Homeowners and homeless share concerns about San Diego's new vehicle habitation law

As a new ban on people living in cars took effect in San Diego on Wednesday, homeless people and at least one supporter of the ban shared concerns about how it will be implemented.

"I don't know if I'm completely satisfied with it," said Ocean Beach Town Council President Mark Winkie. "Homeless is not a crime, and we're concerned that people who truly need help have a place to go."

A divided San Diego City Council approved the new law Tuesday night as a replacement to a similar ban that was repealed after a federal judge ruled that it was too vague to enforce.

Supporters of the law have said the city's beach communities, in particular, have been negatively affected by an influx of people living in cars, vans and recreational vehicles, bringing with them safety and health risks including increased public urination, littering and drug use.

Some critics say the new law unfairly punishes people who are already struggling to change their lives for the better.

Winkie said the Ocean Beach Town Council sent a letter to the mayor and City Council requesting they adopt a revised law because people who live in vans and recreational vehicles, including many from out of state, began appearing on their streets after the repeal.

"Once the law was rescinded, the community felt, 'How are we going to prevent this from exploding in the summer?'" he said.

But Winkie said he sees problems with the new law and thinks it also could be challenged. While he is glad to see a law that will keep people who live in RVs by choice from parking on residential streets, he is concerned that people who are truly homeless and have no other options will be cited, leading to the law being revoked as unfair.

Kuni Stearns, who has lived in his car for about nine months, has a similar concern. He is on a waiting list to use a city-run safe parking lot for homeless people run by Jewish Family Service. He said he worries he will be cited under the new law before he is allowed in.

Stearns said he wonders what would happen if an officer told him he was violating the law and should be using a safe parking lot instead of parking on the street.

"What happens when you say, 'I've tried that, but I'm a waiting list?'" he said. "There's no way to verify that."

The new law, however, prohibits police from writing tickets if there are no vacancies at safe parking lots.

There are 200 parking spaces available in all at two city-run lots and two lots run by the nonprofit Dreams for Change. Next month the city plans to open another lot near SDCCU Stadium that will hold 200 cars or up to 80 RVs.

Dreams of Change CEO Teresa Smith said she expects the new ordinance to make demand for the parking lots even greater.

"They're not ready for it," she said about the new law. "The third (city) site isn't open yet. Will it meet the demand? Probably not."

At the Tuesday meeting, Assistant Police Chief Paul Connelly said the law would be enforced as a last resort. The goal was compliance through education, with a compassionate and progressive approach when dealing with violators.

San Diego Police Capt. Scott Wahl said Wednesday that a training bulletin was being sent to officers throughout the department, and violators will not be cited but rather receive a warning and told about safe parking lots "for the time being."

Wahl said officers also have begun responding to calls about complaints about people living in vehicles.

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, often a vocal critic of police enforcement of laws affecting homeless people, said he went out early Wednesday to see if officers had begun enforcing the law. He said he did not notice any police activity in Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach or other areas, but he suspected it will begin.

"They used the old law to target homeless people, and they're going to use the new law to target homeless people," he said.

Ann Menasche, senior attorney for Disability Rights California, had challenged the previous vehicle habitation law. She was particularly critical of the new version because it prohibits people from parking their cars near schools or homes.

"This is frightening, because it takes a whole class of people and prohibits them from entering parts of the city," she said, adding that the law seemed like a form of Apartheid.

The law affects people living in cars and RVs, although RVs already were prohibited from parking on city streets between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Steve Chatzky lives in an RV with his wife and his adult daughter, and said he's always been mindful of where he parks.

"I've never parked in front of a residence out of consideration of the residents," he said. Instead, he usually parks in industrial areas where he tries to keep a low profile.

Still, he said, he has been ticketed for violating the prohibition against parking on a city street between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. He was never cited for violating the old ordinance, but said he fears the new one might lead to more people being cited because people can complain about where a vehicle is parked or if it has certain items inside that indicate habitation.

Ellis Rose also is homeless and said he used to live in his car.

"I was busted and it was towed, and that's when I hit the pavement," he said.

The new law will not result in cars being towed, but Rose still is critical of the approach. He said safe parking lots are not the answer. Rather, the city should be focused on providing more affordable housing and services to help people overcome homelessness, he said.

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