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LA Leaders Opposed A Law That Would Make It Harder To Tow Cars -- Even If People Are Living In Them

Three campers parked in North Hollywood, CA. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)
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The juxtaposition was striking.

One week to the day that L.A.'s leaders got officials word homelessness had risen 16% over the last year, they voted on an issue that directly affects many homeless people: impounding cars.

At least 16,500 people live in vehicles in L.A. County according to the latest homeless count, though officials concede privately the actual number may be much higher. For those living in vehicles, figuring out where to park safely and making sure their vehicle doesn't get impounded is a matter of survival.

A proposed state law AB516 would effectively bar cities from impounding vehicles for excess parking tickets, expired tags, or parking in one location for more than 72 hours -- all three routine issues for the vehicular homeless.

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Los Angeles City council members voted 12-1 this week to oppose it.

"It's incredibly bizarre to me that right after the homeless count comes out, the council would take up a motion like this which seems dead set at kicking the poorest when they're down," said Ace Katano, a Los Angeles County public defender. "The people that are harmed by these [towing] practices are the most vulnerable who are already in situations where they run the risk of falling into homelessness."


Those backing the bill say so-called "poverty tows" and the myriad of parking and other vehicle-related laws that enable them disproportionately affect poor people. And that can start a cycle that's hard to break.

If almost all your money goes to covering housing and other basic expenses, there's nothing left to pay a parking ticket. But not paying that parking ticket gets even more expensive, triggering additional fines and, at the most extreme, loss of the vehicle to impound. Losing a vehicle can mean losing a job or, for those using it as shelter, street homelessness.

"It's important that we understand that tens-of-thousands of Angelenos are on the verge of homelessness every day," said Shayla Myers, an attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. "They are one paycheck away from falling into homelessness, and the towing of a vehicle is going to be the ripple that causes people to fall into homelessness."


Those asking L.A. to oppose the bill say they've watched as streets around their homes and businesses have transformed into de-facto RV encampments.

"It's unsafe for them and it's unsafe for us," said Michael Bey, who owns commercial property in Van Nuys. "I've struggled immensely with the homelessness issue. There are a lot of issues with security and sanitation. And my tenants, they threaten to move out which obviously will affect our city's tax base."

Bey opposes the bill, but wants a more permanent solution to homelessness than simply letting people camp out on public streets. "People have to go somewhere," he said.

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Janice Berridge of Lake Balboa said she goes "back and forth" on the issue. She knows there isn't anywhere else for people to go, but is extremely frustrated with the trash flowing out from tent and vehicle encampments.

"It's like a dumping ground. Trash is everywhere. I literally find condoms and needles all over my neighborhood. That's what for me has to change," she said.

Both Berridge and Bey said they would likely support finding alternative places for vehicle dwellers to park their vehicles in their own neighborhoods. Though there are a few parking lots converted nightly into "safe parking"zones with security and sanitation in Los Angeles, the number of spaces can serve only a tiny fraction of the total number of people living in their cars.

"To me, it's like they're just band aids, all of this has just been band aids," said Berridge. "Let's really help them, let's provide services that get them off the streets."