they believe his case represents a breakthrough: By ending criminalization of living in cars, they see a potential to reset the conversation.
“People look at the Long decision and they run around screaming that the world is going to end because people are just going to go park wherever they want, and you won’t be able to do anything about it,” says Rankin. “Instead what this should do is to incentivize the city to come up with real solutions.”