Camping In Cars
It looks like Ukiah is not the only city struggling with that fine line between helping the homeless and making sure that transients do not degrade our sense of safety and community.
In late June, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court (which is responsible for guiding how laws and local ordinances are enforced in California) ruled that a Los Angeles city ordinance prohibiting living in a car was unconstitutionally vague.
The L.A. city code says that, “No person shall use a vehicle parked…upon any City street or…parking lot…as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day or otherwise.”
The Court ruled that the code is “broad enough to cover any driver in Los Angeles who eats food or transports belongings in his or her vehicle…[y]et it appears to be applied only to the homeless.” Because of the ordinance’s lack of clarity, the Court stated that the law could lead to selective enforcement against the homeless and the poor–and was therefore unconstitutional.
The Court did acknowledge that the ordinance was motivated by legitimate health and safety concerns. The Court noted that the City of Los Angeles has many options to manage the homeless, but that “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.”
What is clear from this recent ruling is that Los Angeles, like many California cities, is having difficulty dealing with transients–and they aren’t alone. A few years ago, Fresno and Sacramento both lost federal class-action lawsuits over the destruction of property while attempting to clean-up illegal encampments.
The Fresno lawsuit contended that when the City of Fresno cleaned up a homeless encampment, it violated the Constitutional rights of the homeless people who were illegally camped there. According to the ruling, Fresno violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and was therefore required to pay $1.5 million in damages and $850,000 in attorney’s fees–a total of $2.35 million.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Michael Risher said, "The Court’s ruling and the settlement should send a strong message to other cities throughout California that if they violate the rights of their most vulnerable residents, they will be held accountable."
Following this lawsuit, the City of Fresno backed away from law enforcement that affected the homeless. As a result, Fresno experienced significant increases in problems like public urination and defecation, trash, drug sales and drug use. They also experienced a significant increase in violence, including two murders and several shootings.
Sadly, we are experiencing many of these same problems right here in Ukiah. With the significant increase in our transient population, we have also seen an upsurge in crimes involving this population: aggressive panhandling, robberies, dog bite attacks, felony assaults, and even our most recent murder.
While we are working hard to address these issues, we’re concerned by recent court cases. Ukiah’s camping in vehicle ordinance closely matches the L.A. ordnance and must be reexamined. And, we need to prevent transients from camping illegally, so we can keep environmentally sensitive areas like our creeks and streams—as well as other public areas—clean and safe. To do that, the City of Ukiah must find a balance between effective clean-up procedures and ensuring that the rights of individuals are protected.
The Ukiah Police Department is working with the City Attorney on the City’s camping in vehicle ordinance, as well as how best to notify and evict people who do not respect public and private property. As we work on these issues during the next few months, we would love to hear from you, the public. Please submit any suggestions or comments you may have to my office.
Finding solutions to issues involving transients is difficult. While our police officers work to decrease illegal activity, we want to make sure that law enforcement is fair to everyone.
As always, our mission at UPD is simple: to make Ukiah as safe as possible. If you have any suggestions or comments about how we can improve, please feel free to call me, complete our online survey, or leave a crime tip on our website: www.ukiahpolice.com.