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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”