People don’t seem to understand that it isn’t 1830 anymore. You can’t just, “Go west, young man!” Thus I find laws that attempt to limit the options of the homeless far beyond heartless (Which they certainly are!) and all the way to brainless. In 1983, the City of Los Angeles passed a law that stated that no one could use their cars as living quarters. Like most laws, it pretty much laid unenforced until some powerful people decided that had a problem that the law could be used for. The “fine” people of Venice got upset because there were so many homeless people living in their cars. So in 2010, the police started using the law to arrest the homeless and impound their cars—cars, I’m sure, that most of them lost because it is expensive to get your car back.
What exactly it meant tht people were using their cars as living quarters was a matter of debate. In some cases, it simply meant that the police saw food in a car. According to Scott Shackford at Reason Magazine, one woman was arrested after being pulled over. That is to say that she was driving through Venice. So the police decided that the law was so expansive that no one who was living in their car anywhere in the world could even drive in Venice where the rich folks might be offended by the sight of a passing car drivin by one of those people.
Another example sounds like it comes from a modernization of a Dickens novel. A homeless man started sleeping on the sidewalk to comply with the law. You see: it is legal to sleep on the sidewalk. But it started to rain, so he sat in his car to stay dry. The police arrested him and impounded his car. Welcome to America: home of the free (if you’re rich). This 1983 law is nothing more than criminalizing poverty.
I have had the experience of being homeless twice. Once was when I was quite rich. It was just about impossible to find an apartment in Silicon Valley at the height of the dot-com boom. My wife and I had a nice Subaru Outback, but we were still harassed a fair amount. We were never arrested—just told to move along. I’m not at all certain that these instructions were legal, but we’d learned long before that you should not mess with cops. Just as in the case of the 1983 law that was rarely applied until 2010, a cop can always find some excuse to put you in jail and impound your car.
The second time I was homeless, I was very poor. And as a result, I was much more anxious. I moved my car excessively. I never read by flashlight for fear that it would attract attention. And the terrible thing is that there are people (kids mostly) who will terrorize you if they find you living in your car. So you have to worry about everyone. No one is your friend. Eventually, I got a job working in a gas station, so I was able to park there without too much concern. (One of the homeless people in Venice was arrested for living in his car on private property—a church—so you never know.) And then I got a room and within six months I got a high tech job that paid me as much as I’ve ever been paid. I’m a very lucky person because of my background. Most of the people being abused in Venice are not luck; they have no way out.
Despite all of this, the story has a happy ending. A group of homeless plaintiffs took the city to court. A lower court found in favor of the city. Of course! Why not, given that it was just a bunch of homeless people? But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a unanimous decision (by all Democratically appointed judges) found that the law was unconstitutionally vague. As Shackford put it, “[T]he description of what behavior violates the law is so unclear that it was being used by police to (surprise!) harass homeless people who believed they were actually complying with the law.” (I love the parenthetical “surprise!” That’s my kind of libertarian: the kind who knows that the official power will be used to abuse the powerless. Of course, the powerless would fare even worse in a libertarian utopia. But that hardly matter right now.)
The city has decided not to appeal the case. Instead, they are going to craft new legislation that “respects both the rights and needs of homeless individuals and protects the quality of life in our neighborhoods.” I take this to mean, a constitutionally viable way of abusing the homeless. Notice that they are trying to balance the basic needs and rights of the homeless against the “quality of life” of the rich people. Maybe if the rich people don’t want the homeless parking on their streets, they could do something to help the homeless out. No! That would be un-American!
My first novel was “Kamping on Asphalt.” It involved a group of people who lived at and around a KOA. I wrote it back in 1998. That picture at the top of the page kind of sums it up, except the novel is kind of a comedy. It was my attempt to write a modern Cannery Row.