Westward, ho! To the land where the past is present.
The Homestead Act of 1862 may seem like ancient history, but it is not. For a quick American history review of relevance here: the Homestead Act became federal law under President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War when eleven (mostly Southern slave-holding states) had seceded from the Union. Of the vast area we now consider the American West, only Oregon and California had achieved statehood. The remaining land area was composed of various territories, including Washington Territory. The Homestead Act was part of Lincoln’s plan to claim the West for the Union and to keep the future states free of slavery.
The Washington State version of the Homestead Act was brought into play this month in my hometown of Seattle— in the case of a 58-year-old homeless man, Steven Long, and the city’s seizure of his GMC truck that was parked too long on a downtown Seattle street. As stated by Vianna Davila in a March 3, 2018 Seattle Times article “Judge rules Seattle homeless man’s truck is a home”: “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.”
Here is the specific language of the Washington State Legislature’s Revised Code of Washington (Chapter 6.13.010) definition of homestead:
“(1) The homestead consists of real or personal property that the owner uses as a residence. In the case of a dwelling house or mobile home, the homestead consists of the dwelling house or the mobile home in which the owner resides or intends to reside, with appurtenant buildings, and the land on which the same are situated and by which the same are surrounded, or improved or unimproved land owned with the intention of placing a house or mobile home thereon and residing thereon. A mobile home may be exempted under this chapter whether or not it is permanently affixed to the underlying land and whether or not the mobile home is placed upon a lot owned by the mobile home owner. Property included in the homestead must be actually intended or used as the principal home for the owner.”
The city of Seattle is appealing Judge Shaffer’s ruling (source: “Seattle will appeal ruling that man living inside his truck should not have had to pay high fines after vehicle was towed” Vianna Davila Seattle Times, March 7, 2018). Although homeless tent encampments (both unsanctioned and sanctioned) are now a well-established part of the Seattle landscape, more people are homeless/displaced in their cars, trucks, and RVs. The latest estimate (January 2017 Count Us In Report) found that 2,300 people were homeless in their vehicles in King County. And having helped with the 2018 count, I can attest to the difficulty of deciphering whether or not people are sleeping inside a vehicle along our city streets. In an odd twist (or not), I discovered many men having slept in their cars and trucks overnight in the University District, waking up at 4:30am, donning their hardhats and high visibility vests and walking to their nearby construction jobs—construction of high-rise, high rent apartment and condo buildings that are displacing yet more low-income people into a life of homelessness. Isn’t that ironic?