Los Angeles outlaws sleeping in cars, further criminalizing homelessness

Sarah Scott is a homeless singer-songwriter living in her car in Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Lena Nozizwe)

Homelessness in the U.S. has increased nearly 150 percent in the last decade, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The most fortunate among the homeless population have vehicles they can use as shelter. But almost 40 percent of cities surveyed by the non-profit report having laws on the books that prohibit sleeping in cars.

The Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center estimates that during some part of the year more than a quarter of a million men, women and children experience homelessness in Los Angeles County. The LA City Council voted overwhelmingly – with just one councilman dissenting – to restrict sleeping in cars near homes, schools and parks, just as voters approved $1.2 billion dollars to build more housing for the homeless. The council majority says the restrictions are an improvement. Critics on the streets believe the move is tone-deaf and will push the homeless further into poverty. FSRN’s Lena Nozizwe has the story.

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Familiar sightings at Southern California’s famed Venice Beach Boardwalk include skaters, body builders, neo-hippies and street performers.

Sarah Scott sings in the parking lot of a law office located on the boardwalk. She’s here on a sunny but brisk December day to seek help from volunteer lawyers at the Venice Homeless Citation Clinic.

Tickets have accumulated on her vehicle that no longer runs and that, for now, doubles as her home. A month and a half ago, the singer-songwriter packed her belongings and drove her Dodge Ram from Seattle, Washington to Venice, California.

“I’m looking for work and trying to figure out how to navigate in terms of living situations; the rents are really high,” Scott says. “And I didn’t come with a lot, I just came with a dream.”

Scott is one of an estimated 9,500 homeless men, women and children in Los Angeles, one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, who share sleeping accommodations with a steering wheel.

And they will have fewer places to lodge their wheels in the wake of a new ban by the LA City Council that will prohibit sleeping overnight in vehicles near residences, schools and parks. Instead those cars, trucks and RVs will have to seek refuge in industrial or commercials parking lots.

“Completely inappropriate. It’s just more of the same,” says Peggy Lee Kennedy, who has been passionately fighting for the rights of the homeless since 2003. The passage of the ban came just one day after Los Angeles voters approved Proposition HHH, which authorizes more than $1.2 billion in bonds for the construction of 10 thousand units of housing for the homeless.

The bonds and the ban have been described as a carrot and stick, but Kennedy disagrees.

“The stick is more like a mallet and it’s always like that,” the advocate for the homeless says. “There are no solutions, there’s only punishment. And then they have this PR machine that comes out and says ‘We just voted to get housing.’ But the fact is that housing does not exist right now, and the law is going to exist. People don’t know where to go. They will be criminalized.”

All but one city council member voted for the ban. Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who voted with the majority, said, “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 or their business into an apartment essentially. That’s just not fair to anybody.”

Legal Aid Foundation attorney Shayla Myers says the LA City Council has a history of criminalizing homelessness that dates back to the ‘80s with ordinance 85.02, which was struck down by the Ninth District Court of Appeals two years ago.

“The new version of Los Angeles municipal code 85.02 and its criminalization of people who are living in their vehicles in residential areas is by no means the first law passed by the city council to criminalize homelessness. Last summer, the city council passed another version of Los Angeles municipal code 56.11, which places severe restrictions on individuals related to their personal property,” Myers explains. “That law was challenged in yet another lawsuit in which the Ninth Circuit again found that the city was operating unconstitutionally in how they were using that ordinance. So the city doubled down and passed another version of that law.”

“This is my first time being homeless. I am trying to pull out of it. All these rules are making it impossible. Sounds like they are trying to cripple people to the point that where they have nothing and clean up the mess afterwards,” says Joe. A financial hardship caused by a traffic accident about a year ago forced him, a carpenter by trade, to move into a two-seater sports car. He is fearful about being forced to park and sleep in an industrial area. “It sounds terrifying. I try to stay in a place where people know who I am.”

That’s a sentiment shared by singer-songwriter Sarah Scott: “Well that’s very unsafe, isn’t it? Especially for females – single females.”

Neither Joe nor Sarah knew much about the ordinance until asked by a reporter – and not knowing could drive them both further into homelessness. Violators of the ban will face fines.

Before she became homeless, Sarah Scott wrote a song about the gentrification, or as she put it, the “Starbucks-ification” of Seattle.

In many iconic California neighborhoods, rents are skyrocketing, with real estate developers catering to high-earners from the tech industry. Apartmentlist.com puts the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Venice, where Snapchat is based, at $5,200.

But the woman who sings in the Venice Beach parking lot wearing a neat black and white gingham dress and brown thong sandals is optimistic. She is looking for work – as a house cleaner if she has to – and she does not want to give up on the music.

She has the drive, but just now she says her vehicle – though stalled – is the only thing that literally keeps her off the street.

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