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Here’s How Cities Are Making It Illegal to Be Homeless

A new report on 187 urban and rural cities found a marked increase in “anti-homeless” laws aimed at getting people off the streets.

by Emma Ockerman
Dec 10 2019, 11:35am

When cities make it illegal to live out of a car, the fines and punishments can end up pushing poor people even deeper into homelessness, according to a new report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Yet more and more cities keep passing laws restricting vehicle-dwelling. In the 13 years since the center began tracking the policies, 64 of these laws have been passed, a 213% increase, with 22 of them passed in the past two years alone, according to Tuesday’s report. That’s especially problematic since people in major cities across America are increasingly cramming their possessions into vans and RVs because they can’t afford to rent a real home.

And the restrictions on vehicle-dwelling are just one type of anti-homeless law passed among a sample group of 187 urban and rural cities in recent years, according to the law center. Overall, there’s been a marked increase in “anti-homeless” laws that ban sleeping outside or loitering in some way, too. Cities have even passed 36 new laws to ban panhandling since 2006, despite courts repeatedly declaring panhandling constitutionally protected speech.

For people living in their cars — which, the report notes, can include families with children — such anti-homeless ordinances can result in steep fines, jail time, the towing of one’s vehicle, or license suspension. Those effects can be catastrophic for a person trying to eventually achieve permanent housing, as it can lead to a criminal record or eat away savings.

READ: Photos of the most egregious anti-homeless architecture

For example, Valerie Grischy, a 61-year-old chiropractor in San Diego, noted that her homelessness problem isn’t getting fixed anytime soon since she’s disabled and can't afford to rent a home on a fixed income of $900 a month. She lives in her car, and said such laws have only succeeded in making her scared for her future. If her car were taken away from her, she’s not sure what she’d do.

“I am terrified of the prospect of being arrested for living in my vehicle,” Grischy, who was involved in a lawsuit against San Diego for its anti-vehicle occupation ordinance, said during a press call about Tuesday’s report.

READ: Cities keep making being homeless a crime. Is that legal?

In some regions of California where the housing affordability crisis is most dire — like Mountain View, Berkeley, and San Diego — partial or total vehicle-dwelling bans have been seen as one way to address the growing homelessness problem that’s rankling neighborhoods, especially since the bigger vehicles can make parking spaces scarce. The number of people living in their cars in Oakland, California, for example, has grown by 131% in the past two years, with about 1,400 homeless people there declaring their vehicle as their primary residence. That’s more than a third of the city’s entire homeless population. (The city recently responded by offering residents a safe place to park, which the report notes as a positive solution.) An increase in van-dwelling near Los Angeles even created a cottage industry for one so-called “van lord” who rents out vehicles to the homeless.

“Vehicles offer privacy, security, and a level of stability not available in temporary emergency shelters, tents, or other makeshift shelters,” the report’s authors note. “Yet individuals living in their vehicles can be at constant risk of losing their vehicle-homes because of laws restricting their use as shelter.”

While homelessness nationwide has generally trended lower in the past decade, an increasing number of people have been living outdoors — particularly in major coastal cities — over the past two years, creating a drastic and visible poverty crisis in places like Seattle and Los Angeles. In part, that rise can be attributed to rising rents, stagnant wages, and a lack of federal investment in affordable housing programs, the report’s authors said.

READ: Vegas can now put homeless people in jail for sleeping on the street

“We can all agree that people should not be living outdoors; there's a human right to housing,” Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said. “The punitive strategies to addressing unsheltered homelessness are never going to achieve that goal.”

Vehicle restrictions aren’t the only way cities have sought to get homeless people out of sight, either. Here’s what else Tuesday’s report found:

  • Since 2006, cities have passed 33 new laws to ban camping outdoors entirely — a 92% increase. In the same time frame, 44 other laws have passed to prohibit camping or sleeping in particular places, but allow it in others. In all, 57% of the 187 cities surveyed ban camping in some way.
  • Cities have passed 13 new laws to ban sleeping outside and 45 new laws to prohibit sitting or lying down in public since 2006.
  • Cities have passed 33 new laws to ban loitering, loafing, or vagrancy anywhere since 2006
  • Five cities have passed laws restricting access to free food in public since 2016.

Cover: In this March 5, 2018, photo, Lisa Davis shows how she has her car set up to live in the church parking lot she shares with two-dozen or so other vehicles and their occupants, homeless single women, in Kirkland, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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