SAN DIEGO (CN) – RVs, campers and cars festooned with signs and stickers reading “Stop the Tickets” packed a parking lot in San Diego’s Balboa Park Thursday as disability advocates and plaintiffs in a class action filed this week called on the city to stop targeting homeless people living in their vehicles.
The city has weathered a hepatitis A outbreak this year, which was exacerbated by homelessness and unsanitary living conditions amid an uptick in the region’s unsheltered population. Earlier this year, homeless people and advocates filed a separate class action challenging the city’s use of a vague municipal code to jail and ticket homeless people living in tents on city streets.
But Thursday’s class action attacks a different city code, one that prohibits parking RVs and oversize vehicles on city streets from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. The homeless plaintiffs also challenge a city law which makes it illegal to live in your vehicle. They say the ordinances are being used to target more than 800 of San Diego’s “most vulnerable residents,” many of whom are disabled and are low-income, living off of disability or Social Security benefits.
“For these people, their vehicles are their only reliable, safe shelter from the elements and only place to store their belongings. Yet, even though there are no adequate alternatives, the city has repeatedly ticketed and harassed these individuals for seeking shelter in their vehicles or simply for owning vehicles and having nowhere else to park,” the plaintiffs say in their complaint.
The class also claims the city has threatened to arrest and charge homeless people living in their vehicles with misdemeanor illegal lodging. They seek a finding that the city’s ordinances violate their civil rights and a permanent injunction barring the city from enforcing its overnight parking and vehicle habitation laws.
Disability Rights California attorney Ann Menasche told Courthouse News settlement talks between the city and plaintiffs stalled after she sent a letter in March asking police officers to stop ticketing disabled homeless people living in their vehicles while no “affordable, accessible and medically appropriate housing” has been made available to them.
The city informed the plaintiffs in August it would not agree to temporarily halt enforcement of the ordinances, according to the 42-page lawsuit.
While San Diego is taking steps to get people housed temporarily, the recently created “safe park” lots and camping areas the city opened up to get homeless people living on city streets into safer, more sanitary living conditions are not open to those with RVs.
The class said they have identified city-owned parking lots which could be used for nighttime RV parking, which the city has so far not opened to them. The vehicle owners say the city has been unwilling to make reasonable modifications to the ordinances, which they say violates their civil rights.
“Rather than adequately accommodating this homeless, largely disabled group of individuals and complying with statutory and constitutional requirements, the city has instead chosen to place the health, safety, and lives of homeless vehicle owners in further jeopardy, in the hope that the continuing and escalating harassment will force these residents simply to leave town,” the complaint states.
For plaintiff and life-long San Diegan Benjamin Hernandez, leaving town isn’t an option.
He told Courthouse News he and his wife had their RV impounded in July after accumulating over $3,000 in unpaid parking tickets for parking their vehicle overnight in Mission Bay. Hernandez, a stonemason who became disabled in an accident in 2015, is unable to work, and he and his wife rely on her income to get by.
Hernandez said he donates blood plasma to get extra money, but he’s having a hard time qualifying for food stamps.
“There could be other ways to handle this. I’m a native and I love where I’m from, but I don’t love how I’m being treated,” Hernandez said.
Since Hernandez’s RV was impounded he and his wife have been living in his truck.
The class points out the city does allow some RV owners to park their vehicles on city streets – but temporary overnight parking permits are only issued to those with a physical address. Those with permits can park their RVs overnight on city streets for up to 72 days a year.
“The city allows people who are not homeless to park their RVs overnight, but imposes penalties against those who are homeless for the same behavior,” the class action states.
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott said in a written statement the city has not been served and hasn’t seen the complaint.
“We look forward to continuing to assist the city in tackling issues related to persons experiencing homelessness,” Elliott said.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.