I don’t know anyone who is not frustrated, saddened and appalled by our homelessness crisis.
The tent cities, the garbage-strewn sidewalks, the plein air bicycle chop shops — they’re all signs of a great social apocalypse.
We have failed on such a massive scale.
Because of that, I simply cannot hold it against people who live in cars or vans.
For many homeowners in neighborhoods such as Venice, vehicle dwellers are a scourge.
For a homeless man named Gary Gallerie, they presented a business opportunity.
Some years ago, Gallerie, a former beer truck driver and World Series of Poker dealer, decided to buy cheap vans and rent them to people who were homeless or unable to afford apartments.
The idea came to him after the van of some friends was impounded.
He bought their van at auction, and made them a deal: If they paid him a small monthly amount for 22 months, they could have the van back. After 17 months, though, they found an apartment.
“I made out like a champ,” Gallerie, 70, told me late Friday afternoon as we sat on a bench on the Venice boardwalk. “I got the rent for 17 months, and I got the van. I said, ‘Wow, what a good way to get people off the street, I’ll just rent ’em vans.’”
The van lord of Venice was in business.
He took out an $8,500 credit card loan, and started buying old vans, mostly from private parties.
His fleet numbers 13. Nine are parked in Venice in the funky residential neighborhood between Pacific Avenue and Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Monthly rents range from $150 a month to $300.
Most of his vans have little stickers on the back windows: “Van Life Is Not a Crime.”
“I’ve identified all mine,” he told me. “I don’t care if the neighbors know which ones are my vans. My vans are clean vans. They are not the ones that have all the garbage around them.”
In fact, the stickers were how I tracked him down after reading about his business in the Santa Monica Daily Press.
On Friday, I rode my bike around Venice, looking for his stickers. I found one of his renters, who called Gallerie for me. Gallerie was hanging out on the boardwalk, so I biked over and met up with him.
He was remarkably open with me about his business. He’s been living happily in vehicles for 15 years, although it’s been hell on his love life.
“Once a woman finds out I live in my van,” he said, “it’s over. Absolutely over.”
He keeps a low profile, sweeps the streets, and tries not to annoy the residents.
He prefers single renters; couples, he said, fight too much. Tenants come to him from Craigslist, or by word of mouth. He has a five-person waiting list right now, he said, and he will evict renters who bother the neighbors or fail to keep the area around the van clean.
“One guy was hanging his clothes to dry in the trees next to the van. After two warnings, I said, ‘You do it again, you’re out.’” (His renters do not have traditional tenants’ rights; they sign no contracts.)
Gallerie keeps the ignition keys and gives tenants door keys only. Cars can be considered abandoned if they stay in the same spot for more than 72 hours, so he moves the vans every three or four days to accommodate the law. In Venice, street cleaning is on Mondays and Tuesdays, so he moves each van to avoid tickets.
They all have current registrations and insurance.
There’s just one problem: The business is not legal.
If you rent something out for human habitation, it has to meet some basic requirements. Gallerie’s vans don’t have toilets or running water. He takes out the passenger seats and installs new queen-size mattresses, and that’s about it for amenities.
“You can’t rent out something for humans to sleep in if it doesn’t have access to sanitation. I don’t believe a five-gallon bucket meets the criteria,” said Emily Uyeda Kantrim, director of Safe Parking L.A., which helps arrange overnight parking for about 125 vehicles a night in eight different lots spread out around the city. Vehicles are allowed to park from 8:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.
By some estimates, more than a quarter of the homeless in Los Angeles County — about 15,700 people — are living in cars, vans, campers and recreational vehicles, even though it’s illegal to live and sleep in a vehicle on most Los Angeles streets.
There are some exceptions; these are called “green streets.” Safe Parking L.A. has a link on its website to the city’s green streets. Also, she said, the City Council may consider experimenting with permits that would allow people to live in vehicles. But any program like that would have to be created in tandem with some kind of case management, or next-step planning, with the goal of getting the homeless into housing eventually.
None of Gallerie’s vans are on green streets, but it’s difficult to prove someone is sleeping in a van, and frankly, police have better things to do than roust them.
I tried to interview some of Gallerie’s tenants, but most were reluctant to give me their names or were uncomfortable telling me their stories.
One, Mason Jones, 26, told me he’d found Gallerie’s van business on Craigslist and decided he could save money while pursuing a music career. He buys meals at Whole Foods and showers at his gym. “If you told me three years ago I’d be living in a van, I would have said you are crazy,” Jones said. “Honest to God, it’s a pretty pleasurable experience.”
Another tenant, who gave only her first name, Lynn, told me that she’d been living under a tarp when she met Gallerie. “Gary saved me,” she said. “I prayed to God, that’s how I found him.”
In Venice, residents have been waging a quiet war against Gallerie’s vans.
Sometimes, they leave nasty notes on windshields.
One person has taken to blacking out the word “not” on Gallerie’s van stickers, so they read “Van Life Is a Crime.” Someone — perhaps the same culprit — has been slapping “Trump 2020” stickers on the vans.
Gallerie is unfazed.
“The bottom line is I’ve gotten 13 people off the street,” he said. “How many other people have gotten just one person off the street?”
I asked Kantrim whether she agreed.
“What Gary is doing is one of the few ways that people move from the street into a vehicle,” she said. “Then, the big question is, will they be able to move from the vehicle back into housing? If the city is going to figure out street permitting, they should partner with someone like Gary. We need all types of things working here.”
We do. The van lord’s solution is not optimal; there is something inevitable about it, though.