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Car Dwelling in L.A. Has Become an Epidemic, to the Dismay of Many Homeowners

Car Dwelling in L.A. Has Become an Epidemic, to the Dismay of Many Homeowners

Photo by Ted Soqui

See also: I Choose to Live in My Car in L.A. 

Every year, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the largest local organization addressing homelessness, tries to count the number of people without housing in Los Angeles County. The organization's more than 4,000 volunteers manually tally every person they can find on the streets. This year, for the first time, the agency specifically counted the number who live in their cars.

What it found was a major epidemic. According to LAHSA's spokesman, of the roughly 39,000 homeless people in L.A. County, 8,215 live in 4,878 cars. (That doesn't include Glendale, Pasadena or Burbank, because they conduct their own counts.) The city of L.A. alone has 4,958 people living in nearly 3,000 cars.

For many in Los Angeles, car dwellers are not welcome.

While vehicular living has been around since, well, the car, the issue continues to spark many of the same complaints that "Ford Families" did during the Great Depression. In neighborhoods such as Venice, residents fault car dwellers for discarding waste on the streets (human and otherwise), drug dealing, crime and, perhaps worst of all: hoarding the city's precious few street parking spots.

"It's really bad," says Mark Ryavec of the Venice Stakeholders Association. "It's gotten to the point where some residents don't leave for the weekend because they can't find street parking."

In Venice, homeowners complain that car dwellers use the sides of their homes as urinals and defecate in their yards. "That's how diseases get spread in developing countries," Ryavec says, adding that the resulting stench is unbearable. "It's like Lord of the Flies out here."

In 2010, similar complaints from Venice residents led the city to crack down on people living in cars. The Venice Homelessness Task Force comprised 21 LAPD officers, who were instructed to use a 27-year-old city ordinance to "cite and arrest homeless people using their automobiles as 'living quarters,' " as well as distribute information about finding shelter.

But four individuals who were cited by the task force filed a lawsuit challenging it, and last month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the city's ordinance, noting that for many homeless people, "Their automobile may be their last major possession — the means by which they can look for work and seek social services. The city of Los Angeles has many options at its disposal to alleviate the plight and suffering of its homeless citizens. Selectively preventing the homeless and the poor from using their vehicles for activities many other citizens also conduct in their cars should not be one of those options."

Indeed, while most people living in cars are technically homeless, not all of them are jobless. With rent skyrocketing in L.A., a car offers an affordable roof overhead, with the added advantage of mobility. In some cases, groups of vehicle dwellers develop their own communities, exchanging tips on where to find gyms with showers, convenience stores to microwave food, and libraries where kids can do homework.

Los Angeles has tried to transition such communities into housing but has struggled to keep up with demand. In 2010, former City Councilman Bill Rosendahl introduced an initiative to find permanent housing for vehicle dwellers crowding L.A.'s Westside streets. The program ultimately helped 130 people obtain apartments but made little noticeable dent in the problem.

Some areas of the city have instated oversized-vehicle laws, which restrict parking from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. for vehicles taller than 7 feet or longer than 22 feet — meaning trailers and RVs. But vehicular dwellers have already adapted, Ryavec says, choosing smaller cars with camper tops that meet the size requirements.

Even so, the Venice Stakeholders Association hopes more residents will implement such restrictions, which have to be approved by two-thirds of a city block's homeowners or residents.

In the meantime, since the city's ban on car sleeping was defanged, City Attorney Mike Feuer has pledged to draft a new ordinance to restrict vehicular living. But Ryavec says he's not holding his breath.

"Knowing them, that could take two years," he says.

The Venice Stakeholders Association has its lawyers meeting with Feuer to see how they can help. They'll also comb through other city codes, looking for additional ways to regulate vehicular dwelling — and potentially working with LAPD to see if anything on the books still has legal teeth.

See also: I Choose to Live in My Car in L.A.