Does L.A.'s ban on sleeping in cars discriminate against the homeless?

Many opponents of the Los Angeles ban would say that the measure will all but criminalize homelessness and do nothing to solve the root problem.

Richard Vogel/AP/File
Tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles, Jan. 26.

The City of Los Angeles has adopted a law that would ban people from sleeping in their cars near schools, parks, and homes. This law limits the extent of a 2014 court ruling that struck down a 1986 ban on living in cars for discriminating against the city’s homeless population.

The city council cited the unsanitary conditions, noise, crime, and economic loss that results from people living out of cars, as well as concern from people who live in neighborhoods where people have taken up residence in their cars. But many opponents of the ban would say that the measure will all but criminalize homelessness and do nothing to solve the root problem.

“No one would sleep in their car, live in their car if they had a home,” Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, tells the Christian Science Monitor. “These laws are blatantly discriminatory against people who are experiencing homelessness and are frankly counterproductive. Making it illegal to be homeless is in no way helping to solve someone’s homelessness. It is not showing any concern for that person who is living in inhumane conditions and isn’t that where our concern should be?”

California’s homeless population has been declining since 2007, but the state still accounts for 21 percent of homeless people in the United States, according to the the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Recently, the state has seen a 1.6 percent increase in homelessness, bringing the total to approximately 115,000.

Cities in the Golden State also tend to address this problem by pursuing legal action, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Gloria Goodale reported last year. On average, California cities have nine anti-homeless laws on the books.

“They are the working poor, and we need to not make them criminals,” civil rights attorney Carol Sobel told the Los Angeles Times in June. Ms. Sobel represented vehicle dwellers in Venice, Calif., in a lawsuit that ended up overturning the 1986 ban two years previously.

The earlier law, which banned the use of a vehicle as living quarters but did not define “living quarters,” appeared to “be applied only to the homeless,” according to Judge Harry Pregerson’s decision in 2014. Sobel says that the new law’s vague definition of “dwelling” – which includes having a blanket or preparing a meal in a car – will invite similar discriminatory practices.

The Los Angeles City Council will ban sleeping in cars on a street-by-street basis. While this effectively legalizes sleeping overnight in industrial and commercial districts between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., it will also limit people to unsafe neighborhoods, opponents of the ban say.

“There are a lot of working families that live in their cars,” Venice resident Mike Chamness testified during the hearing, according to the L.A. Times. “There is nowhere in Venice where you can park your car and sleep in your vehicle.”

This move comes just days after the city’s residents voted to allocate $1.2 billion in tax dollars toward building housing for medically vulnerable homeless people.

“We can’t do all this hard work and celebrate and then the day after use that as a political invitation to further criminalize people who are poor, possibly jeopardizing the beneficiaries of the housing,” Pete White of Los Angeles Community Action Network, which build support for the homeless housing issue Measure HHH, told the L.A. Times.

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