LOS ANGELES—Veteran Dermott McCarthy has been unemployed for nearly a year.
He used to do pipefitting and plumbing work for a construction company that later went out of business. As his savings dwindled, he was only occasionally able to find part-time work. He eventually couldn’t afford his rent and had to move into his van.
However, a 1983 Los Angeles city ordinance prohibited him from using a vehicle “as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise,” leaving him subject to citation and arrest.
McCarthy said he accumulated countless citations, which he also could not pay, resulting in his van being fitted with a yellow metal boot and then towed.
“I couldn’t pay the ticket to get it out, so I lost my van, which left me out on the streets,” said McCarthy.
On Thursday, a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the city ordinance unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel said the law was too vague. As written, it also prohibits anyone from eating in his car or keeping personal items in his car. And the law only seemed to be enforced on homeless people.
Judge Harry Pregerson wrote that the law “provides inadequate notice of the unlawful conduct it proscribes, and opens the door to discriminatory enforcement against the homeless and the poor.”
Loren Franck is president of West Side Homeless Outreach, which he co-founded in 2008 in response to the sinking economy. He said although the ruling does not address the deep, underlying issues of homelessness, it is a positive step for the community.
“It’s good, because the homeless people at least will not be on the street,” said Franck. “They’ll not be wandering the street. They’ll be able to be out of the rain. They’ll have some form of transportation, somewhere to have personal possessions, a little bit of security by locking their car doors.”
Franck said it is very difficult for homeless people with a vehicle to find a safe and suitable place to park. Removing one of these obstacles for them will take a lot of pressure off of their shoulders.
“Some people live out here in these vehicles with their children, just regular people who lost jobs and ended up couldn’t pay their rent because of the economy,” said McCarthy. “I think [the ruling] will help a lot.”
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, whose office defended the city ordinance, said the city will not appeal the decision.
In a statement, Feuer said, “I will work with other city leaders to craft a constitutional ordinance that respects both the rights and needs of homeless individuals and protects the quality of life in our neighborhoods.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress estimated almost 54,000 homeless people living in Los Angeles county in 2013.