“I can serve my country, but I can’t even sleep in a van?” Aaron Colyer, a 34-year-old veteran who is currently homeless, asked a police officer as he wrote the former marine a citation for habitating in his vehicle Thursday night.
“I pulled over here to sleep because I don’t have anywhere else to sleep,” Colyer tried explaining to the officer, to no avail. He and his dog, Captain, were lying down to rest for the evening while parked at the ferry terminal in Alameda.
Like many veterans, Colyer has post-traumatic stress disorder. His only source of income at the moment is $849 per month in Social Security Disability Insurance. With the tech boom contributing to skyrocketing housing prices in the Bay Area, Colyer doesn’t have much chance of affording somewhere to live. So he and Captain live in his vehicle.
Colyer recorded the encounter Thursday evening as two Alameda squad cars showed up to tell the former marine to move along. “If I can’t sleep in my vehicle, where am I supposed to sleep?” Colyer asked the officer. “You can get a hotel room,” he replied. “From 10pm until 6am, you cannot habitate in your vehicle.” The officer then handed Colyer a citation.
Indeed, the city of Alameda enacted an ordinance, 23–7.2 Unlawful Camping, making it illegal to camp in any park, parking lot, street, or public area, unless expressly permitted otherwise. The statute does not specifically mention sleeping in vehicles.
Alameda is far from the only city to enact laws that are frequently used to criminalize homelessness. A report this month from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that 43 percent of cities they surveyed prohibit people from sleeping in vehicles, a more than two-fold increase since 2011. These include some of the wealthiest areas of the country, like nearby Palo Alto, which passed such an ordinance last year. Cities are also enacting a host of other measures intended to criminalize homelessness, such as prohibitions on handing out food in public, sleeping in public, and begging.
Homelessness is not just a massive crisis for the nation as a whole, with over 600,000 people homeless on any given night; it’s a particularly acute emergency for our nation’s veterans. Nearly one in ten homeless individuals in the United States — over 57,000 people — are veterans. And with the war in Afghanistan and recent war in Iraq, the problem could grow much worse for veterans before it gets better.
Colyer, who started a GoFundMe campaign after the incident, updated his Facebook status the following night. “I’m kinda scared to try and sleep…” Forty minutes later, he added another update: “if anyone could help me find a safe place to park until Wednesday I should he moving into a place, I just don’t want to end up dead for sleeping in my van.”