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Weekly L.A. City Council Meeting Erupts After the Council Unanimously Approved an Ordinance That Criminalizes People Sleeping in Their Car

[dropcap size=big]F[/dropcap]ollowing a summer recess that lasted nearly a month, the L.A. city council reconvened at city hall yesterday to vote whether or not to reinstate 85.02, an ordinance that criminalizes people sleeping in their vehicles on all residential streets at night or anytime within 500 feet of a park, school or daycare. 

The law expired at the beginning of July, making vehicle dwelling in the city briefly legal. Originally amended in 2016, the law has been extended for six months several times in the past. The last time the city council voted to extend 85.02, six months ago, they promised to study the issue and expand safe parking–designated streets where vehicle dwelling is permitted. But the safe parking program is only projected to create 300 parking spots for the estimated 16,500 people living in vehicles countywide.

During Tuesday’s meeting, members from the city council heard from dozens of organizers, activists, and community members. As well as people who have experienced living in their cars firsthand. All stated their reasons—one by one—for opposing the bill which ranged from environmental concerns to violations of constitutional rights.

These working-class homeless residents sleep in their cars and use their vehicles to get to work. They also use them to charge their phones and have access to an alarm clock to wake up in time for work.

“We can sleep in ditches but we can’t sleep in our cars?” Ryan Davis, a former homeless marine veteran asks while addressing the city council. Davis was homeless for 5 years. 

Several people raised concerns that the bill limits homeless people’s right to access public spaces and resources. “This measure perpetuates the stereotype that poor people are to be feared and kept away from parks and schools.” The ordinance bans vehicle dwellers from parking 500 feet from a park, school or daycare 24 hours a day.

“I have two boys in elementary school and several of the families at my children's school are struggling with homelessness. It’s unconscionable that they would be criminalized for doing the best they can,” said Erika Feresten.

“If you live in L.A., you know someone that lives in their car.”

Having a car gives homeless people a sense of shelter, security, and freedom that people living on the streets don’t have. In some ways, it frees people from the perceptions of being homeless, which also makes 85.02 difficult to enforce. Police can only enforce the ordinance if they can identify that someone is living in their car.

The community members who oppose the measure argue that criminalizing vehicle dwelling forces more people onto the streets with fewer resources.

“Most of the people living in their vehicles work. Those are the people coming on our lots.” An operator of two safe parking lots in the city explained during public comment. According to a study by the Economic Roundtable, 40% of all new homeless work some kind of job, and 60% of all young homeless have an income.

These working-class homeless residents sleep in their cars and use their vehicles to get to work. They also use them to charge their phones and have access to an alarm clock to wake up in time for work. Others use their vehicles to house their family and take their kids to school. “We have a family on one of our lots right now with 5 kids living in a Chevy Tahoe. Those are the people who are one ticket away from being homeless,” one owner of the safe parking lots added.

On Tuesday morning, after over an hour of one-sided testimony in favor of rejecting 85.02 from the public, the city council took less than 30 seconds to unanimously vote in favor of the bill. In an instant, the fate of almost 10,000 Angelenos was decided. It took a moment for the news to register with the stunned crowd. Seconds later, as the clerk tried to quickly move onto the next item, room 340 of city hall erupted.

Tuesday’s vote comes less than two months after the latest homeless count revealed over 16,500 people living in cars, RV’s, U-hauls, and other types of vehicles across L.A. County.

“Shame on you!” an enraged crowd chanted loudly for several minutes before switching to “shut it down!” The commotion brought the weekly city council meeting to a halt and had the city clerk struggling to return order to the room. “Let's go ahead and recess this meeting” the clerk announced over the mic after several minutes of protests.

The disruptions lead to one person, identified as Sabrina Johnson, being detained and dozens of people being ushered out by LAPD as chants continued. I was there on assignment and was escorted out by a police officer. Within minutes most of the room was cleared, minus a few people that were allowed to stay. Conversations and interviews amongst the people that were kicked out of the meeting continued in the courtyard before crowds eventually dispersed.

Police starting to escort attendees out of the city hall meeting

The city council meeting resumed in a virtually empty room on the third floor of city hall. The stark difference highlighted the overwhelming number of people that opposed 85.02. A law enforcement officer at city hall told L.A. TACO that the person that was detained was released with no injuries and no charges being filed.

“If you live in L.A., you know someone that lives in their car” a speaker at Tuesday’s city council meeting reminded the city council just how prevalent homelessness is in Los Angeles. Teachers, students, even homeless outreach workers, people that we know are being pushed into homelessness, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Tuesday’s vote comes less than two months after the latest homeless count revealed over 16,500 people living in cars, RV’s, U-hauls, and other types of vehicles across L.A. County. That same count revealed over 36,000 people homeless. The report discovered that more people are falling into homelessness than the city is able to house, usually as a result of economic hardship and unaffordable housing.

Days after the homeless count was released, Mayor Garcetti wrote an apologetic letter to the public detailing a new approach to homelessness, signaling a noticeable shift in tone. “As your mayor, I take full responsibility for our response to this crisis. And like everyone who has seen families in tents or spoken to a homeless veteran in need, I am both heartbroken and impatient.”

Ultimately Mayor Garcetti has the final rule over the bill, which he is expected to endorse but further opposition might sway the mayor’s decision or at least force him to acknowledge public concern.

Later in the month, Garcetti revealed a plan to offer more services to homeless people including trash pick up, showers and even jobs through a new program called C.A.R.E. The plan was officially approved on July 2, however, the city failed to address the constitutional issues surrounding 56.11, another ordinance that organizers have been fighting against that allows the city to seize and destroy homeless people’s property. 

The city has its hands tied when it comes to homelessness. On one hand, they seem newly concerned about the growing crisis but on the other, they pass legislation like the one above that still criminalizes and further pushes people into homelessness. “Stop the lazy magical thinking that banning homelessness will end homelessness.” Jane Nguyen of K-Town For All said at Tuesday’s meeting while addressing the city council.

The City of L.A. has a long track record of supporting legislation that studies, and lawsuits tell them hurts the homeless population. Last month, the city council opposed a bill that would have loosened vehicle towing restrictions with a 12-1 vote.

After they asked everyone to leave

Just two weeks ago, Councilmember Ryu of District 4 was a panelist at a presentation hosted by SELAH—a community homeless outreach coalition representing Eastside neighborhoods—that dissected the latest homeless count presentation. That night, Ryu spoke highly of community-driven organizations like SELAH and spoke in favor of a vacancy tax, bridge housing, right to counsel, Costa-Hawkins reform and other legislation that would help homeless people. “With every crisis comes opportunity,” Ryu said enthusiastically on July 17 when describing a list of ways that the city was working to help the homelessness. But yesterday, Ryu was one of the 13 councilmembers that unanimously supported 85.02. Mike Bonin of Venice, one of the districts where people are most divided on vehicle dwelling, was absent from the meeting.

Tuesday’s vote comes at a time when the city’s own authority on homelessness, LAHSA, has stated that we need to end homelessness, not push it out of sight. In a February 2019 report, LAHSA reminded leaders that unhoused residents have the same rights as housed residents as that, “fines and citations, encampment clearing, and other municipal practices and policies that disrupt and displace people create additional barriers and setbacks for people experiencing homelessness, making it more likely that people will remain homeless even longer.”

Ultimately Mayor Garcetti has the final rule over the bill, which he is expected to endorse but further opposition might sway the mayor’s decision or at least force him to acknowledge public concern.

Editor's note: There is a video being shared on Twitter of the reporter who wrote this story, Lexis-Olivier Ray, being escorted out by the police while attending this meeting on assignment. L.A. Taco stands by our reporters and their professionalism. We have sent an email to the Mayor's office as well as the Council President and will update this story with their comment if we hear back. 

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