SAN DIEGO (CN) – Homeless San Diegans living in RVs and cars have successfully challenged local laws outlawing vehicle habitation, with a judge ordering the city to cease ticketing and toss out hundreds of outstanding tickets. If they win their case – or a favorable settlement – their efforts could be emulated around the country.
This past fall, San Diegans living in RVs and vehicles kicked off their lawsuit with a rally in the city’s historic Balboa Park, singing and chanting while waving hand-painted signs which read “Stop the tickets.”
Represented by Disability Rights California, the plaintiffs in the case have disabilities and say living in their vehicles is the safest option for them absent affordable housing.
San Diego had just weathered a Hepatitis A outbreak that left 20 people dead and over 400 hospitalized. The public health crisis mostly impacted the city’s unsheltered population and its spread was compounded by the lack of public restrooms for those living on San Diego streets. The situation forced the city to sanitize downtown streets with a bleach solution and install portable toilets and hand washing stations.
San Diego also opened shelters and camps to curb the spread of Hepatitis A, in addition to “safe park” lots where people living in cars could park overnight. But those lots were not opened to RVs, leaving people living in them vulnerable to violating San Diego’s vehicle habitation laws, which could result in tickets and impounding.
The plaintiffs in the class action have argued while they may live in vehicles due to limited budgets – typically living off disability benefits or Social Security – it is preferable to living on the street, which exacerbated the Hepatitis A outbreak, or living in shelters which cannot accommodate their disabilities.
“These vehicles keep plaintiffs off the streets, where they would face dangerous and unsanitary conditions,” Battaglia wrote in the order.
Eric Tars, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty which also represents class members in San Diego, compared the case in San Diego to one the national legal nonprofit successfully challenged at the Ninth Circuit.
Tars said the logic fits in San Diego’s challenge to the vehicle habitation ordinance.
“The Ninth Circuit case we brought does emphasize the alternative has to be an adequate and accessible alternative for that individual,” Tars said.
When someone has a physical disability or mental illness “a shelter bed may not be accessible to individuals living in RVs,” Tars said. “Just because a bed is open on a given night doesn’t mean it’s accessible.”