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California City Reverses Ban On Homeless Sleeping In Cars

A homeless woman sits on a California sidewalk. CREDIT: AP IMAGES — MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ
A homeless woman sits on a California sidewalk. CREDIT: AP IMAGES — MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ

Last night, the city of Palo Alto, California voted to overturn its 2013 ban on using vehicles as dwellings.

The seven to one decision followed criticism and a possible lawsuit, although the ban was never formally enforced. In June, the Ninth Circuit Court said that a ban on sleeping in vehicles in Los Angeles was illegal, putting it on hold.

While reconsidering the ordinance, members of the city council listened to testimony from homeless residents who live in their vehicles. One resident, Oliver Terry, said that he and his mother lived in their van as he studied at a local community college. “I just don’t want this whole vehicle-dwelling thing to put a mark on my legal record and offset my entire life,” he said. Palo Alto’s vice mayor Liz Kniss told Palo Alto Weekly that none of the supporters of the ban testified.

A member of the Palo Alto city council, Gail Price, described the decision as “the right thing to do and this is the compassionate thing to do.”

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The ban, which was passed in September 2013, would have made sleeping in a vehicle a misdemeanor or felony punishable by up to $1000 in fines. It was originally proposed by the Police Department in 2011 and supported by community members who said they did not feel safe in areas that had higher homeless populations. Opponents of the plan argued that it criminalized and dehumanized the homeless.

In 2013, there were 157 homeless people in the city of Palo Alto, 145 of whom did not live in shelters. Overall, around 75 percent of Santa Clara County’s homeless population does not live in shelters, and 10 percent said they normally sleep in their vehicles. But over 90 percent said that they would use permanent housing if it were available, while a majority said that high cost was their main obstacle to finding housing. More than a quarter of Santa Clara County’s homeless population said they’d been turned away from a shelter and, in most of the cases, it was because there were not enough beds available.

A wide variety of cities have laws that punish homeless people. This month, a city in California banned homeless people from sleeping outside, while a city in Florida unanimously passed a ban on public panhandling. In September, Fort Lauderdale passed an ordinance that made sleeping in public punishable with a $500 fine or 60 days in jail. Last August, Columbia, South Carolina approved a plan that allowed police to arrest people in the downtown area. Over 180 cities have passed ordinances that criminalize homelessness, from lying down on sidewalks to storing possessions on public property.