A viral story about the city towing vehicles that served as makeshift homes for two families, and an audit highlighting the impact of city towing practices, have sparked a policy debate over whether the city should make changes to avoid fueling street homelessness.
Earlier this month, multiple TV stations reported on the plight of two homeless mothers and their school-age sons forced to sleep outside in the cold after the city towed their homes over vehicle registration violations.
Days later, city auditors released an analysis revealing that city towing practices disproportionately affect low-income and vulnerable San Diegans. Among the findings: Impounds for expired vehicle registrations and 72-hour parking violations – infractions often aimed at people living in vehicles – are more likely to end in sales allowing tow companies to recoup impound costs that can total thousands of dollars.
The revelations inspired scrutiny from city housing commissioners, advocates for unhoused residents and the City Council president. All have questioned the practice of towing vehicles where people are living, which can force them outdoors.
City Councilman Stephen Whitburn, who requested the audit, plans to propose a policy overhaul early next year.
Whitburn’s initial pitch is to halt impounds for three violations that auditors said hit hardest for low-income San Diegans: registration issues, having five or more parking tickets and not moving a vehicle for 72 hours.
“There’s no question that when someone loses their vehicle it can further a downward spiral for that person and I think that the city should be seeking to prevent that,” Whitburn said.
Whitburn isn’t solely focused on lessening the burden on homeless San Diegans, but city housing commissioners focused on how current policies impact people living in vehicles at their Nov. 17 board meeting.
“From the human side of this, if we’re thinking about the scale of the homelessness experience, the idea of pushing someone from being sheltered in a vehicle that they own to having no shelter at all is just a heartbreaking and tragic thing to watch play out as a policy outcome,” Vice Chair Ryan Clumpner said during the meeting.
Chairman Mitch Mitchell agreed.
“We have a crisis that we have to address – maybe temporarily – but we need to address it because it doesn’t make a lot of sense putting people out of their cars, onto the streets,” Mitchell said.
Lisa Jones, the Housing Commission’s executive vice president of strategic initiatives, said the agency wants to work with the city to connect unhoused people whose vehicles are at risk of being towed with city-funded safe parking lots.
They discussed sending a letter to city leaders requesting they work with the commission to prevent unhoused San Diegans from losing their vehicles.
Housing Commission spokesman Scott Marshall wrote in a Tuesday email the agency has decided against a formal letter following “constructive conversations” between the agency and city officials.
City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, who lived in an SUV for a stint while he was in law school, has separately urged the city to provide more lots where people living in vehicles can park without fear of enforcement. The City Council earlier this year voted unanimously to expand hours at one of the city’s three safe lots and at Elo-Rivera’s request, to assess potential sites citywide.
The June vote followed a Voice of San Diego story documenting the challenges faced by a family of six who lived in a van after the RV they stayed in was impounded by the city.
“What’s important to me is that there’s an opportunity for those who are living in their vehicles to have a chance to move into an appropriate place to do that without losing the major possession that they own and what is often serving as the last thing keeping them off the streets,” Elo-Rivera said earlier this month.
The city now plans to open a fourth safe parking lot in Clairemont early next year that will focus on serving families. A spokeswoman for Mayor Todd Gloria said the city is seeking funding and locations for more lots.
Elo-Rivera has said he looks forward to an update on those plans.
In the meantime, Elo-Rivera said, the city should be mindful of the results of its actions.
“We shouldn’t be doing things that are making it more difficult for folks to either exit homelessness or poverty, and while it’s important that we have laws on the books, rules on the books, and we can maintain order on the streets, how we enforce those rules should be done in a way that’s thoughtful, that’s strategic and that’s compassionate,” Elo-Rivera said.
City spokeswoman Ashley Bailey defended the city’s actions. She said the city has an obligation to enforce laws in an unbiased manner regardless of housing status and that police had multiple prior interactions with the two mothers.
Bailey said both vehicles had expired registrations – one for more than two years and the other since February. She said one vehicle also displayed another vehicle’s registration tag, a violation that requires towing.
“This is an unfortunate case, but the fact is the city is spending millions of dollars on resources that assist people just like these mothers so that they can live in a sanctioned, safe space where they could not only avoid enforcement for their expired registrations, but also get connected to services and housing,” Bailey wrote in an email.
Bailey also wrote that the police department’s homeless outreach team responded to the Nov. 10 tow to try to place the women in shelter.
“Compassion must be balanced with the broader community expectations that we enforce the law,” Bailey wrote. “The city cannot allow its parks and communities to become a free-for-all for those who refuse to take help offered that would get them on their feet.”
But 41-year-old June Cloaninger, one of the two mothers whose vehicles were towed Nov. 10, said she and the other mother called city safe parking operator Jewish Family Service the day before they were towed in hopes of securing a spot after receiving a ticket. She said they didn’t get a call back from the agency until a few days later – after their vehicles were towed. She said she also tried and failed for months to get into local shelter programs.
“I was trying to get off the streets,” Cloaninger said.
Cloaninger said she previously tried to secure a space to park with her son in one of the city’s safe lots multiple times over the summer and was told the lot was full.
Chris Olsen, chief of staff at Jewish Family Service, said the agency’s three city-funded lots reached capacity for a short time in July but typically hover around 90 percent occupancy. When the lots are full, Olsen said JFS encourages those in need to circle back within a couple days.
He said JFS receives an average of 105 calls and voicemails each week from people hoping to secure a space. It’s able to take in an average of 25 new vehicles a week.
“Initially, calls are responded to in the order they are received,” Olsen wrote in an email.
JFS’s hope, Olsen said, is that anyone who needs a safe place to park can secure one.
Cloaninger pleaded with police not to tow her vehicle on the eve of her son’s 12th birthday. That night, Cloaninger said a police officer who checked on shelter options ultimately told her there wasn’t space available. By then, belongings that had been packed in Cloaninger’s vehicle lay on a grassy area alongside a Mission Bay Park lot.
Cloaninger wishes police had contacted the safe parking program with her to check availability before she was towed and given the two mothers more time to secure spaces.
“You already feel so crappy about the situation you’re in and they take the last bit of your hope,” Cloaninger said.
The situation reflects a difference between how police typically handle homeless residents who accept shelter versus those needing safe parking options.
When police encounter homeless residents sleeping on the street during an enforcement or sidewalk cleaning operation, they can directly place them in dozens of beds set aside specifically for their referrals. Officers also can refer unhoused people to other shelter beds. But Olsen said police have rarely directly referred people staying in vehicles into the safe parking program.
Olsen said that’s by design.
“We’re operating our program to serve folks that are in need of safety during the evening and during the day and we know we operate in a world where the police department is also conducting its work, but we are operating separate from enforcement activities,” Olsen said.
The Housing Commission initially helped move Cloaninger, her son and the other family into a hotel program operated by nonprofit Housing 4 the Homeless the day after her vehicle was towed.
The two mothers have since been buoyed by GoFundMe donations that have helped them recover their vehicles and have moved into a transitional housing program.
Now Cloaninger said she’s haunted by the reality that others continue to grapple with the same challenges she did.
“The hardest part for me now is getting this help knowing there are other moms and families who are out there who still need help and their voices are not heard,” she said.