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The fight for freedom of street sleep

Vote this week to determine lawfulness of bans to shut-eye in vehicles

Many business interests consider this practice illegal
  • Many business interests consider this practice illegal

After dark, parking a home is a problem. That was clear in 2010, when advocates for the houseless opened the first overnight safe parking lot. And the need goes on.

“The program was a direct result of the recession and increases in transitional homeless I was seeing,” says Teresa Smith, director of the nonprofit Dreams for Change.

But people keep coming. For the past year they’ve had a wait list for the Safe Parking Program lots — one in Chula Vista and one that recently reopened downtown. The need for a wait list rarely happened before, and the wait period was usually less than two weeks, Smith says.

Where do "these people" come from?

“Since this spring, our wait list has been averaging about 30 to 70 vehicles.” They come largely from central San Diego and East County, with the next biggest wave from Chula Vista or Imperial Beach. At the Chula Vista lot, just over a quarter are families with children. Overall, 16 percent come from other counties or states, and far fewer are from North County. The ratio of women to men using the service is about 50/50, Smith says, which means there are twice as many women in motor homes than there are in the general homeless population.

If a driver can’t stake a safe spot to sleep, they’re likely to spend the night tossing and turning. That makes it harder to find work or keep the job that Smith says more than half of her clients already have.

This year’s point-in-time count found 831 unsheltered San Diegans making their homes in cars, trucks, vans, and RVs. Vehicle dwellers weren’t a defined category on the 2008 survey. Smith suspects they are increasing since her program has grown without any advertising or outreach. The regional homeless count, which is required to obtain federal funding for housing and services, is only a rough snapshot.

“Exact data does not exist,” says Dolores Diaz, executive director of the regional task force on the homeless. However, a statewide survey for last year’s homeless census shows a “dramatic increase” of people living in RVs and motor homes, making them one of the fastest growing homeless populations.

Which cities proactively keep street sleep illegal?

At the same time, cities are adopting laws that prohibit shut-eye in cars.

San Diego has five codes that criminalize sleeping, camping, and lodging in public, including in vehicles. A study of local bans by the National Law Center mentions El Cajon, where about half of homeless people lack access to shelter, yet the city restricts or bans sleeping in vehicles.

In February 2015, Imperial Beach adopted an ordinance that makes it easier to enforce their code barring “habitation” of vehicles on streets between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Even the designated Safe Parking Program lots have been targets.

In 2013, a North County city forced one to close, prompting Smith to write in a press release that Vista had deemed it an illegal activity to “support the working homeless in their only asset, their car, in consenting church parking areas.”

Who works the levers to keep it illegal?

Sleep has to happen, somewhere. That’s one reason for the “right to rest act,” the latest statewide homeless rights bill. And since for the homeless it happens in public, cities and business districts opposed the bill, which is now stalled.

The League of California Cities argued that the key to homelessness is affordable housing, not “special exemptions.” The bill’s backers, who are reviving it, say that until affordable housing and enough shelter beds exist, people should be allowed to sleep in a legally parked vehicle. (According to the San Diego Housing Federation, 127,930 affordable homes are needed for San Diegans earning low incomes).

A letter to the state from the City of Coronado says the bill “perpetuates the culture of homelessness,” letting people camp in public without time limits. The San Diego County Apartment Association objected since the homeless might use rental property parking areas. If the bill excluded public parking lots at multifamily housing, they say they would not oppose it.

Senate expected to spell it out this week

In June, there was a new bill: AB 718, which targets only sleeping in vehicles, is scheduled for a vote in the state senate this week. It bars cities and counties from banning or imposing civil or criminal penalties on sleeping or resting in a lawfully parked vehicle. Advocates say it’s a chance to revisit practical options for safe overnight parking.

But Smith says it’s a right that already exists. Last summer, a Los Angeles court upended the local bans.

“Currently, the 9th Circuit Court has already ruled on vehicular residency, striking down any California laws that prevent this,” she says. That hasn’t stopped cities from trying. But parking rules that ban sleep, like the one passed by Imperial Beach, can be challenged.

After the ruling, the City of Palo Alto overturned their ban, which punished sleeping in a vehicle with a $1000 fine or jail time. And it hasn’t kept homeless drivers from signing up for designated safe parking lot spots. All but the RV dwellers, that is. The program doesn’t accept them due to their size, property zoning rules, and, says Smith, because people in vehicles “are more vulnerable on the streets.”

They may be counted as the “unsheltered homeless” but RV dwellers don’t always see it that way. “They typically are not as willing to look for permanent housing solutions.”

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thanks for this story Sheila Pell

I know a few motorhome dwellers- families, singles, elderly, disabled, male and female. They are terrified of the new S.D. ordinance that allows no parking on any public street after dark. A single parking ticket could destroy their precarious financial situation. Vehicle maintenance is a constant struggle and many live with candles for light and buckets for plumbing, no refrigeration or propane for cooking. Children attend different schools, if at all, from month to month, sometimes with help from church activists.

When I lose track of a homeless person or family, there is no way to find them again. They have no address, no email, and their prepaid phones come and go with their fortunes. I worry that they might be in jail, hospital or worse.

In one case I watched a family of five disperse after police had their RV towed with all their possessions. The towing and storage and parking violation charges totaled hundreds of dollars. They were not even allowed to retrieve their clothing. One six year old child went to a relative in Tijuana, another to a Salvation Army school, and two others quit school to find work. The single father carries a blanket and sleeps in bushes around Lemon Grove and La Mesa. He was looking for work in yard maintenance before I lost track of him.

Many of these people park in dangerous areas where they hope not to be noticed by police. Beaches and parks are obviously not a good choice. They know that residential parking will bring calls from homeowners complaining to police. They know that commercial centers will have them towed, even if all the stores are closed at night. Industrial areas are noisy but sometimes the safest choice. And they've all heard stories of being victimized by criminals and vandals.

Once a family falls into this lifestyle it is extremely difficult for them to return to 'normal'. Some lucky children may go to live with more fortunate relatives and a few teens just strike out on their own. The rest don't seem to find much assistance from government or non-profits.

The Monarch School has accepted homeless children in the downtown area for decades. They also help with sanitation, food, clothing, etc. Those with bus passes may find Monarch convenient, but many who live in vehicles feel obliged to be far from downtown. Those who can afford a single bus pass will share it with other family members and hope they don't get caught.

Dreams for Change seems to operate on a shoestring. They've changed locations over time and seem understaffed. When I first became interested, one of their rules disallowed RVs; perhaps that has changed. There is at least one similar operation up the coast a bit.

Heeeere we go again... more "services" attract more homeless, which not only leads to calls for more "services", but also leads to plaintive bleats about how "unfair" it is for the homeless to live under ANY of the rules of society.

People sleeping in cars brings trouble, period. Once they get comfy, they tell their friends. Next thing you know, you've got the drunken arguments, the garbage, the used drug paraphernalia, things being stolen... uh-uh. I'm quicker to call the police about someone sleeping ina car than I am for many other things. I don't even really care if they get a ticket or their car towed... just take it down the road away from me. No, it doesn't solve your problem... but that isn't my job. It solves my problem, which is I don't want my neighborhood going to hell.

Let us be realistic here, if an economic downturn, family crisis or emergency situation has rendered you and your family homeless; you would have never posted this. It is unfortunate that the biggest opponents for services to aid homeless families are bread from ignorance. It is hard to imagine that there are people so conceited and self involved as to publicly speak out against assisting those in need. Alas, in fact, they do exist and their numbers are growing. If you really think about it, people that think and act in such a manner may be responsible for the creation of the situations that cause homelessness.

One proven way to help the people get past their prejudices is education. Increasing the awareness of the problem is a surefire way but not the only one. First-hand experience having to endure the trials and tribulations of being homeless may be the best route. Most people can not even imagine what it would be like prior to having experienced it.

The problems we have today can be traced back to the failings of our society. We care more for fashion, Starbucks and current trends than the family down the street living in their vehicle. Keeping up with the Kardashian's is far more important than a starving child isn't it? Unfortunately, out of sight out of mind has become the norm.

Day after day I see the after effects of rampant ignorance. A problem not being isolated to just any one region. In the whole of the United States of America our compassion and empathy have shriveled into a dried out husk. We are content with providing aid to other countries to feel as though we are making a difference. Patting ourselves on the back for our good deed. Meanwhile we have our own hungry children that go without. Clearly, we are not doing enough.

The homeless population continues to grow but for most of them, it is not their fault. A job loss, fire, or medical situation is a completely reasonable excuse to become homeless. Not helping those in need, there is no excuse for that.

Programs for the homeless like "Dreams for Change" are vital. They help those who have fallen help themselves to get back on their feet. Living in one's vehicle is the last stop before becoming chronically homeless.

Instead of working toward making being homeless illegal, work on helping those people cast off the shackles of homelessness. After all, it could be you out there some day.

Just move along? I guess it is preferable to have a sleepy driver moving along--until it crashes into you.

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