Will Portland see reprieve from 'zombie' RVs on city streets?
While RV living has intertwined itself with Portland's homeless crisis, the city is trying to figure out how to deal with it.
In an attempt to mitigate the number of so-called "zombie" RVs being sold at little to no cost and ending up parked along neighborhood streets, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance last week that would ban people from selling or transferring RVs with malfunctioning or nonfunctioning wastewater systems.
Over the past couple of years, the number complaints about these run-down mobile campers has skyrocketed.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation, which fields complaints about the phenomenon, received 4,000 calls about them in 2016. They suspect by year's end, they'll have received 10,000 — which doesn't include 20,000 complaints about cars.
The bureau has had $150,000 of general fund dollars to dispose of unoccupied RVs since November 2016.
"More concerning is the amount of reports we receive from community members, businesses, business owners and others of the extreme cases of these recreational vehicles, ones that have caught fire due to improper electrical wiring, RVs that leak sewage, gas or other dangerous liquids onto neighborhood streets," said Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the bureau. "These are a clear public health and safety hazard that need to be addressed."
Saltzman said the city spends "significant resources" to dispose of hazardous waste and materials to pick up trash, tow and recycle the RVs, and they're "making it clear" that any tow lots, businesses or owners of these derelict RVs that they are putting the public's health at risk if they're putting them back out on the streets.
In tandem with the ordinance, the Bureau of Transportation announced a free RV Disposal Turn-In Day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, at Portland International Raceway, 1940 N. Victory Blvd.
'We're not garbage collectors'
The idea behind the disposal day is to help people who still have these derelict RVs in their possession, sometimes selling them on Craigslist for as little as a buck, have a way to get rid of them instead of resorting to selling or donating.
According to PBOT, the disposal process for an RV can cost up to $2,000 for an individual "if they're lucky enough to find facilities that will take them," while tow companies often aren't interested because they don't have much value in terms of scrap metal — and they're filled up.
"We pick them up, and they are literally filled with human garbage. Urine, feces, needles, you name it. The tow industry, we're not garbage collectors," says Michael Porter, CEO of Speeds Towing. Faced with an inordinate number of RVs on their lot and no more room, they sought out a third party, a man who had his own wrecking yard, to get rid of four RVs.
However, the man didn't actually have permission or proper permits to do it.
"We're like, OK, we're not going to do that anymore. So, I understand where the city's coming from in that. ... It was costing us hundreds to thousands of dollars to get rid of them," Porter said.
He isn't sure where the RVs are coming from, and often they're hard to track when VIN numbers are scraped off. But he speculates:
"There's a lot of folks now, they retired when they were 60-65, bought motor homes, and now they're like 'Well, I'm in my 70s or 80s and I'm not going to use it anymore, and so we're selling it,'" he said. He's not sure if that's truly a big source of them, but he said Speeds does see more RVs coming to them through auctions and charities they work with.
After adding more staff to PBOT's Abandoned Auto division, which only deals with unoccupied vehicles, as well as starting a Community Caretaking program with Portland police, which takes on those with occupants, the city has reduced caller wait time by 88 percent, when previously it was taking weeks, at times, to address the problem of an RV sitting in the street.
Neighborhoods like Lents had been dealing with an onslaught of RVs there, pushing the City Council since spring to address the issue.
But some are wondering where that leaves the otherwise homeless individuals who live in the RVs.
Who does it help?
Dave Benson, parking services manager, said they estimate there are between 650-750 RVs with people living in them. Parking an RV on neighborhood streets is illegal, and oftentimes occupants are dropping their waste directly into street storm drains.
While city officials say the ordinance will help keep homeless people from occupying these unsafe spaces in the first place, others aren't so sure.
"The people that are using their RVs and mobile homes and what have you, they're being used for shelter. They don't have anywhere to go. They're not in the position to dispose of their only source of shelter," said Jeff Woodward, a homeless advocate who works with Oregon Harbor of Hope, a group of developers and others in the city working to create new shelter.
Porter had a similar thought.
"I don't know if there's a bunch of people selling those motor homes to people now. I don't know how many of those folks who have broken down motor homes and just can't wait to bring it to the city so they can destroy them," he said.
Finding the dirt for an RV lot
While Portland police officers work with social service workers to attempt to place people impacted by the Community Caretaking program, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, as well as Commissioner Nick Fish, expressed interest in finding a place to park RVs. However, most existing RV parks in the city require proper permits and tags, as well as newer model RVs, leaving those with older RVs that may not be in total disrepair with little choice than a street somewhere.
Eudaly said they're in conversation with the Joint Office of Homeless Services about the possibility of opening up a lot, although Seattle didn't have the best results trying that approach, finding that it cost just as much to get the person into an apartment. They ultimately closed down their lot.
"It makes me very concerned that our homeless count might be grossly off," Eudaly said. Though she supported the ordinance, she added, "It's [a parking lot for RVs] still something I'm interested in pursuing, for those few that might fall into that middle category."
Fish pointed to an RV park in Hayden Island where people can hook up to utilities, and wondered if PBOT or anyone else was considering ways to create a similar safe place for people. He said it might be a conversation for the Housing Bureau.
Benson wasn't entirely convinced.
"The RVs that we see on our streets ... are almost universally in poor condition. They're not going to hook up to anything," he said.
Fish even suggested that maybe the city could find a way to contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency "or some disaster agency" to get low-cost trailers for people to use temporarily, while they wait for more permanent housing to come online.
"My guess is we could find some dirt ... close to utility structures, because we're looking for just water, electricity and sewer," Fish said, adding that "We have some ideas in my bureau."
Have an old RV?
Get rid of it at the city's Free RV Disposal Turn-In Day
When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29
Where: Portland International Raceway, 1940 N. Victory Boulevard
• Registered owner is a city of Portland resident
• Only one per household
• Owner must be present to sign title to City of Portland
• No vehicles from dealerships or businesses
• No personal belongings inside
• Tanks must be drained
• Sign up online by Oct. 27 to participate: portlandoregon.gov/transportation/75063
Read a previous story about vehicle homelessness in Portland: portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/356085-235364-living-in-your-car-is-no-camping-trip
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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