More than 4,600 cars and RVS were in use as living quarters this year in Los Angeles, a rise that has sparked bitter complaints that homeless people are taking up scarce street parking, dumping trash and bringing increased crime and safety risks into neighborhoods.
A federal appeals court last year struck down the city’s ban on vehicle dwelling, calling it an invitation to discriminate against the poor. Now, what could be a new legal confrontation with homeless advocates is shaping up as the City Council is poised Friday to adopt a new ban that could link enforcement to providing restricted parking for homeless people to sleep in their cars.
At the city’s homelessness and poverty committee Wednesday, Councilman Mike Bonin proposed barring homeless people from “lodging” in vehicles parked by homes and schools, while allowing them to sleep in their cars and campers from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in commercial areas and in designated city, nonprofit agency and church lots.
Bonin said his proposal could forestall a more sweeping ban and avoid repeating what he called “absurd and pathetic” scenarios of the past, when police would ask people to get out of their cars to sleep on the sidewalks.
“That was absolutely nuts,” he said before the committee approved his motion for consideration by the full council.
Legal advocates testified that the revised ban, which would include a misdemeanor penalty, would criminalize the poor.
“They are the working poor, and we need to not make them criminals,” said civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, who represented Venice vehicle dwellers in the lawsuit that led to the old ban being overturned.
“I have a feeling we’re likely to get sued,” Bonin said, to applause from the largely anti-ban audience.
Bonin’s initiative, based largely on the “safe parking” program in the city of Santa Barbara, would permit small groups of campers, vans or cars – perhaps three to five per site – to stay overnight in parking lots throughout the city. The inhabitants would have to sign up for social services to work their way out of their vehicles.
To “incentivize” buy-in, council members who create a ‘critical mass” of safe parking spaces could ban car dwellers altogether in their districts, Bonin said. If the city fails to launch a safe parking program by year’s end, the ban would be lifted citywide.
The homelessness committee in March failed to link expansion of free storage for homeless people to a council measure that made it easier to clear street encampments. The expansion is still on hold.
Reached by phone Thursday, Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Assn., said it is more difficult to distance safe parking from residences in L.A. than in Santa Barbara because of the larger city’s density.
Beach lots in Venice, which Bonin said could be considered for inclusion, are inappropriate, said Ryavec, adding that Dockweiler Beach or LAX lots are better choices. Ryavec said many of the RV dwellers in Venice are not homeless but people who want to live at the beach for free.
“We think this should have buffer zones” to separate residents from car dwellers, he said. Locations should ensure that “drug sales, fights, whatever, not be in anybody’s face.”
Homeless advocates said the city would never come up with enough parking spaces, leaving people forced to live in their vehicles susceptible to police harassment.
Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson recalled the 1998 shooting death of Tyisha Miller, a 19-year-old black woman killed by Riverside Police Department officers who saw her passed out in a car with a gun on her lap.
“It lets the officer make the judgment about who‘s living in the car and who’s sleeping,” said Harris-Dawson, who is black. “Where I come from you don’t get the benefit of the doubt, you get guilt.”
Bonin said “there is a great likelihood the council will pass some version” of a ban.
“Absent trying to force creation of safe places,” he said, “we’ll wind up with a prohibition with no places for people to park.“
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