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LOCAL Commentary :: Poverty & Urban Development

No Homeless Parking: New Police Attack on the Poor

Expanded and Corrected Story for Street Spirit Newspaper (Sept 2004) New parking laws in Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz target homeless people living in their vehicles.
“No Homeless Parking� New Police Attack on the Poor
Expanded & Corrected Story for Street Spirit (September 2004) by Robert Norse

Legal Challenges to Sleeping Bans
Cold calculating legal minds, eager to gentrify their cities and gate their communities, have found a new tool to “move along� the many made homeless by rising rents, a crashing economy, and a shredded safety net: “no parking� laws. Administrative ordinances that restrict or prohibit parking have become the focus of legal struggle in Santa Barbara and activist protest in Santa Cruz.

Most homeless people do not have vehicles, but a significant minority do. Homeless families in Santa Barbara under the leadership of Nancy McCradie formed Homes on Wheels in the mid-90’s. San Francisco’s Vehicularly Housed Residents Association unsuccessfully sought federal funding for its own Eugene-style carpark. The Santa Cruz 2000 census counted 30% of its homeless in vehicles.

For conservative neighborhood residential and business associations, the visible presence of old vans & buses on their streets is a provocation and an outrage. In 1999, Santa Cruz City Council debated and passed a bizarre “three nights per month in a private driveway� exception to its harsh ban on sleeping in vehicles. At other times parking and sleeping in your own driveway is outlawed on pain of $162 fine (2nd offense: $1000 and up to a year in jail). During that debate without any evidence, the head of the downtown business association warned against “child molesters� & “kidnappers� living in vehicles.

It’s for good reason that each year around this time, the National Coalition for the Homeless issues its annual “Meanest Cities� report. In it are detailed the latest “legal� incursions on the rights of homeless people state-by-state and city-by-city. High on the list of cruel absurdities is the Sleeping Ban. The Ban criminalizes the basic human need to sleep--but in so doing , give police a universal tool for interrogating, questioning, harassing, and ultimately deporting any homeless person they choose. The Bush-Ashcroft national policy of suspending civil liberties has actually been routine institutionalized local policy towards the homeless for many years.

Blatant, outrageous, and unreasonable--local Sleeping and Camping Bans have been vulnerable to legal, religious, and political challenge. They also prompt a baffled “what the hell?� response from ordinary citizens, who understand what politicians don‘t: just how cruel, unenforceable, and counter-intuitive such bans are.

The ugly oppressive face of these laws and the negative public reaction they provoke does not stop City Councils from making more of them. Local police enforce them. Though it’s clearly documented that no city has adequate shelter for more than a small fraction of its homeless population, Sleeping Bans in California have not yet been struck down as unconstitutional as they have in a few other states. Municipal judges in Austin, TX & Portland, OR have struck down city Sleeping & Camping Bans. “No enforcement without a shelter bed� settlements are in place in Atlanta, GA & Miami, FL.

Beating Back the Necessity Defense with a New ‘No Homeless Parking’ Strategy

To shortcircuit such legal strategies and duck the “human rights violator“ label attached to arresting people for sleeping, NIMBY policy makers found a better way: administrative parking laws. Nothing personal. If you don’t get out or hide out, we’re just taking your vehicle with everything you own.

No need to allow free discovery, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and the necessity defense--all required in criminal trials but not in parking ticket administrative hearings. Gone are troubling constitutional arguments about the right to travel, to be free from cruel & unusual punishments, or to get due process or equal treatment under the laws.

In Santa Barbara, Glen Mowrer, working with the Legal Project for Social Justice, successfully represented dozens of homeless people and showed that they had no safe alternative housing other than their vehicles. The problem becoming especially acute when the shelter was closed in summer months. In court, Mowrer’s arguments overturned sloppily-written police tickets by using the legal requirement in criminal cases that proof be “beyond a reasonable doubt.� He successfully challenged habitating-a-vehicle charges with the Necessity defense.

The Necessity defense admits the crime, abandons any technical or substantive claims of innocence and doesn’t challenge the constitutionality of the Bans. Yes, she slept in her vehicle (or outside) as charged. Yes, that is legally a crime. But the evil she acted to avoid--the threat to her health and survival by not sleeping at all--profoundly outweighed the “crime�. Hence, her actions were “a necessity�. (see “Taking Bigoted Laws to Court in Santa Barbara“ April 2003).

The Necessity defense arose as a shield in defending the homeless right to survive in the wake of the 1994 Tobe case. There the California Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision that would have struck down such Camping Bans state-wide. The high court held that such Bans might be a reasonable restriction on some (non-homeless) people. Hence they were not always or facially unconstitutional as written. Instead homeless people with severe needs could try to raise the necessity defense.

In 1999 Eichorn case, the high court ruled that the necessity defense, normally an option which the judge could grant or deny, MUST be allowed to the defense in “sleep crime� or other camping cases particularly where no shelter or legal sleeping spots were designated.

In Albany, Santa Cruz, Sacramento, and Santa Ana, attorneys for the homeless raised the Necessity defense with varying levels of success, tying up the well-oiled anti-homeless city attorney machines and attracting the sympathetic interest of the media.

In Santa Barbara, Mowrer won the Ridley case in 2002. An inadequate Rescue Mission shelter with its sexual segregation, pet banning, health risks, drug trafficking & mandatory religious instruction was not an real alternative to a legally-parked RV [see “Defender of the Homeless Wins Important Court Ruling“ Street Spirit Feb 2002].

Santa Barbara’s “The Poor Shalt Not Park� Laws
Santa Barbara’s homeless-hostile bureaucracy struck back with two new ordinances. One law prohibited parked recreational vehicles (and only recreational vehicles) from parking more than two hours at a time on city streets. A second law banned them entirely between 2 AM and 6 AM [see “Taking Bigoted City Laws to Court in Santa Barbara Street Spirit April 2003].

Mowrer diligently fought every “homeless parking� case that came along. A master of arguing both arcane technicalities and profound constitutional issues, Mowrer successfully claimed that the city did not provide accurate or adequate signage warning the public. His legal assault stalled enforcement of the city‘s new “get out or lose your vehicle� campaign.

Parking citations are particularly cumbersome and difficult to fight. They are civil rather than criminal. The initial appeal is to the police department, then to a police department appointed referee. After that one must pay a $25 fine or file a forma pauperis, which finally--10 weeks later--lands the defendant before a civil judge.

There the prosecution has an easier job. The city attorney only needs to prove the homeless vehicular camper guilty by “preponderance of the evidence� rather than the higher “proof beyond a reasonable doubt� of criminal trials. Police officers, unlike in Camping and Sleeping Ban cases, are not automatically required to appear in court. Defendants may have to pay the cost of getting police or other testimony if they choose to subpoena it.

Instead of a “necessity defense�--available to criminal defendants--the traffic code has a provision that requires the judge to consider whether the ticket is “in the interests of justice.� This special “justice consideration� requirement also applies to the initial police investigator and the police hearing officer--but they routinely ignore it. Mowrer uses this provision as a hook to bring in “necessity defense� style considerations and require the judge to consider whether a defendant really had other alternatives for his vehicle at a completely new trial.

Four unpaid $65 tickets means the vehicle can be towed with hundreds of dollars in towing and storage charges--essentially seizing the “home� of the homeless person, often permanently. In the city-county government rivalry to distance themselves from homeless needs, yet appear liberal, the County has finally designated a government parking lot where 5 RVs can legally house homeless inhabitants overnight--within several blocks of City Hall!

Santa Cruz Uses Permit Parking to Ban the Homeless
In Santa Cruz, the entire city was made into a potential Permit Parking area, where parking without a specific permit is allowed only for two hours and in the downtown is banned from midnight to 6 AM entirely. The permit must be purchased.. It is available only to residents or their guests and some workers at their street of residence or work.

According to Santa Cruz Public Works’ Department’s own on-line figures, the projected cost of the permit parking program city-wide ($213,495) significantly exceeds the permit income ($175,082). To “balance the books�, the program backers expect the police to be issuing 175 parking citations per week. Public transit advocate Paul Marcelin-Sampson, adds, “People who live in other parts of the city… pay 1100% more than downtown residents and still can’t park here overnight--ever.�

Homeless vehicle “storage� is bureaucratic Newspeak for what a women who lives in a vehicle does when she parks her RV on the streets at night. In a special merchant-funded program, rubberstamped by city council, all vehicles less than 12,000 pounds, are now banned from a dozen streets in outlying industrial areas 10 PM to 6 AM. No input was sought from homeless service providers, advocates, or the broader community.

Scott Kennedy, the same mayor who gave Santa Cruz the 1994 Sitting Ban which provoked riots, has backed the current process, cutting off and occasionally arresting critics at City Council. [see “Santa Cruz Mayor Banishes Peaceful Protest“ Street Spirit Feb 2004]. He only allowed homeless advocates public comment on the item because several merchants also wanted to speak. He also emphasized that future homeless bannings can be done by administrative edict from the Public Works Department without going through any public process.

The seizure of vehicles can be followed by gross denial of due process and police violence. This happened in the case of former city employee Jhon Golder, who lives in his van. After being forced out of his booted vehicle with threats to his dog’s life, Golder was jailed for weeks in the fall of 2002 in a bogus arrest at City Hall, where he had tried to arrange a meeting with City Manager Dick Wilson, the real power behind Kennedy.

Wilson issued a “stay away from all city employees and offices� trespass letter, and subsequently tied Golder up in a year and a half of court trials. In the course of researching information with this author this spring on the exclusion of homeless vehicles from Santa Cruz’s Lighthouse Field area, the peaceful Golder was again falsely arrested for violating an expired “stay-away“ order.

Doug McGrath lives in his vehicle with his wife Marilyn. He summed up the repeated 4 AM wake-ups and vehicle seizures: “Vehicle abatement should deal with abandoned vehicles. They don’t deal with stolen cars, broken down cars, cars for sale, cars there for months. But if someone lives there, they immediately move in, ticket ‘em, and then, if they don’t move, haul ‘em off.�

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Re: No Homeless Parking: New Police Attack on the Poor

Doesn't sound like it's the fault of the police, but the fault of the electorate...

Police historically lobbying for these powers

In Santa Cruz, police have historically lobbyed for more powerful "tools" such as the Sleeping Ban (when it was adopted in its current form in 1978). In 1999 Officer Jim Howes reportedly went door to door soliciting neighbors to request "No Parking" signs on Almar Avenue.

When this was reported to the Homeless Issues Task Force, the Chair came to the City Council and publicly denounced the effort. Council then directed no further "No Parking" signs until several years later when the Master Transportation study was done.

The police--at least the higher-ups--have historically not been neutral on this issue.

Re: No Homeless Parking: New Police Attack on the Poor

Quite probably, but the point I'm making is that if Santa Cruz residents didn't approve of these laws, they'd make it known - but they don't - so ultimately it's up to an electorate that either doesn't care, or doesn't agree with you.

Whatever approved by the majority of residents?

Police, conservative special interests, gutless or fear-mongering politicians can get a lot of stuff passed which, if put before the voters in Initiative form--would never pass muster.

These measures were taken as backroom decisions.

Finally, even if your argument were true, that the majority believes in discriminating against poor people and removing their right to use public spaces for cosmetic appearance purposes or becomes of a paranoid "discomfort" with their being there, I would denounce such discrimination--just as it should be denounced against other minorities.

Re: No Homeless Parking: New Police Attack on the Poor

As I said, even if these decisions are made in "backrooms," if the public is aware, and there is no outcry, then it would seem the public at large has no real problem with this "discrimination." As such, I'm afraid that your position may not fly with the G.P.

Street Spirits In

The whole "Homeless Parking" article is now available in the September 2004 Street Spirit. Copies can be had at the Homeless Service Center, by calling Becky Johnson at 429-8529 or forking over a buck to the homeless vendor of your choice.

Note to n5667: The public is aware of the war in Iraq. But both main parties support continued occupation for years. That doesn't mean a majority of the public isn't against it.
It may mean they're distracted, feel powerless, etc.

Meanwhile the question is "How can this kind of crap best be fought?"


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