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Amid Homelessness Crisis, Los Angeles Restricts Living In Vehicles

RVs line neighborhood streets in Los Angeles, where nearly 10,000 people live in vehicles.
Anna Scott
RVs line neighborhood streets in Los Angeles, where nearly 10,000 people live in vehicles.

Along a big, commercial street in Los Angeles' North Hollywood area, near a row of empty storefronts, about half a dozen motor homes sat parked on a recent morning. Inside one of them, 67-year-old Edith Grays and her husband watched TV with the door open. Grays said they'd been there a few days, despite a two-hour parking limit.

"Thank God they're not bothering us right now," she said.

It's not unusual to see clusters of campers around the city. Grays is one of the nearly 10,000 people who live in vehicles inside LA's city limits. Some take shelter in cars, others in vans or trucks, but RVs are the most visible. They're also the most difficult to park — especially now.

The Los Angeles City Council recently reinstated an ordinance that bans sleeping overnight in vehicles in residential areas. The law also forbids living in a vehicle within a block of a park, school or day care. Tickets for violating the rules start at $25 for a first offense, $50 the second time and $75 after that.

Neighborhoods divided

Residents who support the restrictions say vehicle encampments have caused parking shortages and sanitation issues. Critics say that without alternatives to parking on the street, the rules are inhumane.

"This is a stupid law," Mel Tillekeratne, executive director of a homelessness nonprofit called The Shower of Hope, said during a recent public meeting. "This law ... is going to directly contribute to these people being on the street."

For Edith Grays, who ran a window-washing business with her husband until he had a series of strokes and couldn't work, losing their motor home is a big fear. She said they moved into it after not being able to afford rent anymore, and she takes care to avoid being ticketed or towed. When asked how much of her time is spent looking for parking or planning where to park next, Grays replied: "All of it."

"It's very difficult," she said. "It causes a lot of stress in my life."

Just a couple of miles away, however, homeowner Walter Hall says RV encampments have choked major streets and that public urination by people living in vehicles has been a problem for at least one local park. "That's the kind of thing we would prefer not to see," he said.

Hall supports the city having rules around vehicle dwelling but said enforcement should be tougher. A 2018 report from the Los Angeles Police Department said that officers issued about 10 citations a month, partly because it's difficult to confirm when people are living in vehicles.

One result, Hall said, is that the restrictions mostly just shuffle people from one location to another.

"They disappear one place only to reappear someplace else," he said.

A national problem

Los Angeles isn't the only city struggling to balance the rights of those with and those without homes. Over the past decade, municipalities around the country with large homeless populations have passed laws banning activities such as panhandling or sleeping in public areas.

Ordinances limiting where people can live in vehicles are now the fastest-growing type of such restrictions, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

For decades it was completely illegal to live in a vehicle in LA. But in 2014, as homelessness swelled, that policy was struck down in federal court. The city then came up with the current ordinance, but it expired in July, so the City Council had to vote on renewing it for another six months.

It's unconscionable that they would be criminalized.

One reason it had lapsed is that it was intended to be a stop-gap while the city expanded its safe parking program, which provides after-hours lots specifically designated for overnight vehicle camping. The program also provides security and bathroom access. But that plan has lagged, partly due to budget issues, and LA has only about 100 safe parking spaces for more than 5,000 vehicles in which people live.

The day of the City Council vote on extending the parking restrictions, dozens of opponents showed up at City Hall to argue that the policy is cruel without safe parking options.

"Several of the families at my children's elementary school are struggling with homelessness," said Erika Feresten. "It's unconscionable that they would be criminalized."

After hearing nearly an hour of solid opposition, the City Council voted 13 to 0 to reinstate the rules, prompting the crowd to start chanting, "Shame on you!"

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says he expects to add another 200 safe parking spaces in the next few months. In the meantime, he said, the city has homeless outreach teams dedicated to finding people in vehicles and connecting them with social services.

"We want to make it easier" for people living in vehicles, Garcetti said, "but we also have to have that balance ... making sure that it's not going to be chaos out there."

The parking restrictions will go to the City Council again early next year.

Copyright 2019 KCRW

Anna Scott