Maya Webster lives in her van on the side of Pacific Highway. On Tuesday, April 19, 2022, she recounted how the RV she used to live in was impounded because of an expired registration. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

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San Diego police have quietly stopped enforcing a city law barring living in vehicles. 

Data obtained by Voice of San Diego shows police didn’t write any vehicle habitation tickets in the first three months of the year. Records show officers wrote 68 citations through late September. An officer wrote just one more citation in December. Police data shows no vehicle tickets have been written since.  

Meanwhile, vehicle homelessness has become increasingly visible, with individuals gathering by the dozens in locations across the city. The RVs, beat-up vans and other vehicles they call home line certain streets in the Midway area, and parking lots in Ocean Beach’s Robb Field. Several people living in vehicles say they have noticed a steady increase – and that police aren’t issuing vehicle habitation citations.  

A city spokeswoman said the city halted enforcement of the ordinance and impounds tied to it earlier in the pandemic and later chose not to resume ticketing because of an ongoing class-action lawsuit challenging city crackdowns against people living in RVs, vans and other vehicles. She did not pinpoint exactly when enforcement was halted despite requests from Voice. 

Police data shows officers issued just a handful of citations each month between April and October 2020. They then wrote an average of 10 tickets per month from November 2020 through June 2021 before appearing to start winding down enforcement again. 

Maya Webster plans to move to Slab City in the coming months to avoid future citations, she said, on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. She typically parks her vehicle on the side of Pacific Highway. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

“The decision was made during the pandemic not to enforce the vehicle habitation ordinance and continues to-date while litigation is pending,” city spokeswoman Ashley Bailey wrote in an email. “A person may still be cited for other vehicle-related violations, whether or not they appear to be residing in a vehicle.” 

Vehicle habitation restrictions are different than the parking regulations governing large RVs and other vehicles. City records reveal the city issued 338 tickets in January and February for violations of its oversized vehicle ordinance, an offense often applied to people living in large vehicles and RVs. The ordinance bans parking a large vehicle within 50 feet of an intersection or on a public street or parking lot from 2 to 6 a.m. 

The city’s vehicle habitation ordinance more directly targets people living in vehicles. It forbids people from staying in their vehicles overnight on city streets or public property, or within 500 feet of a home or school at any hour.  

People living in vehicles and advocates for them have argued in federal district court since 2017 that both ordinances unfairly target and violate the rights of people forced to live in their vehicles. A federal district court judge in 2018 ordered the city to stop enforcing an earlier version of the vehicle habitation ordinance, leading the city to repeal the ban and later institute a new version. The court battle has continued and a trial is expected to start later this year. 

Yet Ann Menasche, a Disability Rights California attorney leading the charge against the enforcement in court, said she learned of the city’s decision to halt enforcement from Voice. She said the shift shows the ordinance isn’t needed. 

Dozens of RVs, vans and cars — many of which were being lived in — dot the parking lots of Ocean Beach’s Robb Field on the morning of Friday, April 22, 2022. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

“It shows that the vehicle habitation ordinance isn’t necessary because they’re not enforcing it and hell hasn’t frozen over and there hasn’t been a public health disaster,” Menasche said.  

Homeless residents living in vehicles told Voice they have noticed more newcomers among them. Some said they had noticed police haven’t been enforcing vehicle habitation but said other enforcement has continued. 

Early Friday morning, the parking lots at Robb Field in Ocean Beach were dotted with multicolored RVs, vans, SUVs, cars, short buses and even a converted ambulance and armored vehicle. Many of the vehicles that people appeared to be living in had trash bags or shades obscuring the view in, and worn bicycles affixed to the back. Voice counted 107 vehicles parked in the lots, though it was unclear if all of them were being lived in. But several people living in their vehicles at Robb Field said police have largely been leaving them alone.  

Renee Powers and Mike Phillips have lived in their van in Ocean Beach for a couple months. They said the police had forced them to move from place to place. In the past, they received tickets for parking violations, they said, but recently police had stopped citing them. 

The couple used to park in a dirt lot closer to Dog Beach, but said police told them to move to the lots at Robb Field to be further away from residential areas. 

The vehicle habitation ordinance requires people living in vehicles to park at least 500 feet from residences. 

Copper, a dog belonging to a friend of James Tate, relaxes in the back of the van Tate calls home on April 19, 2022. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

“They know that we’re here,” Powers said.  

The police hadn’t bothered them since they relocated, she said, and they hadn’t received any tickets for vehicle habitation. They still move their van every couple of days to be safe.  

The city also has a rule on the books banning vehicles from parking in a single spot for more than 72 hours. 

Powers and Philips said Police drove through the lots recently and shone their spotlights on each vehicle in the lot, but they were pleasantly surprised that the police didn’t bother them. 

“I was expecting them to roll through and tear us up,” Phillips said. “No news is good news.” 

James Tate, a 52-year-old who lives in his van in the North Park area, said he’d amassed nearly $6,000 in parking tickets over the last couple of years, but hadn’t been cited for vehicle habitation recently.  

Tate said there used to be far more people living in their vehicles near the beaches, where he frequents to take showers, but many have moved inland.  

“They’re everywhere,” he said. “Just gotta look for them and know where they’re at and you’ll find them.” 

Robert Ewing, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran who lives in his car, said he’d also noticed police have stopped giving out vehicle habitation tickets. Nonetheless, he said he has racked up over $5,000 in parking tickets while living in his car. 

Robert Ewing, a former marine and Vietnam veteran, holds one of his recent parking tickets on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. Ewing lives in his car and has racked up more than $5,000 in parking tickets. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

“They don’t even mention vehicle habitation,” Ewing said. “They just eliminated the word but basically they’re getting you for the same thing.” 

He said he used to stay at Mission Bay but said the police cleared everyone from that area about a month ago. Many who used to live there had moved to the Midway area, he said.  

Around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, dozens of RVs and a number of cars lined both sides of Pacific Highway in the shadow of Interstate 5. Some tents were pitched on the south side of the street, crammed between cars and a chain link fence leading up to the freeway.  

The residents were largely older than those living in their vehicles at Robb Field. And while a majority of the vehicles on Pacific Highway were large, newer-looking RVs, beat up vans and smaller vehicles slightly outnumbered RVs at Robb Park. 

Maya Webster, who lives in her van on Pacific Highway, said the number had been even greater when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit. She said she encouraged her neighbors living in vehicles to keep the area clean to reduce police visits. 

Residents and advocates say the number of people living in vehicles near the beach has also been on the rise. 

Amid the rising numbers of people living in their vehicles, Bailey said Mayor Todd Gloria has directed city staff to explore whether the city could expand the hours of some city-backed safe parking lots where people living in vehicles can legally park to accommodate more would-be users. Per city policies, officers direct people living in vehicles to park in city safe lots that also offer supportive services before issuing citations. 

City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, who lived in an SUV for a stint while he was in law school, has also noticed more people living in vehicles in the city recently. 

In a Thursday interview, Elo-Rivera recalled panicking one evening when he saw police lights as he laid in the backseat of his SUV parked in a Chula Vista neighborhood. He kept his head down long after the lights disappeared. 

Elo-Rivera said the experience gave him a nuanced perspective on enforcement since he also understands housed residents may be uncomfortable with someone living in an RV outside their home. He said his 2011 experience has also helped fuel his push for the city to consider more non-congregate sheltering options, including for people living in vehicles who now have their own spaces and often see packed shelters as less accommodating. 

Elo-Rivera said he would welcome input from homeless residents living in vehicles on solutions they think would allow them to spend less energy avoiding tickets and more on moving out of their vehicles. 

“There is a needle that needs to be thread with respect to ensuring we are enforcing laws around health and safety without using it as a pretext to punish folks for not having a home, who are living in their vehicles,” Elo-Rivera said. “I think creating more spaces for folks to be safe if they’re in their vehicles while also trying to create more homes for them is all part of the solution.” 

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is an intern at Voice of San Diego.

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18 Comments

  1. Nobody ever seems to address the CAUSES of homelessness. The responsibility is shared by politicians, business executives and the homeless themselves. Without enough jobs that provide sufficient income, combined with out of control housing costs and living expenses, society must make allowances for the growing number of low-income workers, under-employed and unemployed who are unable to earn enough income to pay those inflated housing costs and rising living expenses.

    There has been a huge delay in social programs that directly address this lack of worker income, and only recently have politicians promoted direct involvement in low-income housing development. Business executives approach everything with a profit motive, and so they have proven to be a permanent stumbling block when it comes to increasing workers’ salaries and developing low-income housing. Business executives hold politicians by the short hairs with very real threats of removal from office and promises of continued election wins in order to get their way. Politicians campaign on virtue, but act out of fear after winning an office.

    The homeless most often endure lives of quiet desperation, working when they can, but at the economic bottom it’s extremely difficult to pursue lofty career goals. They are surrounded by despair and many resort to whatever comes their way in order to make any money at all. Many have untreated or poorly diagnosed and improperly treated mental health issues. All homeless are vilified by the housed.

    A moral approach is to provide actual private housing and services that include food, medical care, clothing, transportation, basic recreation and modern systems of telecommunications. An immoral approach is to ignore them or kick them from one encampment to another. An abomination against Humanity is to ticket them based on unconstitutional “laws” that were designed to keep them out of sight.

    1. Very thoughtful and well written Mr. Real. This is Daniel Smiechowski a candidate for D2 SDCC. In the long run, we ought to build as a city, housing compounds together with federal and state funds and just give out free housing predicated on a strict vetting process.

  2. So why can’t they live out at Slab City where the state government could help with water and food the land is free.

  3. The cost of “brick and mortar” housing continues to escalate, while a vehicle takes up significantly less resources. When trash and toilet facilities are readily available nearby most people use them instead of using the street. Homeless encampments in the canyons or on the street generate significant trash and risks of wildfires, damage to the environment, and pollution. If a vehicle is operating, licensed, and moves they can park on public streets according to regulations.
    People need a place to sleep, and a locked vehicle is safer than sleeping on the sidewalk or elsewhere with no protection.

  4. This is Daniel Smiechowski a candidate for D2 SDCC. Swallow the truth hook line and sinker bleeding heart homeless advocates. HYPOCRISY Extraordinaire!!! I am the only D2 candidate to actually house the homeless in my private dwelling up to one year only to be left with mounting bills, property damage and emotional and physical abuse. My opponents have done nothing except you will follow them on basis of money. SHAME if you have any?

    1. My partner hosted a vulnerable young woman at his place of business on and off for 3 years. His patience finally broke when she pepper sprayed him for daring to have a customer come into his shop.

      Thank you for walking your talk by hosting a homeless person. We have both found that professional services are needed for those who are incapable of employment.

      Housing First with supportive services can be the boost that some of the homeless need. The problem of the mentally ill and/or drug users is another issue.

  5. With parking and vehicle habitation rules not being enforced, zoning is useless. Persons living in cars, vans, SUVs (but not RVs) can pull up to the curb in a residential neighborhood and live there. That changes the character of the entire neighborhood. This is happening, in the extreme, in Seattle.

  6. Look at the vans in Robb field. The vast majority are out of state. This is not a failure of our local efforts to help local homeless – that is a different problem.

    These are hobos- coming from out of state to squat where our kids play. We need to address this.

    1. Hobos come from everywhere. It’s a free country. I’m Dan Smiechowski a SDCC D2 candidate. We are a nation of laws and so-called civil society. Why am I afraid to drive my car? Posing a philosophical question. Maybe in reality the nuts are running the nut house. “King of Hearts”

    2. I agree San Diego is a magnet for out of state homeless creating problems for locals barely staying financially afloat.

  7. I cannot understand those who support living in vehicles, whether the writers on this space or attorney Ann Menasche. This is not a healthy living situation for anybody, and particularly not for the elderly or disabled. If we cannot address this through the provision of affordable housing (and it is increasingly apparent that we cannot, for whatever reason), then alternate forms of housing should be provided, either in shelters or “safe” campsites.

    I was recently dumping the waste tank from my camping van (I don’t live in it) at the Mission Bay dump site and the van (much newer than mine) was clearly the home of an elderly man whose lack of mobility indicated to me that he was disabled. It made me very sad to see the almost squalid conditions in which he was living. We must take greater efforts to help out people in his situation.

    That said, no one has a “right” to live in San Diego. I had a family member who was elderly and on disability who had lived in San Diego for decades. Reluctantly, she and her boyfriend decided they could no longer live in San Diego and moved to Banning. It wasn’t as nice as San Diego, but they could live there on their disability and social security income. Other people should probably make a similar decision.

    1. Mr. Webb, your words speak a hard truth of which crocodile tears dry in the San Diego sun. I agree that nobody has a right to live anywhere, and the absence of this right transcends our nation’s history. Otherwise, we all possibly would live in Beverly Hills. We live in a free-market economy and our City Council does not accept this fact. Dan Smiechowski candidate D2 SDCC BEWARE OF HOW YOU VOTE!!! 858 405 5118

  8. The RV and van life situation in all our public parks is terrible and completely unsustainable. Some may be vulnerable locals, but it appears a lot of them are disaffected individuals from out of state. They think they are living off the grid, but we all as locals pay as our quality of life continues to degrade. It’s so sad to see our precious few public spaces to relax in, exercise, play become de facto permanent residents for this so-called lifestyle. How many park restrooms are fit for human use? How much more open drug use are we willing to permit?
    We really need to enforce. Send the travellers back to where they came, protect the locally disadvantaged with services.

  9. I used to advocate in mission bay. Bad idea after I found out they were using me as a voice while smoking meth and stealing. Made me feel bad for them
    When the whole time they just ruined my reputation publicly. I’ve lived in PB/La Jolla Mesa drive at the top for 19 years and ran a business the whole time 19 years in SD and hired alot of people and have over 2500 customers. Worst decision I ever made to put any ounce of energy into helping people fully capable of getting up and going to work everyday like everyone else. I was originally taking time off from prostate cancer and tried the truck living and boat living thing just to take an extended vacation. Never knew I was in a cesspool that’s effected the area for years now. I apologize to anyone I offended. I was tricked into thinking they were being picked on when they were actually just trashing the Bay and making the residents upset. Anything I can do to help let me know. Last week I got a couple off the street into a detox and a mom with two daughters into a womans program. They’re still hanging in there. I don’t understand why they can’t at least pick up there freaking trash.

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