Counting vehicular homelessness and the laws that regulate it
Each year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires local homelessness agencies to count the number of people experiencing homelessness. These “point-in-time” counts, as they are called, provide the basis for federal funding to these agencies. Counts also help service agencies understand geographic patterns, like where people experiencing homelessness live and cluster or whether investments in permanent housing reduce the number of people living outdoors.
We used the January 2020 count conducted by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or LAHSA, which is the agency responsible for homeless services in almost all of L.A. County (the exceptions are the cities of Glendale, Pasadena, and Long Beach). LAHSA collects more detailed data than is required by the federal government, breaking down the counts by the type of shelter, including sheltering on the sidewalk, in tents, cars, vans, or RVs. They also collect and share these data by census tract, which allowed us to see how the homeless population is geographically distributed. We also drew on older count data from 2016 to try and capture how this population has grown and changed over time.
We use these data, along with information we assembled about local land uses and local homeless services, to test some ideas about how people experiencing vehicular homelessness decide where to live. We suspect, for example, that to avoid complaints from housed people in residential areas, people living in cars might try to locate in nonresidential areas — such as census tracts with greater proportions of freeways, industrial land, or parks. We also imagine that people living in cars might also want to stay close to homeless services, and thus be more likely to locate in tracts where more services are available.
Regulations could impede these desires. In addition to knowing where people in cars live and the land uses within those areas, we needed to know where and how cities regulate vehicular homelessness. To assemble data on these regulations, we searched through local laws in the 85 cities and unincorporated L.A. County that fall within LAHSA’s jurisdiction, looking for rules that would regulate vehicular homelessness both indirectly and directly.
We consider indirect regulations to be laws that require vehicles to be moved after a period. The most prominent indirect regulation is a California state law that requires all vehicles to move every 72 hours. This means anyone living in a car must change location every three days, assuming the law is enforced. Notably, the extent of enforcement by local authorities is an open question. Many cities have augmented this baseline state regulation, and issued prohibitions including:
- No parking at certain times of day, most specifically overnight.
- Prohibitions based on vehicle size typically targeting RVs.
- Combinations of the two, meaning banning oversized vehicles overnight.
Local governments might issue these rules to cover entire cities, or (more commonly) vary the rules by area or block.
Cities can also indirectly regulate vehicular homelessness through permit parking districts. While permit requirements do not explicitly ban people from sleeping in cars, drivers can’t get a permit without submitting proof of a residential address in the district, which unhoused people obviously lack. For people experiencing homelessness, a permit district thus makes living in a car de facto illegal.
Direct regulations, in contrast, are rules explicitly aimed at restricting people living in their vehicles. These include restrictions on people sleeping in cars. As with indirect restrictions, these direct restrictions often varied substantially within cities. Some cities restricted sleeping in vehicles in specific residential areas, streets, or business districts. We call these rules “zonal restrictions.” For example, the City of Los Angeles outlaws sleeping in cars on particular streets, and the City Council regularly expands the list of streets where sleeping overnight is banned.
Figure 1 shows the results of our regulation research. Nearly everywhere we looked, cities had enacted some type of ordinance that regulated people living in cars. Citywide bans on sleeping in vehicles and overnight parking bans were the most common approaches. Fewer cities used permit parking or zone restrictions. A small number of cities made a point of reiterating, as a local ordinance, the statewide mandate to move a car every three days. Only four cities had no local regulations listed. The majority of the ordinances we found were not new; most cities had enacted them before 2016. The age of the laws might mean they weren’t originally intended to target homelessness, but we can’t say that for sure. For example, homelessness in L.A. got much worse after 2016, but was a serious problem before that as well. Even laws originally passed for other purposes, moreover, could be easily repurposed as anti-homelessness ordinances. And some areas had recently made their laws more restrictive: Notably, eight of the 22 citywide bans against sleeping in cars had been written or amended since 2016.