Homeless people face L.A. crackdown on living in cars

Los Angeles’ new ordinance on living in cars was billed as a boon to homeless people, making it legal for the first time to park and sleep in half the city’s streets.

But with the measure set to kick in Feb. 6, a new map suggests the law could trigger a crackdown on some of the city’s 28,000 homeless people.  

The map, which police will use to enforce the measure, shows only 10% of city streets cleared for car lodging. Other posted restrictions on overnight parking and oversized vehicles are not on the maps, but will be enforced.

One Venice block inadvertently marked safe is actually a canal, accessible by amphibious vehicle only.

“This isn’t a street. I’m not sure what it is,” city parking enforcement Officer Hector Chun said as he patrolled the neighborhood last week.

Many jurisdictions have moved against homeless people living in their cars in recent years, with 40% of 187 cities surveyed in 2016 by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty having adopted curbs. L.A.’s difficulty in finding places to put its occupied vehicles underscores its continuing failure to rein in its burgeoning homeless population as it heads into its annual homeless count, which begins Tuesday night.

Voters in November approved $1.2 billion to build 10,000 affordable and homeless units over the next decade, and the city is planning to build on city-owned lots and in converted nuisance motels. But for a second year, street encampments cling to neighborhoods from Los Feliz to North Hollywood. More than 6,600 vehicles countywide are occupied.

Earlier this month, Mayor Eric Garcetti scrapped his timetable for housing homeless veterans, saying 1,200 remain outdoors a year after the deadline he had set to bring them in.

“The city seems to be resting on its laurels passing a homeless housing bond, and meanwhile it has created not so much as another cot,” said retired UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, who has studied and litigated homeless issues for decades.

Garcetti’s press secretary, George Kivork, said the vehicle dwelling restrictions are a stopgap measure while the city develops a parking program for homeless people. Kivork added that the mayor knows current strategies will not solve the homelessness crisis overnight, but remains “committed to working to solve it as quickly as possible.”

The new law was adopted in November in response to complaints from neighbors sick of occupied mobile homes, vans, trash and disorder at their doorsteps. It restricts parking by car lodgers anytime near parks, schools and daycare centers, and from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in residential neighborhoods. The law expires in July 2018. 

“Every neighborhood council, every church, every community group you go to, people are concerned that people have turned the curb in front of their house, in front of their business, into an apartment essentially,” Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said as the council adopted the ban. 

Officials had said homeless people could park in commercial and industrial zones. But some commercial streets labeled available on the map have restrictions on oversized vehicles, tow-away signs or red curbs.

Even some industrial streets are off-limits. Saticoy Street near Woodman Avenue, a light industrial section of Panorama City, for example, is marked OK for vehicle dwellers but signs there read “No stopping 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.” 

Police are handing out maps and outreach workers are passing on information, but with a warning: “The maps do not contain street-by-street information related to posted parking restrictions. Therefore, it is important for all persons living in their vehicles to verify all surrounding posted parking restrictions before engaging in activities associated with vehicle dwelling.”

The city has no digital inventory of its estimated 1 million street signs; a two-year, $4.4-million to $5.6-million project is underway to change that. Until then, homeless people will have to improvise.

Harris-Dawson, who heads the homelessness committee, said the city never intended to make a parking space for everyone whose refuge is their RV or camper.

“There just was not a scenario where we could provide 7,000 parking spaces,” said Harris-Dawson. The councilman said other cities need to step up, adding, ”Los Angeles is going to absorb a certain amount of cars; the rest of the city is off limits.”

Councilman Mike Bonin, who originally estimated half the city’s streets would be open to car lodgers, called the parking “inadequate” and said the shortage demonstrated the urgency of his proposal to open civic, church and industrial lots, linked to sanitation and social services, to homeless people. A pilot program could begin as soon as April, but its space will be limited.

“The [new parking] system is a Band-Aid, which is helpful in identifying legal places to park while protecting residential neighborhoods from becoming campgrounds,” Bonin said. 

Homeless people and their advocates said the law will sow confusion and put homeless people on the run — in some cases from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“If they run us out of here, we’ll be parking in the Palisades,” said Jimmy Gonzales, 51, who has lived in his van with his wife and dog in Venice since his release after a 20-year prison term. 

“I know a woman, she spray-paints her vehicle every week to 10 days, so the police can’t say she’s been somewhere too long,” said Mike Greiner, 57, another Venice homeless man.

Civil rights attorneys said the law likely will face a legal challenge. The city has not fared well defending its homeless enforcement policies.

A judge last April issued an injunction barring city police and sanitation workers from destroying homeless possessions on skid row without adequate notice. The new car-lodging ordinance replaces a 1983 ordinance struck down by a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel. 

“It appears to be applied only to the homeless,” Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in the June 2014 decision. The next month, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck directed officers to stop enforcing the law.

“From the long history of being on the losing side of court cases, the lawmakers of Los Angeles should have learned by now that criminalization of homelessness … does nothing to solve the underlying problem of homelessness, and in fact makes it worse,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Residents say their safety is at stake. Cassandra Weinman, a social media and marketing freelancer who lives near a big Venice encampment, said a homeless man punched her in the face and took her phone when she tried to report him urinating behind her apartment.

“Obviously I’m sympathetic to the situation with the homeless, it’s sad, but we do pay a lot of rent,” Weinman said, adding that the street “isn’t a house.”

Times staff writer Jon Schleuss contributed to this report.

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