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'A turning of the tide'? San Diego repeals 35-year-old law that punished homeless people

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/7/2019 Kristin Lam
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A decision this week by the San Diego City Council will stop punishing people for living in their vehicles.

Advocates hope other cities will follow the lead and seek more constructive policies on homelessness.

Laws that make it illegal for people to live in vehicles, advocates told USA TODAY, wrongfully penalize people who cannot afford housing or meet their needs at traditional emergency shelter services. Although the unsheltered homeless population, people living in cars or the streets, is rising according to the latest federal report, cities have increasingly fined people living in cars.

More than 550,000 Americans experienced homelessness on a single night last year.

"We're very hopeful that this is the beginning of a turning of the tide," said the center's senior attorney Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Out of 187 cities surveyed in 2016 by the Law Center, 39 percent prohibited people from living in vehicles. The latest report showed such laws had increased 143 percent since 2006, leading cities to ticket people for violations and if they cannot pay fines, impounding their vehicles. 

In San Diego County, many people living in vehicles include families, the elderly and people with disabilities, Bauman said. Families might stay in a recreational vehicle to stay together, since most emergency shelters support only single adults. Shelters may also not be accessible to people with disabilities, said attorney Ann Menasche of Disability Rights California, and college students might lack money to live elsewhere. 

The city's repeal followed a federal judge's order last year to stop fining people for living in vehicles, as the law was too vague to enforce. The injunction responded to a lawsuit, which argues the law discriminated against homeless people who have nowhere else to stay.

Although the lawsuit continues because the city still bans oversize vehicle residency, Menasche said the case began in 2015 when a couple living in an RV came to Disabilities Rights California. As attorneys worked their case, Menasche said, they realized it was a larger issue as they connected with other people hurt by the vehicle residency ordinances.

They requested the city give reasonable accommodations for the homeless, Menasche said, but the city denied them. That's when the organization, joined by pro bono attorneys and the Law Center, filed the lawsuit in 2017. 

a man lying on a car © Provided by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc.

At the Tuesday meeting, City Councilman Mark Kersey said the 1983 ordinance making it illegal for people to live in cars was no longer useful, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported

“It’s certainly not a permanent solution to the crisis that we are facing,” Kersey said. “But 100 percent of the time, I’d rather have someone sleeping in a car than on the sidewalk.”

The repeal will alleviate a great deal of stress for the at least 800 San Diegans living in vehicles, Menasche said, especially considering many cannot afford to pay for infractions. But she said the city still needs to address other laws that punish homeless people for situations out of their control, including the oversize vehicle residency law. 

Los Angeles amended but did not repeal its ordinance on vehicle residency in 2016, also following an injunction triggered by a lawsuit against the city. Bauman said she hopes cities will join San Diego in recognizing that vehicles can be the best shelter and temporary housing option for some people. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'A turning of the tide'? San Diego repeals 35-year-old law that punished homeless people

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