SoCal Repeal of Vehicle Habitation Ordinance Signals Change on Homelessness Criminalization

SAN DIEGO (CN) – The San Diego City Council’s vote to repeal its ordinance making it illegal to live in vehicles may represent a changing tide in the way cities approach homelessness.

On Tuesday, the San Diego City Council voted unanimously to repeal its vehicle habitation ordinance, which a federal judge blocked the city from enforcing last year because it likely violates the Constitution and “is both vague on its face and is being arbitrarily enforced.”

U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia ordered the city last year to stop ticketing people or impounding their vehicles under the ordinance, as well as prosecuting outstanding tickets. The city complied last fall, dismissing 195 parking tickets and canceling 863 delinquent accounts.

A class action filed on behalf of hundreds of disabled homeless San Diegans living in vehicles and RVs challenged the ordinance in 2017.

Tuesday’s vote marked the city’s acknowledgement that “living in vehicles is a necessary survival strategy for San Diego’s large and diverse homeless population,” Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in an interview.

“Repealing the law that would punish them for using [vehicles for] shelter is the right move; trying to amend the law to barely comport with the Constitution is bad policy making,” Bauman said, noting that the Ninth Circuit found a similar law in Los Angeles to be unconstitutional.

Los Angeles amended its vehicle habitation ordinance to be less vague and detail what circumstances and behavior must be present for someone to be violating the city’s ordinance.

“Even if a city can solve the constitutional problem, these are still bad policies that won’t solve homelessness and waste a lot of taxpayer dollars,” Bauman added.

San Diego has the fourth-highest homeless population in the U.S.

In a 2016 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, researchers found a 143 percent increase over 10 years in the number of cities prohibiting people from living in vehicles.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is also counsel representing the class in San Diego.

Bauman said vehicle habitation laws represent the fastest growing homelessness criminalization category.

She expects more lawsuits addressing the criminalization of homelessness to be filed across the country.

Up the coast in San Francisco, the city has been sued for impounding legally parked vehicles homeless people are living in that have racked up unpaid parking tickets. At the same time, a city supervisor has a measure in the works to give homeless people living in vehicles access to showers and bathrooms without fear that their vehicle will be towed.

The Bay area city of Portola also voted Tuesday to ban overnight RV parking on city streets after residents complained.  

Bauman noted an “unfortunate trend of trying to restrict homeless individuals from using their private property for some sort of rudimentary shelter for themselves when that’s their only recourse.”

Disability Rights California attorney Ann Menasche, who is representing the class of hundreds of San Diegans living in vehicles and RVs, said while they consider the city’s vote to repeal its ordinance a win, it’s “not the end of the struggle of homeless people still being criminalized in San Diego.”

Menasche said the city is still ticketing her clients for violating the oversize vehicle ordinance. She and other attorneys held a legal clinic to help homeless people challenge the tickets in court.

People are still going through the administrative process, Menasche said, and she doesn’t know of anyone who has successfully challenged their tickets.

She said San Diego’s repeal will “have a big effect nationally – politically – because other cities are watching and know vehicle habitation ordinances will be hard to fight constitutionally.”

“I don’t think you could write one that is constitutional,” Menasche added.

Other class counsel on the San Diego case includes Fish & Richardson; Bonnett Fairbourn Friedman & Balint; and San Diego attorney Scott Dreher.

A settlement conference in the San Diego case is scheduled for March 6.

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