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‘No place to go’: Fullerton ordinance, on hold for now, could force out homeless living in RVs

Several RVs are parked on Valencia Drive in Fullerton.
Several RVs are parked on Valencia Drive in Fullerton.
(Ben Brazil)

Dirk Wilson stood outside of his RV cradling his dog amid old broken refuse.

“I served seven years in the Marine Corps,” Wilson said this week. “I thought I earned something there.”

Wilson lives out of his RV, like dozens of others parked on Valencia Drive and neighboring Walnut Avenue in Fullerton.

Wilson and other homeless people living out of their recreational vehicles have been at odds with the city. They say police antagonize, cite them and tow the vehicles they live in.

“I won’t go to a homeless shelter,” Wilson said. “It’s like going to jail.”

Local religious and legal advocates for the homeless have joined forces to try to find a resolution to the problem with the city. But an ordinance the City Council approved in November that bans all RV parking on public and private streets without a special permit threatens to further the divide between the city and advocates.

Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who represents the homeless, has been in talks with the city about the ordinance, which she calls “unconstitutional.”

A Mexican cultural center in Santa Ana is butting heads with the city over a homeless encampment in its parking lot.

Weitzman sent a demand letter to the city in December telling Fullerton to delay enforcement of the new ordinance. City Manager Ken Domer said the city has obliged so far.

“Fullerton seeks to criminalize merely parking or stopping on public or private property any vehicle capable of human habitation,” the letter says.

”The city’s law also permits any vehicle found to be in violation of the law, including vehicles that are ‘capable’ of being used for habitation but may not be — which is just about any vehicle — to be towed.”

The letter also says that the ordinance should not be enforced for the sake of public health during the pandemic.

“Orange County is currently in the height of the pandemic, reaching new records of illness every day and all hospitals in the region exceeding capacity,” the letter says. “As we open overflow outdoor emergency rooms, it is a particularly dangerous time for the city to force senior and medically vulnerable individuals out of the vehicles where they can shelter in place and on to the streets. This will only exacerbate the public health crisis.”

Domer said over the phone Wednesday that he has met with Weitzman twice in the last two weeks. Domer said the city will not enforce the RV ordinance until they come to a resolution with Weitzman.

The RV ordinance seeks to deter what is occurring on Valencia and Walnut.

“A lot of that area is actually conditioned for commercial parking only and industrial,” Domer said. “That’s where semi trucks park or offload. Right now what we have is a lot of semi trucks that are pulling into the middle lanes because they don’t have curbside places where they can park for whatever reason. So it is a health and safety issue.”

Weitzman said that they would file a lawsuit if the city starts enforcing the ordinance.

Several RVs are parked on Valencia Drive in Fullerton.
(Ben Brazil)

When asked what will happen to the vehicles on Valencia and Walnut if the city begins enforcing the RV ordinance, Domer responded the city’s goal is to get people into housing. He mentioned that Fullerton was the first Orange County city to have a safe parking program, which ended a few months ago.

“From our view in setting up the safe parking program, a lot of those folks were basically chased out of Anaheim or some other cities because of their RV ordinances,” Domer said. “And so we are not going to become a depository for everybody in an RV who wants to live on public streets.

“We will first work with the appropriate social service providers and the county to get them housing support and provide them with enough information. But ultimately, yes, we will need to reclaim the streets for the normal parking, specifically in the commercial and industrial areas for those uses.”

Father Dennis Kriz, a Fullerton pastor and homeless advocate, is hoping that the city will renew its safe parking program because the people living in their RVs “have no place to go.”

The program provided a safe parking lot for homeless people living out of their cars, but the program came to an end after it ran out of funding.

Kriz’s church, St. Philip Benizi Church, is part of the Fullerton Tri-Parish Homelessness Collaborative, which advocated for the safe parking program.

It isn’t clear how many, if any, of the people living on Valencia and Walnut were in the program. About half a dozen people who were interviewed this week said they weren’t in the safe parking program but would be open to being in one.

There were about 10 cars and RVs in the safe parking lot on an ongoing basis.

Domer said they aren’t looking into restarting the city’s safe parking program.

“Safe parking really needs to be a regional perspective, and not just with cities and county, but with faith-based and other nonprofit social providers,” Domer said.

”We just can’t do it on our own. My finances here in the city are horrible. So I am shrinking departments. I’m not bringing back staff. I can’t spend the taxpayers’ money on a safe parking program.”

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