Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Homeless instead of penniless in the Golden State

Compassion | Cars are the new tiny houses in California’s most expensive cities
by Rob Holmes
Posted 1/03/18, 02:52 pm

Living on the streets has a new meaning in California. In a state whose cities ranked among the highest in the nation for “unsheltered” homelessness in 2017, more and more people choose to live in their cars.

Surprisingly, many of the newly homeless car-dwellers have jobs. Their homelessness is an independent solution or planned choice. One such car resident in Atlanta, writing as “nihilistscientist” on Reddit, claimed friends offered their couches and floors, but he responded, “Nah, I wanna do this. It’s intentional, not out of desperation.”

Online forums offer advice on how to take up urban living without a home. People discuss not only the best parking lots in which to stay overnight but also share tips on how to eat using rice cookers or convert a Ford Escape into a bedroom.

High housing costs are a major factor driving the “wheel-estate” boom, wrote Chris Reed, an opinion editor for The San Diego Union-Tribune. He predicted California would again set a national trend as people opted to live in 80 to 150 square feet of their cars and vans rather than shelling out up to $3,500 a month for a small apartment—plus bills and insurance.

With ample spacious parking lots that can be monetized for use at night, Reed anticipated “redefinition of the car in California” as shelter rather than a symbol of adventure or independence.

Beyond California, the national economic boom could trigger more instances of self-exile from traditional dwellings. Older or lower- to middle-income people, especially when their jobs are mobile or seasonal, rebel against paying half their earnings or more for housing. Though the popularity of so-called “tiny houses” offers minimalist or cost-effective housing for the employed, vehicle dwelling avoids the maze of municipal regulations placed on these small structures. And tiny houses can’t double as a means of getting to work.

As part of a comprehensive homeless strategy in 2017, Los Angeles codified new rules for car life on city streets in residential and nonresidential zones. The codes make life on the streets a challenge but not a crime. As long as a vehicle is tagged, drivable, and moved within 72 hours, a person may live nearly anywhere that’s at least 500 feet (one block) from certain facilities like schools, parks, or day cares. Other restrictions are noted in online maps.

San Diego takes a different view of the new trend. It operates two parking lots for year-round car dwellers to set up for the night. But the city requires each person to be “willing to and agree to moving from their vehicle to more stable housing—permanent or transitional.” 

Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren A homeless couple seen sleeping on a Portland, Ore., street in September 2017

The ‘right to rest’ in public

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon (ACLU) plans to prioritize its litigation firepower to counter laws it says discriminate against homeless people this year. The strategy follows Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler’s November decision to expand existing “pedestrian use zone” legislation to include $250 fines for sitting or lying down on city sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2009 that a previous city “sit-lie” ordinance was unconstitutional because enforcement was discriminatory and arbitrary and excluded people camped in front of stores or theaters before grand openings or concerts. Critics asked what the difference was between panhandling and a Salvation Army bell ringer asking for donations in front of a store.

A full-court press by the ACLU could produce dramatic changes for homeless legal rights. Oregon has at least 224 laws that regulate or criminalize what the ACLU calls “life-sustaining activities in a public space.” Portland’s sidewalk-sitting ordinance counts in that total, along with bans on activities such as camping, sidewalk sleeping, and panhandling.

Oregon ACLU legal director Mat dos Santos called the Portland pedestrian use zone expansion “de facto discrimination based on economic status.”

Officials face a tug-of-war in trying to provide services and show compassion for homeless people while maintaining law and order, especially when urban business clientele dries up due to safety concerns.

Portland resident Mike Rose expressed outrage in a letter to The Oregonian over his city’s failure to control the “homeless who populate our streets, urinate and defecate in doorways, block sidewalks, harass passersby, and cast an overwhelming blight all over downtown Portland.”

California voters in 2016 rejected a proposed right-to-rest bill, one prong of a multistate political push to legitimize certain activities now banned in public spaces. Oregon and Colorado have also considered—and nixed—similar bills backed by the Western Regional Advocacy Project. —R.H.

Associated Press/Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle Associated Press/Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle Michael Labingo wraps himself in a blanket from a charity van in Houston on Tuesday.

Cities work to protect homeless from winter’s assault

Cities and states along the East Coast have activated emergency plans for the homeless and others affected by bitterly cold weather. With the nation’s highest per capita rate of homelessness, Washington, D.C., began rolling out extra services last Wednesday as temperatures started to drop. This week, emergency shelters and overnight warming centers are open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. to receive the needy. Shelter locations include churches, public buildings, and women-only centers.

The city’s Department of Human Services declares a Cold Emergency Alert anytime temperatures are expected to plummet below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, windchill factor included, or below 20 degrees with precipitation or snow. Baltimore, Boston, Houston, and New York have all declared similar cold weather emergencies. At least a dozen people have died in the latest burst of winter weather in the United States, with a winter storm system sweeping across the South on Wednesday. —R.H.

Compassion conference

Compassion for the homeless involves more than a home. In DeSoto County, Miss., Dewayne Williams serves as parks and recreation director for the City of Hernando and the executive director of Restoration Now, a ministry to the homeless and other vulnerable people. Having a ministry role in both public and private spheres showed him that “for a homeless person, finding shelter is not often enough.” Based in Olive Branch, Miss., Restoration Now has several churches that help in its outreach to the homeless. “They sign up for a relationship for one year,” Williams said. “We don’t want to just write a check.” The ministry will host Compassion Conference 2018 on March 3 in Horn Lake, Miss., south of Memphis, Tenn. The featured speaker is Brian Fikkert, co-author of the best-selling book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself—R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

Read more from this writer


  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 01/06/2018 10:51 pm

    Hm, the ACLU might be on the right side of something for a change.