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San Diego repeals law prohibiting homeless people from living in cars

SAN DIEGO, June 20, 2017 | Because they can use a long extension cord to plug into an outlet on the
Dyana and Dale Stark use a long extension cord to plug in CPAP machines while they and Dale’s mother, who is in the back seat, sleep in their car at the Jewish Family Service’s Joan & Irwin Jacobs Campus in San Diego in 2017.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)
San Diego Union-Tribune

The San Diego City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to repeal a 35-year-old law that has made it illegal for people to live inside vehicles.

Supporters of the repeal say they hope it will be a key step toward ending the local criminalization of homelessness.

“It’s in line with a number of other policy objectives we’ve been trying to move through our legislative pipeline,” said Councilman Chris Ward, referring to safe parking lots, storage facilities and temporary shelters the city has created recently for the homeless.

Ward said the city needs to do much more to provide permanent housing for homeless people, but that allowing them to live in their cars is a reasonable stopgap measure.

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“I do have a problem with people living in their cars – it’s not right,” Ward said. “It’s dangerous. Individuals are exposed to crime and are exposed to hardships. We need to do better.”

Councilman Mark Kersey also characterized allowing people to live in their cars as a lesser evil.

“It’s certainly not a permanent solution to the crisis that we are facing,” he said. “But 100% of the time, I’d rather have someone sleeping in a car than on the sidewalk.”

Kersey said the law, first passed in 1983, has outlived its usefulness.

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“There may have been reasons why it was justified at that time,” he said. “I think it’s pretty clear today it’s not the direction any of us are looking to go.”

The council’s 9-0 vote came after more than a dozen homeless people who live in their cars testified that the law, and the fines and criminal records that can come with it, have been a major burden.

During the city’s most recent homeless count, volunteers canvassing the city found more than 800 people living in cars.

The repeal comes six months after a federal judge ordered the city to stop ticketing people under the law, saying it was unconstitutional because it’s too vague for enforcement.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia said the law doesn’t indicate specifically what turns a vehicle into a person’s home or “living quarters,” noting that people have gotten tickets under the law for reading a book inside their vehicle.

The injunction ordered by Battaglia came in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of disabled homeless people who prefer to live in vehicles because they don’t function well in traditional homeless shelters.

Garrick writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

david.garrick@sduniontribune.com

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