Among the most obvious and noxious signs of homelessness in Los Angeles are the thousands of recreational vehicles scattered all over the city. In some areas, RV’s, vans and cars outnumber residents’ vehicles. Many vehicles are derelict and cannot move under their own power. Others, especially RV’s, have no or nonfunctioning sanitary systems, discharging human and other waste into streets, parking lots, and drains. According to the latest LAHSA PIT count, at least 14,000 vehicles are used for dwellings in L.A. County, representing an increase of 16 percent for cars and an astounding 44 percent for vans from 2022 Vehicles now outnumber tents as the primary “homes” for many of L.A.’s 55,000 unsheltered homeless.
The proliferation of vans and RV’s is the result of a toxic brew of panicky, short-sighted decision-making, capitalism, bureaucratic silos, and failed policies. The spread of vehicle dwellings began during the COVID pandemic, when the L.A. City Council “temporarily” suspended enforcement of LA Municipal Code section 85.02, prohibiting using a vehicle as a dwelling overnight. The Council suspended the code section in the name of public health; allowing people to stay in vehicles kept them out of congregate shelters where the virus could spread. While well-intentioned, the suspension soon showed it came with unintended consequences.
Vocal advocates with ready access to Council members, who insist tents are homes and encampments are legitimate communities, quickly seized the opportunity to expand the idea of “home” to include derelict vehicles. The Council hesitated to reinstate 85.02, and current enforcement is spotty at best. As with many other situations, advocates and the City use the federal Boise decision as an excuse for refusing to enforce parking restrictions. The decision prohibits cities from enforcing no-camping ordinances on public property if there is no shelter space available. But the decision says nothing about vehicle camping, and allows restrictions in any given area as long as people have somewhere else to go. For the past four years, the City has shied away from enforcing parking restrictions except in the most egregious cases, and then only after nearly endless outreach to convince vehicle dwellers to move.
Once the City abdicated its enforcement obligation in the name of political expediency, capitalism, in the person of so-called vanlords, entered the picture. A vanlord is someone who buys used RV’s, (often inoperable or in poor repair), and rents them to people with very low incomes. Many vanlords tow vehicles to spots where they know they’re unlikely to be removed. Once one or two RV’s appear, word seems to spread and soon whole blocks may be taken up by recreational vehicles. They also tend to appear in areas where jurisdiction is nebulous, such as freeway underpasses, which are within city limits but belong to CALTRANS.
Because many RV’s are not properly maintained, and none are built to be continually occupied for months, leaks of raw sewage and trash piles are common. In addition, perhaps emboldened by the lack of early enforcement, their occupants use surrounding public property as their personal storage or workspaces. Given that most homeless people have some type of mental illness or substance abuse problem, hoarding behavior is common, and some of the things hoarded are stolen, especially bicycles. On CNN, Councilmember Park was quoted as saying, “these RVs endanger their residents and blight neighborhoods, acting as magnets for crime and damaging the environment”. Some advocates for the unhoused agree the impact on city neighborhoods is an issue.
In response to vanlords preying on the unhoused, the City Council passed an ordinance regulating the sale and lease of recreational vehicles. The County soon followed. While superficially addressing the problem of derelict RV’s, the ordinance highlights the half-hearted way local government addresses urban camping in general. Rather than simply consistently enforcing an existing law (LAMC 85.02), the Council dances around the periphery of the issue by addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. The hesitation to clear streets, underpasses and parks of RV’s—many of which pose a health hazard just as real as COVID—is frustrating to residents and businesses. Because L.A. has a weak mayor form of government, enforcement of 85.02 and vanlord ordinances is largely left to individual Councilmembers. While some are fairly diligent responding to resident concerns, others ignore or actively oppose clearing RV’s. A few months ago, a local news station interviewed a woman whose Council office told her she had to circulate a petition to get the majority of homeowners on her street to request removal of a derelict RV. She told the reporter she felt the City was working against her and others to enforce an ordinance on the books. When residents feel local government is intentionally acting against their best interests, the breach of trust is nearly impossible to repair.
The resident’s experience is indicative of a how poorly the City and County have handled the proliferation of vehicle camping. Consider the following:
· By intentionally ignoring sewage and chemical leaks from derelict vehicles, the City exposes itself to knowingly violating provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, which can come with significant fines and mitigation requirements, at taxpayer expense.
· Access to public spaces, from sidewalks to parks, has been usurped by vehicle dwellers using these areas for personal storage. Any challenge to that use may be met with unknown and possibly violent reactions from vehicle dwellers.
· Property crimes have documented increases near large vehicle encampments.
· On-street parking and storage in traffic lanes and on sidewalks pose a danger to vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic.
· Allowing RV encampments to grow has public safety impacts. Encampments can be centers of sex trafficking, drug sales, and theft. One may easily find bicycle “chop shops” in any given encampment. Deaths from fires, intentional or accidental, are tragically common; a two-minute Internet search found news stories about bodies found in or near burned RV’s on January 3, February 18, October 3, and November 3, 2023.
· On a more personal note, I compare my situation as a homeowner to an RV encampment dweller. The City does not sweep my street and trims the street tree on my parkway once every 20 years, (most cities have a three to five-year trim cycle). I keep my home well-maintained, and should I fail to do so I run the risk of getting a visit from Code Enforcement. Any major improvements may be subject to permit and inspection costs. I pay thousands in property taxes and utility fees.
Vehicle encampments may be cleaned at taxpayer expense on a regular basis, with advance notice, and dwellers often return the same day. Urban campers may construct elaborate structures on or next to their vehicles with no consequences. Theft of electricity from streetlight or other public circuits is common. Fires in and around RV’s occur with frightening regularity. Encampment residents, who regard their vehicles as homes, pay nothing in taxes or fees. As a responsible and engaged resident and property owner, I do not feel my voice has the same power as a small cadre of advocates who shield RV dwellers from any responsibility or consequences.
To remove an encampment, authorities first engage in months of outreach to get dwellers to agree to move to decent shelter. Depending on how closely the outreach agency is monitored, efforts may or not be effective; given the lax version of contract management practiced by LAHSA and other government agencies, services, if provided at all, can vary greatly.
Of course, there is nothing stopping new vehicles from appearing when existing ones are moved. And “clearing” an RV encampment is a relative term. In Council District 11, great strides have been made clearing encampments in communities like Venice, with claims that many dwellers moved to shelters. Yet at places like Westchester Park and the streets surrounding Otis Art Institute, RV’s have proliferated as some vehicle dwellers simply move from an enforcement area to new locations. While advocates berate residents for being “entitled”, a long-term van dweller in the park has proclaimed himself “the Mayor of The Parking Lot” and said he will never leave. Trash and food waste strewn in the lot and park grounds attract vermin in the same park where seniors go for lunch services.
And this is where homeless counts and wishful thinking come into play. Desperate to put a positive spin on the latest increase in homelessness, LAHSA and the City have claimed there has been a 10 percent decrease in homelessness in South L.A. As expected, officials trumpeted this “achievement” as proof current policies backed by huge infusions of money, really work. But buried in the LA Times article about the reduction was this paragraph; “While Inside Safe has cleared long-standing encampments, most who lived in them are still in temporary housing or are back on the street. The problem remains vast, with nearly 13,000 unhoused people in South L.A., according to the point-in-time count.” So, in fact, the “reduction” is due to either people moving to other areas or the unsustainably expensive Inside Safe program. This is why you often see comments on social media that while RV’s have been moved from one location, they appear or increase in others. Nothing is solved—the problem merely changes location. Whether it is shifting vehicles from Venice to Westchester or encampments from South L.A. to Downtown, the result is the same.
It is wishful thinking to believe everyone will volunatalry move if they receive enough “outreach”. When the same authority that tells people a derelict RV surrounded by trash and leaking waste is your “home” and provides regular cleaning services, then suddenly tells you its time to move, the natural reaction is to say no. Knowing enforcement will be delayed or nonexistent makes it all the more difficult to get people to accept shelter, where rules may impinge on your sense of freedom.
When someone questions an RV dweller’s right to park in the location of his or her choice, advocates often rebut with “Where will they go”? Many storage lots won’t take oversized vehicles, and if someone bought the RV, the government can’t just destroy it without compensation. But the advocates’ question misses an important point. The question isn’t where they can go. The real question is why are they there in the first place? Why, after 30 years and billions of dollars, are there still too few shelters for our unhoused population? Why hasn’t the huge investments in money and bureaucratic energy resulted in substantial increases in shelters and housing? Why have our leaders been so focused on the politics of Housing First they refuse to consider more effective options? Instead of directing questions at residents who want their neighborhoods back, we need to be asking our elected leaders why they haven’t adopted new approaches so people won’t need to live in their cars or squalid RV’s.
(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program. He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)
January 15 2024