RVer Safety: What can LA, and other cities, do to help the homeless?

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By Mike Sherman

This week’s topic on safety and security is taking a turn to visit urban Los Angeles, to take a closer look at the RV “camping” issue on the streets of LA. For many, their RVs (and autos) offer a level of protection that is obviously far better than sleeping on a park bench or sidewalk. The number of homeless people living on LA streets in vehicles exceeds the population of many small towns of America.


Let’s get a clear picture of the issue in the following Los Angeles Times article, then pitch in with your comments, ideas and even offer up some solutions.

For those who sleep in cars, life just got harder –
L.A. will reinstate limits on where people may spend the night in vehicles.

BY EMILY ALPERT REYES – Los Angeles Times
July 31, 2019

Sleeping overnight in cars, vans and RVs will be prohibited again in many parts of Los Angeles, after the City Council voted Tuesday to reinstate rules that limit where people can live in their vehicles.

The decision extends the L.A. regulations, which had expired at the beginning of July, until January. Under the rules, people cannot spend the night in their cars on residential streets, or live in their vehicles at any time within a block of a park, school, preschool or day-care facility.

At a hearing at City Hall, local activists argued that it was cruel and counterproductive to punish people for bunking down in vehicles while housing, shelters and “safe parking” programs for homeless people remain inadequate. Despite the impassioned pleas from opponents, the council voted 13-0, without any discussion, to reinstate the rules.

Immediately after the vote, opponents began shouting in disbelief and anger, bringing the council meeting to a halt. Many in the crowd started chanting, “Shame on you!”

As police detained one person in handcuffs and ushered other activists out of the room, Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson briefly spoke to reporters, calling the rules “an attempt to strike a balance.”

Letting people park and sleep anywhere at any time would be “totally unacceptable” for neighborhoods, Harris-Dawson said. For instance, the councilman said that RVs lined up around one park have blocked parking and stopped residents from using the park. In letters to the council, some Angelenos complained about trash and filth from cars-turned homes.

“When you have 30,000 people living on the street, there are no good choices,” Harris-Dawson said.

More than 9,500 people live in cars, vans or RVs throughout the city of Los Angeles, according to the last annual count. But the scattering of safe parking sites now operating across the city have capacity for fewer than 200 vehicles nightly — a number expected to rise to more than 300 in the fall, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Renewing the rules is “endorsing the continued harassment and criminalization of those who sleep in their cars when they have no safer place to go,” said Kate Corry-Saavedra, a member of the homeless advocacy group KTown for All.

Council members Bob Blumenfield and Mike Bonin were absent for the Tuesday vote. A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said the mayor plans to sign the measure, which is expected to go into effect by the end of the week.

The L.A. rules were first passed nearly three years ago to impose new regulations after a federal court struck down a citywide ban on living in vehicles, calling it an invitation to discriminate against the poor.

Those restrictions were initially meant to be a stop gap measure while the city got “safe parking” programs up and running. They permitted vehicle dwellers to stay the night in industrial or commercial districts, but kept them out of residential neighborhoods where Angelenos had complained about scarce parking, trash and other nuisances tied to RVs.

But in the years since, the City Council has clamped down on overnight parking in many additional areas, imposing such restrictions street by street.

Many of the bans have been targeted specifically at “oversize vehicles” such as RVs. In the meantime, safe parking programs have been slow to get started.

The result is a “de facto ban on living in vehicles at a time when nearly 10,000 Angelenos have literally no other housing option,” said Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

At the Tuesday meeting, several people argued that vehicles provided shelter and safety to people who would otherwise be bedding down on the streets. Cue Jn-Marie, pastor of the Church Without Walls on skid row, said that “kicking people out of their car is a death sentence.”

Violating the vehicle dwelling rules is an infraction, punishable with a fine of up to $25 for the first offense, $50 for the second offense, and up to $75 for additional violations.

In a report last year, the Los Angeles Police Department said that 185 citations had been issued under the law between Feb. 6, 2017, and June 30, 2018 — approximately 10 citations a month.

In order to issue such a citation, police officers have to contact the person living in the vehicle and a violation can be “difficult to prove” when they cannot look inside because the person refuses to respond, the report said.

Despite those obstacles to enforcement, the lapse in the city rules had troubled some residents who argued that police needed the power to ticket RVs that park overnight in their neighborhoods. During that brief period, “vehicle dwelling everywhere was legal,” said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the city attorney.

“It has been a nightmare in Venice with people living in cars [and RVs] leaving trash and creating unsanitary conditions on our streets and sidewalks as well as taking away much needed parking,” Carol Katona wrote in a letter urging council members to reinstate the law. “Los Angeles will be a magnet for people from all over the country to come here and do the same.”

In his motion seeking to extend the restrictions for six months, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said the city was still reviewing the rules and how they had been implemented and looking at ways to encourage communities to welcome safe parking programs.

The added time, he said in his motion, was needed to evaluate possible changes to the law.
Times staff writer Dakota Smith contributed to this report.

It is hard to equate a “homeless” person living in an RV on the streets of LA to that of a retiree or young family heading out for a state park (or the boondocks) to camp for a week or three. Obviously the street dwellers of LA are not RVers in the sense that readers of this newsletter might be. Nevertheless, they have some of the same concerns about safety that we all have … parked in an area and, at times, feeling somewhat vulnerable. Economics and mental health issues aside, what can LA do to deal with this problem? And it’s not just an LA problem.

Major cities in California (and elsewhere) are struggling with this problem due to high housing costs and personal circumstances that force many good people into living full-time in an RV. For those of us with financial means to make full-time RV living a choice, it might be hard to grasp the hardship if one is broke and cannot afford to get out of LA and pay for campsites on the road.

We got stuck in traffic while going through Los Angeles and ended up stuck in the area for several more hours than anticipated. It was dark, we were hungry and tired, and there was absolutely no place to park for the night due to all the signage prohibiting “overnight parking.” We ended up in a shopping center parking lot at 11:00 p.m., and had no choice but to ignore the “No Overnight Parking” signs posted everywhere. We got out of there at the crack of dawn, thankful for a problem-free night of rest. The metro area of Los Angeles has no RV “camping.”

So what should LA do? Set up large plots of city land for parking? Bring in “honey wagons”? Water? Power? How about old military installations? Those familiar with the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo outside of the Bay Area might agree that the site might be perfect to set up these small cities that cater to the needs of RVers who have fallen on hard times.

The social service programs offer Section 8 vouchers for rent but they are of little use if there are no apartments available.

Can a program be cost effective when one looks at the big picture? Something needs to be done.

It is unacceptable having RV holding tanks opened up into the gutters of residential streets. Blocking access to neighborhood parks is unacceptable. The homeless situation in general is creating very serious health and safety issues that must be dealt with – it is a no-brainer!

Do the politicians think the problems will eventually just go away? California has the wealth. They have a projected budget surplus of 21.4 BILLION dollars coming. I suspect a few dollars could be found to provide some acreage for parking with supportive services.

Since I have obviously climbed onto a soapbox this week, let me point out that California used to soak me $500 a year just to register my 19-year-old Ford truck. Since moving to another state, that fee has dropped to $51 a year. California has darn near the highest fuel prices, taxes and housing costs, yet the funding to help the needy in LA offers up a measly 200 spots for overnight parking?

Your thoughts on the subject would be helpful and appreciated. My plan is to submit some ideas to the state capital for legislative consideration. This truly is a health and safety issue involving RVers.

Note: We know what we discuss in this column may be controversial. While we invite your polite, constructive comments, inflammatory remarks will be immediately deleted.

Mike Sherman is a retired street cop and investigator with 30+ years of RV experience as a traveler, camp host and all-around advocate for the joys of living on the road. His articles are for general discussion purposes only – you should always consult your local authorities or legal counsel for specific answers if necessary. Write him at MikeShermanPI@gmail.com if you have questions, or leave a comment below. 

Read more RVer Safety articles here.

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Billy Bob Thorton

Bring back a form of the CCC, a man has worth after a hard day of work.

sandy

After spending A winter in Quartzite AZ you can give people a safe place with water and waste management. Diseases are going to start showing up in these cities. How come politicians never do anything the right and ethical way.

Rey L.

Just got my yearly Cal. DMV registration bill for my 10 y.o. Winny…$1250!
Were it not for family here, I’d be far, far away.

Bill T.

Just because your homeless doesn’t mean you can’t keep your vehicle clean and look after your trash properly. I see a lot of derelict RV’s on the street and most of them are not homeless because of economic adversity, they end up there because of substance abuse and generally don’t care what shape their vehicles are in. I believe that those who are homeless due to economic hard times are unfortunately lumped in with these people. There should be some allowance within the legislation to be able to separate those honestly struggling to turn their economic adversity around, from those who are not.

Ronnie Bolling

I live in the same county as Daytona Beach, so I’ve watched firsthand as the (car-less) homeless were effectively booted out of many cities, including Daytona, where the city cops were instructed to carry them to the city limits with a warning to, “Not come back.” Then I’ve see cities like Houston, Texas try a far different approach as an “experiment,” by spending the money to build apartments for a few of them, offering support services on top of a roof over their heads and the experiment paid off because they became productive taxpayers. In the long run it not only saved the city money, from my way of thinking it was the right thing to do. Any of us could become homeless in the USA if we had, for instance, a medical issue that bankrupted us. Around two million families filed medical bankruptcy EVERY year in America prior to the passage of the ACA, which has helped moderate that number.
Just about every other industrialized nation has some form of socialized medicine along with more of a safety net for their citizens who fall on hard times. America stands alone in the level of care it offers its most unfortunate members. Compassion is what most homeless folks need vs scorn and a look down our noses. Of course, there are some bums who don’t want to work. Those few, like every other contentious issue our nation faces, make the majority look bad. But, like it or not, that’s not where most of these out-of-luck people stand.

Donn

I live in Burbank, a suburb of L.A. in the San Fernando valley. We have a great PD and an ordinance that prohibits RV parking on the street period unless in front of your residence and then only with permit for 24 hours. It doesn’t bother me because I have a long enough driveway to store and service and load my fiver. It does keep the homeless RVs off our streets though. An adjacent industrial area is packed with derelict RVs most of which have mounds of crap piled in around and on top of them. Many of these homeless are hoarders and it’s just filthy. I can sympathize with them but by the same token they should be more respectful of their surroundings it’s like they want to flaunt their right to “camp” on the streets.

Tom Fitch

I can’t think of any city that doesn’t have a homeless problem, it isn’t just California. The bigger issue is what can be done about homelessness? Building parking areas for RVs, or shelters, or ??? really just seems to treat the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem. And, they will fill up fast, and then you’re back to square one. I believe the few successes have involved cities that have been actively involved in helping homeless find housing and employment. Salt Lake City being one example to the best of my knowledge. Not saying that RV parking areas aren’t needed, just that they are no solution.