Judges strike down law against sleeping in vehicles, leaving the challenge of addressing homelessness to others
By Gary Walker, Claire Kaufman and Joe Piasecki
A federal court decision to strike down a Los Angeles law that for 31 years made it illegal for homeless people to sleep in their cars is forcing city leaders to confront rampant homelessness and has reignited a contentious moral and quality-of-life debate among Westside residents.
More than any other neighborhood, Venice has been a flashpoint for conflict over a proliferation of people living out of RVs, vans and other vehicles parked indefinitely on residential streets. To opponents, the law was a thinly veiled tactic to run poor people out of the rapidly gentrifying beachside community; to supporters, it held the line in a battle to protect public health and safety while preserving the rights of the housed to enjoy their homes.
“They’re on your doorstep, using your yard as a toilet,” said Venice Stakeholders Assoc. President Mark Ryavec, who has campaigned for homeowners to be able to establish overnight parking bans in their neighborhoods. “If there’s someone who looks kind of creepy living in a vehicle right across your sidewalk, the police can drive by but they can’t do anything about it. They needed a clear line — leave or we’ll cite you — but now that’s gone.”
According to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling last Thursday in Pasadena, however, the ordinance against lodging in vehicles was unconstitutionally unclear, a law “broad enough to cover any driver in Los Angeles who eats food or transports personal belongings in his or her vehicle” but that “appears to be applied only to the homeless,” wrote Judge Harry Pregerson.
“For many homeless persons, their automobile may be their last major possession — the means by which they can look for work and seek social services. The city of Los Angeles has many options at its disposal to alleviate the plight and suffering of its homeless citizens. Selectively preventing the homeless from using their vehicles for activities many other citizens also conduct in their cars [such as eating, resting, transporting possessions] should not be one of those options,” Pregerson continued.
Ryavec countered that the ruling “forces us to play Russian roulette” in terms of a risk that some automobile dwellers might become violent or engage in criminal activity.
The complaint against the vehicle lodging ordinance was brought to court by Santa Monica civil rights attorney Carol Sobel on behalf of four clients, including a disabled woman who in 2010 was stopped by police in Venice and issued a warning not to park her RV in the area. Sobel did not return calls.
Also in 2010, Los Angeles police launched a Venice Homelessness Task Force that stepped up patrols enforcing the vehicle lodging ordinance, and that same year the Los Angeles City Council allowed residents to vote by block to ban oversize vehicles such as RVs from parking overnight on their streets. The RV parking restrictions were not addressed by the appeals court decision.
Former Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks witnessed acrimonious arguments among residents over where the homeless should or should not have the right to sleep, but she never agreed with the ban on sleeping in cars.
“I’ve always thought [the law] was immoral because it forced people to get out of their cars and sleep on the ground if they wanted to be legal,” Lucks said. “What I would like to see now is the political will among our elected leaders to make housing a top priority. Other cities that don’t have as many homeless people do, so why can’t we? It’s a matter of political will.”
Life in a van
In a statement after the ruling, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said he would not appeal the court’s decision and will seek a new tack on dealing with homelessness and its broader impacts.
“I will work with other city leaders to craft a constitutional ordinance that respects both the rights and needs of homeless individuals and protects the quality of life in our neighborhoods. I believe this approach is much more constructive than continuing to litigate the legality of the old ordinance. More broadly, the persistence of homelessness continues to disgrace not only our city, but our region and our country as a whole,” Feuer said.
As police stepped up enforcement four years ago, then-City Councilman Bill Rosendahl launched a “Vehicles to Homes” program that helped some 100 vehicle dwellers obtain social services and transition into homes.
Modeled after a similar initiative in Santa Barbara, Rosendahl’s plan also called for allowing people to park and sleep overnight in designated lots that would double as access points for social services, but that element was stymied by opposition from Westchester and Venice neighborhood groups as well as by some of his council colleagues.
“The solution isn’t to ticket [the homeless] and drive them from one place to another. We housed 100 people when I was in office by using practical, humane strategies,” Rosendahl said Monday. “The real solution is we have to find more affordable housing. That’s the only way that we’re going to get people who want to rebuild their lives but have no place to go off the streets and out of their cars.”
Al Young Jr., who lives in a 1995 Ford E150 that he parks in various places within a few miles of his parents’ former home in Westchester, is a part-time employee of a car service for out-of-town airline pilots and flight attendants. The $800 of monthly net income that the job brings just isn’t enough to pay for both food and housing, he said.
Young, 49, has lived in a vehicle for all but five of the past 29 years, he said.
With plenty of room for his work clothes, books, a small TV and DVD player and a portable gas burner for cooking, Young said the van is his most reasonable accommodation and, by keeping a low profile, he hasn’t attracted much attention from police or residents.
“An athletic club membership [for showers] and a P.O. Box — that’s pretty much all you need,” he said.
Young said he didn’t expect the appeals court’s decision to have an immediate impact on his lifestyle, but several people living in vans or RVs in Venice — all asking to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation by residents — praised the ruling as removing a stifling sense of insecurity about their legal status.
“It’s a blessing,” said a man parked on Rose Avenue. But he also fears a public backlash, having already experienced verbal harassment and an incident where people shouted for him to leave while banging on his vehicle.
“Now that it’s legal, it’s only going to make them hate more,” he said. “Some people just can’t let people live.”
A woman who has been living in her RV for the past five years after losing her apartment of 25 years said she is worried that a lack of regulation could ultimately make her situation more difficult, both in terms of increased competition for parking spaces and the potential for even stricter future laws.
“It would be nice if they could give us a [designated] space to park,” she said.
‘A break from the past’
Ryavec, a government relations consultant who previously worked as a legislative analyst for the city, said more than 110 blocks in Venice have voted since 2010 to restrict overnight RV parking except for homeowners and renters who purchase parking permits from the city.
“The last count we did there were over 250 RVs or campers in Venice before the signage went up. Now there are maybe 20 on streets where residents haven’t gone to get the signage,” Ryavec said.
Santa Monica did not have a ban on sleeping in cars but has maintained similar restrictions on RV parking for nearly 40 years. Months after Venice neighborhoods adopted bans, the Santa Monica City Council updated its ordinance and posted signage at dozens of entry points to the city.
L.A.’s oversize vehicle rules are more clear and specific than was the city’s ban on lodging in vehicles, said attorney Jane Usher, who worked in the city attorney’s office when oversize vehicle parking restrictions began in Venice. “But I think the city has to be mindful about making sure the law is implemented in an evenhanded way so that certain RVs aren’t the only ones targeted,” she said.
Oversize vehicle restrictions, however, haven’t stopped a man from living in a van parked two doors down from Ryavec’s home west of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, or three others parked two blocks away, he said.
Ryavec has for years pushed for city and state officials to allow residents to vote on whether to ban overnight street parking for all vehicles.
In 2009, a majority of Venice Neighborhood Council voters supported a nonbinding initiative in favor of overnight parking restrictions, but the California Coastal Commission — formed to protect coastal access — has rejected such plans three times, including last summer.
Santa Monica established some overnight parking restrictions near the coast in the 1980s, but not to address homelessness.
“Apartments that were built in the 1940s and ‘50s did not provide sufficient parking for their residents, especially near Ocean Park. That, coupled with the businesses that came onto Main Street, gave us a double whammy of very little parking,” said former Santa Monica Mayor Michael Feinstein.
The Venice Stakeholders Assoc. filed a lawsuit against the state Coastal Commission seeking the right to establish overnight parking bans in Venice but was forced to drop the suit in January, Ryavec said, after a judge required evidence that the city would enforce such bans and Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin’s office declined to provide it.
Bonin, who had served as Rosendahl’s chief of staff, declined to speak directly about overnight parking bans, oversize vehicle restrictions or whether he might seek to revive his predecessor’s plan to designate certain parking lots for sleeping in cars.
“We cannot criminalize homelessness and we cannot allow virtual campgrounds to appear and proliferate in front of homes in residential neighborhoods,” Bonin said.
Venice Housing Corp. head Steve Clare, whose organization helps low-income people secure affordable housing, said he hopes for a stronger affirmation of support for helping people transition out of living in vehicles.
“We hope the city attorney and the City Council will take a more progressive approach when they write their new ordinance. You can’t police your way out of homelessness,” Clare said.
“We need to make a break from the past, recognize that the civil and criminal justice systems alone can’t effectively address homelessness, and commit ourselves to grappling with the issues that create homelessness in the first place,” Feuer said. “We’ve only begun to make strides in that direction, and it will take collective leadership to make meaningful progress.”