Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Court: A man’s truck is his castle

Effective Compassion | Homeless crisis on West Coast spurs redefinition of ‘home’
by Rob Holmes
Posted 3/14/18, 04:53 pm

A Washington state court ruling may provide new legal protections for those using their vehicles as a dwelling. The case redefines what constitutes a home and what protections a person has at home—even if that home is a truck.

Seattle police sparked the legal battle when they impounded Steven Long’s pickup in October 2016 after he had lived in it for three months on city-owned land near Interstate Highway 5. Though the law stipulates parked vehicles must be moved within 72 hours, the 57-year-old janitor at CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, could no longer move the vehicle from place to place because of mechanical trouble.

Long returned from a late-night shift and found his truck had been towed, forcing him to go to a homeless shelter. Assistant City Attorney Michael Ryan testified that Long knew his home was in danger after a police officer gave him a warning and even allowed extra time for him to move, the news site Crosscut reported. Despite leniency from the police, his attorneys said the city “violated Long’s substantive due process right in his own bodily security” when police took his housing, also rendering him unable to work since he stored his tools in the vehicle.

Long then got hit with more than $500 in towing fees and the threat of his truck being auctioned after 15 days. His attorneys claimed this violated the state’s homestead exemption law protecting “real or personal property that the owner uses as a residence.” The law exists to keep people from becoming homeless during financial hardship. The attorneys argued the term “homestead” should cover any type of housing, including boats, vehicles, and tents.

This month’s ruling in King County Superior Court defined Long’s truck as a residence under the homestead law. The ruling could benefit many people who live in their rides, especially in the Seattle area, which harbors the third-highest homeless population in the country.

Another case in Washington’s Clark County raised similar arguments to those in the King County case. A judge in Vancouver, Wash., ruled that police subjected William Pippin to unreasonable search and seizure when they moved the homeless man’s tarp shelter while he was sleeping under it and arrested him after seeing a bag of crystal meth.

Advocates for the homeless said they should have all the protections enjoyed by those living within four walls. “If this person had rented wooden walls, we wouldn’t have this debate,” Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told Seattle’s The Stranger.

But the Clark County prosecutor’s office took a different view: “Are we asking our officers to go get warrants now for every person in a park who throws a blanket over themselves?” asked Rachael Probstfeld, Clark County senior deputy prosecuting attorney, in an interview with KUNR public radio in Reno, Nev. She likened the case to providing a “cloak of invisibility” to people who claim any item to be their home.

Besides homestead rights, the Seattle case exposes another issue for those living in a vehicle: the availability of secure parking. Though more and more people choose to live in a car rather than pay sky-high rent or set up a tent on the street, few cities have established safe parking areas.

A January 2017 point-in-time count showed more than 2,300 people in King County living in a van, car, or recreational vehicle—about 20 percent of those unsheltered. In Los Angeles, an estimated 8,000 people live in vehicles.

Facebook/United Way of Greater Los Angeles Facebook/United Way of Greater Los Angeles A United Way homelessness event in Los Angeles

YIMBY: Yes in my backyard

A survey of Los Angeles residents found nearly 70 percent would welcome “supportive housing” for the homeless in their neighborhoods. But the lingering question is whether more housing alone can solve the homelessness crisis on the West Coast.

United Way of Greater Los Angeles conducted the survey of 1,000 likely voters and touted the positive answer to that question as part of its new “Everyone In” campaign.

“What stops us now won’t be a lack of homes but a lack of understanding of the issues and solutions,” LA United Way president Elise Buik said in a statement.

Angelenos voted in 2016 for Proposition HHH to raise $1.2 billion over 10 years to tackle homelessness through an increased property tax of nearly $10 on every $100,000 of owned property. The tax will fund a bond to build 10,000 additional units of permanent housing (at a cost of $350,000 each), as well as spur additional development of affordable housing. A 2017 sales tax hike, termed Measure H, would provide yet another 10-year housing fund of $355 million annually. The two taxpayer-supported funds total nearly $4 billion and would benefit about 13,000 homeless people.

Some balk at the huge emphasis placed only on housing, saying what the homeless lack most is a supportive community and other services. The “Housing First” strategy in vogue in many municipalities assumes having a safe place to live will automatically help people make better life choices such as finding jobs or seeking addiction treatment. But Housing First has shown poor long-term results, and many recipients eventually return to the streets.

In Los Angeles, the scale of the homelessness problem compares to a humanitarian disaster, causing officials to put urgent focus on housing. Last month, LA City Council members proposed building 222 housing units in each one of their city’s 15 districts using bond money from Proposition HHH. All potential projects are subject to mandatory input from neighboring property owners. —R.H.

Associated Press/San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office Associated Press/San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office The dwelling where Daniel Panico and Mona Kirk lived with their children

Parents arrested for living in shack with children

A homeless California couple were released this week after being jailed on child abuse charges. Daniel Panico and Mona Kirk were living with their three children in a 200-square-foot ramshackle “box” made of plywood, tarps, plastic, tin, and other materials, in Joshua Tree, 125 miles east of Los Angeles.

The children, ages 11 to 14, showed no signs of malnutrition or physical abuse, but authorities found they lacked running water, electricity, and adequate bathing and toilet facilities. Holes used as makeshift toilets dotted their desert property.

From jail, Panico, 73, told the Los Angeles Times he and his wife were “just minding our own business, trying to raise our three kids on little money.”

San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said there was no evidence the children were being educated, though a description on a GoFundMe page for the family said Kirk “loved to teach her children in a different way.” 

Friends and other supporters turned out to demonstrate at the couple’s court hearing, bearing signs that read, “Being homeless is not a crime.” 

Jackie Klear, a friend of the family who started the GoFundMe campaign, which has so far raised close to $60,000 for the family, said, “The kids were fed, healthy, and were part of just about any activity or group that was available to the community.”

Capt. Trevis Newport of the sheriff’s department said the Panico-Kirk children were not captives as in the recent parental abuse case involving the 13 Turpin children in Perris, Calif.

Elizabeth Crabtree, Kirk’s attorney, said Panico and Kirk should never have been arrested. She will argue for the county to drop the charges and reunite the children with their parents. “I don’t think there’s anything at this point that substantiates abuse,” she said. —R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 03/15/2018 09:34 am

    I am so disgusted with the arrest of those parents, and the removal of their children to strangers, I don't know what to say.  Another example of the government interfering in lives, instead of protecting or helping.