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San Diego City Council Committee Advances Modified Vehicle Habitation Ban

Advocates for the homeless held a rally outside the City Administration Build...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: Advocates for the homeless held a rally outside the City Administration Building before a City Council committee hearing on a proposed ban on people living in cars, April 17, 2019.

The San Diego City Council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee voted 3-1 on Wednesday to advance a measure that would ban residents from living in their cars.

The proposed ordinance would ban residents from living in their vehicles anywhere in the city between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and at any time within 500 feet of a school or home. Under the measure, evidence of living in a vehicle can include using it for sleeping, bathing, preparing meals or having items not normally associated with vehicle use like cookware, bedding or furniture.

The council repealed a similar ban on people living in vehicles only two and a half months ago, with some council members saying it was bad policy and counterproductive.

The committee voted Wednesday to send the proposal to the full council without recommendations or amendments, giving the council some leeway to tweak it when it gets put on the docket. Councilwoman Barbara Bry said it would be an opportunity to further discuss the proposal with stakeholders, like residents who live or have lived in their vehicle.

"I'm concerned that one solution doesn't fit everybody and I want to make sure in whatever ordinance comes to the full council that we address these issues appropriately," Bry said. "I don't have the answer today on what that looks like, but I think communicating with the appropriate individuals who have that expertise would help us."

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Opponents of the ordinance characterized it as unconstitutional and an attack on some of the city's most vulnerable residents. Prior to the meeting, a group of homeless advocates rallied outside the City Administration Building to protest the proposed ban.

"Enough of the criminalization of homelessness," said Ann Menasche, an attorney with Disability Rights California, which sued the city over the previous ordinance. "Enough of claiming that the failed shelter system can solve the problem, or that another safe lot will do the trick, even though the lots provide parking for only a small fraction of those living in vehicles."

According to last year's countywide point-in-time homeless count, 1,262 residents live in their vehicles throughout the county, although that figure does not include recreational vehicles.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer proposed the new ban last month after the city said it received hundreds of complaints about residents living in their vehicles and illegal activity related to vehicle habitation.

"The hardworking, tax-paying residents and business owners of this city need protection from the RVs and 'van lifers' who have been flooding our neighborhoods using our own city streets as their personal campgrounds," Brian White, president of the Pacific Beach Town Council, told the committee.

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The council's repeal in February of the city's previous vehicle habitation ordinance came only after a federal judge ordered the city to stop enforcement because the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a similar Los Angeles law in 2014 for the same reason.

City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, the committee's chair, cast the lone dissenting vote, suggesting city staff should redraft the proposal to consider the interests of homeless residents and add elements from Los Angeles' new vehicle habitation ordinance like a diversion program and an interactive online map that allows residents to view where they can park.

"We are extremely reactive, and in that, we leave folks out," Montgomery said, referring to the quick drafting of the new ordinance. "We have to vet through some things that maybe need more work, and I understand that is what committee is for and that's why I agreed to bring this to committee, to vet it out."

Concurrently, the city is expanding a program that provides parking lots where residents who live in their vehicle can sleep for the night and gain access to services like job training and housing assistance. Faulconer and City Councilman Scott Sherman on Tuesday announced the city's plan to open a third such parking lot in Mission Valley within the next 45 days.

The committee did not determine when the vehicle habitation measure will be docketed for the full council.

The proposed ordinance would ban residents from sleeping in their vehicles anywhere in the city from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and at any time within 500 feet of a school or home. Critics say it would further criminalize poverty and homelessness.

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Editor's Note: This story has been updated to add quotes and clarity.


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