Homeless San Diegans Lead National Fight of Vehicle-Camping Laws

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.

Plaintiff Benjamin Hernandez is fighting San Diego’s effort to crack down on homeless people parking RVs on city streets. (Bianca Bruno/CNS)

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.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia agreed with that argument, citing the Hepatitis A outbreak in his preliminary injunction against the city.

“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.

Last month, the Ninth Circuit found in Martin v. Boise that Idaho’s capital cannot punish people for sleeping outside when there are no adequate alternatives.

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.”

Weathering Homelessness

Challenging laws which outlaw vehicle habitation is one of the latest legal fights of homeless advocates in their effort to decriminalize homelessness.

lawsuit filed in San Francisco by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights challenges a California law allowing cities to impound vehicles which have five or more overdue parking tickets.

Just this week, a federal judge ordered San Francisco to return an impounded car to the homeless man who couldn’t afford to pay outstanding tickets. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White found impounding the food-delivery driver’s car because of unpaid tickets may violate the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizure.

While San Diego class members have gotten a reprieve, with the city announcing in September it has complied with Judge Battaglia’s order by tossing 195 parking tickets and canceling 863 delinquent accounts, the struggles of being homeless and disabled have not gone away.

Grace Helms, 59, owned a home in Indiana for over 20 years where she raised her family before a series of major life events led her to move to San Diego in 2004.

When she first moved to California, Helms lived in an apartment near the beach while working as an art model to supplement her disability income, which she received due to severe post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood trauma.

Grace Helms outside her hand-painted RV parked in Ocean Beach, San Diego. (Bianca Bruno/CNS)

A year after moving to San Diego she got extremely sick and was diagnosed with systemic poisoning. She has also been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has six bulging disks in her back in addition to other health complications.

Helms now paints and creates crystal jewelry which she sells online and at several boutiques in San Diego.

She uses that money to help supplement the $997 she receives every month from Social Security but said it’s not enough to be profitable.

“My art keeps me sane; it gives me something to focus on and something to do. But I don’t make enough for it to be profitable,” Helms said.

“I make enough to live the way I live and to eat well. Eating well is super important; because of my body I have to be careful. If I get the wrong thing in my body it crashes,” Helms added.

Helms, who has owned her RV for seven years, said she left San Diego for Oregon for about a year after San Diego began strict enforcement of vehicle habitation laws a couple years ago. She said she started receiving tickets for parking “out of stall” in a parking lot in Ocean Beach – where police had previously told her to park her vehicle.

“I have had a lot of harassment. The police used to leave me alone because they know I’m not a problem; I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink, I’m the neighborhood watch, I’m the first one to call the police if someone is in danger or if something is happening I know police need to be involved in,” Helms said.

She’s been on a public housing wait list for five years with five more years to go. She parks overnight at the repair shop where she takes her RV. She said she’s had to do multiple repairs on her rig this year due to problems with the cooling system and brakes.

She’s also had daily migraines this year and had a bone in her thumb removed this past summer due to arthritis.

“Between RV repairs and body stuff it has been a very challenging four to five months,” Helms said.

“I get so many repairs on my RV that if you Google “Sunset Garage” you’ll see my RV there on Google maps,” Helms said while laughing.

But Helms and the plaintiffs may get another reprieve in the case: a settlement conference between her attorneys and the city is scheduled for Monday.

 

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