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Indybay Feature

AB 718 Offers Hope to Vehicle Sleepers

by Steve Pleich (spleich [at] gmail.com)
Bill Also Opportunity to Revisit Safe Spaces Parking Program
On May 13, 2015, the California Assembly Committee on Local Government voted 7-1 to approve AB 718 which:

“Prohibits a city, county, or city and county from prohibiting or otherwise subjecting to civil or criminal penalties the act of sleeping or resting in a lawfully parked motor vehicle.”

The Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project (HPLAP) and the Santa Cruz Homeless Persons Legal Advocacy Project (SC HPAP) support this legislation and believe that this is an opportunity to revisit practical options for safe and secure overnight parking. The ACLU of California and the Western Regional Advocacy Project are supporting this bill along with many other advocacy groups who support basic human rights for people experiencing homelessness.

Local ordinances make it illegal for a person to rest or sleep in their own private vehicle, even if otherwise lawfully parked on a public way within a local jurisdiction. In point of fact, the 2013 Homeless Census and Survey reported that people living in vehicles was one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless community. Advocates believe that the soon to be released 2015 census will reflect a continuation of that trend. Both the HPLAP and the SC HPAP believe that this type of ordinance has no other legitimate purpose than to target people experiencing homelessness. In fact, punishing people who have no other form of shelter by ticketing, citing/arresting him or her, or impounding their vehicle has a disastrous effect on every person experiencing homelessness who rests in their vehicle.

Statistically, the Number One cause of homelessness is loss of employment. Often, the only way to keep the family unit together is to purchase a motor home or recreational vehicle to use as a primary residence. This situation is fair more frequent than is commonly thought. Other vehicle sleepers are women and children who do not feel safe in a shelter, are ineligible to stay in a family or women's shelter because of the gender and age combination of their children, or who do not feel safe out on the street or in other unsheltered spaces. Many people who rest in vehicles have some type of employment. For them, the vehicle is transportation to work as well as shelter. For all of these people, the vehicle is sometimes the last personal asset they own. Punishing a person with fines, impoundment or seizure of a vehicle that is shelter, transportation and the connection to employment, education or medical care only deepens poverty and prolongs homelessness. Increasing the number of people without shelter or deepening their poverty reduces public safety and increases other types of local costs. So how can we provide this most basic of human rights and address the concerns of those who believe that public safety and order are imperiled by vehicle sleeping? Consider this is you will.

One program, which has been developed locally and has been forwarded to both the Santa Cruz City Council and the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors is the Safe Spaces Parking Program. The program is based upon the belief that safe shelter is one of the most pressing needs in our community. According to the 2013 Homeless Census and Survey more that 3,500 people in Santa Cruz County are without shelter of any kind every night. Of those, 28% reside in recreational vehicles, vans or automobiles. It is estimated that more than 200 to 300 recreational vehicles, vans and automobiles serve as the primary home for families. Many families see this option as the only way to keep the family unit together in the absence of affordable housing. Most of these vehicles are forced by circumstances to park overnight on city or county streets in violation of local ordinance.

The Safe Spaces Parking Program calls for the city or county to designate a parcel of currently unused public property for the purpose of establishing an overnight parking program. Each program site would accommodate no less that 10 but no more than 15 recreational vehicles. Potential sites would be located on city or county owned property in commercial or industrial areas. Overnight parking would be from 6:00pm to 6:00am without exception. Registration for overnight stay would begin at 5:00pm and end at 5:45. Staff and security personnel would then review the overnight roster and set the night’s security procedures. Under the proposal, volunteers or a non-profit agency would manage the site. Garbage service and portable toilets would be provided at no cost to the city or county. Funding for the program would be obtained through private sources administered through a Fiscal Sponsorship Agreement with a recognized 501(c)(3) non-profit agency and Volunteer staff would be on site at all times. The program would assume the cost of at least one private security officer to be on site one hour before registration until one hour after all overnight guests have exited the site.

Even in the event that AB 718 is not passed into law, the need for safe overnight parking will remain for an ever-increasing number of people experiencing homelessness. HPLAP and SC HPAP call upon everyone to lobby their state representatives for the passage of AB 718 and to urge local elected officials to put realistic, practical options like the Safe Space Parking Program on the table.
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by Steve Pleich
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