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Is It Illegal to Live Out of Your Car?

Close-up of parking ticket on car's windshield
By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

"In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread."

That was Anatole France, describing the rule of law in 1894. In other words, although the laws apply equally to everyone in theory, they will only be applied to certain people in practice. Similarly, the Los Angeles City Council recently reinstated its ordinance prohibiting people from sleeping overnight in vehicles in residential areas or living in a vehicle within a block of a park, school, or day care.

Enforcement of the ordinance, in the face of L.A.'s housing crisis, appears to be part of a larger campaign of criminalizing homelessness rather than addressing what leads to people living out of their cars in the first place.

A Man's Home Is His Car

A recent census by the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority determined the county's homeless population grew 12 percent over the past year, citing to a shortage of affordable housing as a root cause. Neighboring Ventura, Orange, and Kern counties also saw homeless spikes of 28, 43, and 50 percent, respectively. A total of 59,000 people sleep on sidewalks and in makeshift tents, abandoned vehicles, or shelters every night in the county with the state's highest poverty rate.

Critics have pointed to the city's gentrification, dearth of low-income housing, and inability to redevelop vacant units, along with wage stagnation as squeezing people out of homes and into their vehicles. Still L.A. will ticket people living in cars, vans, trucks, or RVs $25 for a first offense, $50 the second time, and $75 after that.

Ordinances that ban overnight sleeping in vehicles are on the books from San Diego, California, to Fairhope, Alabama. However, some cities are also beginning to set up "safe parking" areas aimed at creating space and security for people to sleep and to connect them with homeless services.

Homelessness and Crime

"Criminalization policies make the problem of homelessness worse," according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP). "When homeless people are saddled with cripplingly high fines and fees for minor traffic tickets or incarcerated for having to live outdoors, it hurts their employment and housing options, access to education, family stability, and communities. This isn't an effective way to keep our communities safe, and it's disruptive to families and communities."

The NLCHP defines the criminalization of homelessness as:

[W]hen law enforcement threatens or punishes homeless people for doing things in public that every person has to do. This can include activities such as sleeping, resting, sheltering oneself, asking for donations, or simply existing in public places. It also includes arbitrarily or unfairly enforcing other laws, such as jaywalking or disorderly conduct against homeless individuals, and the practice of "sweeps" or displacing homeless people from outdoor public spaces through harassment, threats, and evictions from living in camps.

Anti-homeless legislation has been on the rise over the past decade, even though studies show that cities would be better spending enforcement money addressing the root causes of homelessness. With the factors exacerbating L.A.'s homelessness present nationwide, expect more enforcement of laws that ostensibly pertain to everyone, but actually prosecute only a few.

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