People sleeping in cars face citations after San Luis Obispo vote

A line of cars on Prado Road, where many homeless gathered to live and sleep in their vehicles.
A line of cars on Prado Road, where many homeless gathered to live and sleep in their vehicles. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo City Council affirmed its stance Tuesday night against homeless people sleeping in their vehicles on city streets, narrowly passing an ordinance that prohibits camping on all city streets and parking areas.

Under the ordinance, people who camp in their vehicles will be ticketed instead of being charged with a criminal offense.

The 3-2 vote is the city’s latest attempt to address a contentious issue: the growing number of people living in their cars. Some residents have complained these people leave behind litter and human waste, and that they bring unruly behavior to otherwise quiet neighborhoods.

Councilwoman Kathy Smith and Councilman Dan Carpenter dissented.

Both wanted the council to postpone adopting the ordinance until another solution was in place — such as expanding the city’s pilot program for safe parking so more people have a place to park at night.

“I lose sleep over issues like this,” Smith said.

“My concern is that we are not addressing changing behavior but addressing a fine structure,” Carpenter said. “The answer is not to create another ordinance but to work toward finding solutions.”

The new ordinance is much like a prior city law that was challenged in a lawsuit by San Luis Obispo attorneys Stewart Jenkins and Saro Rizzo.

The key differences are:

Citations issued for violating the law will be parking citations, not criminal misdemeanors.

Signs will be posted throughout the city to make people aware of the law.

The ordinance only applies from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Vehicles containing “bedding or camp paraphernalia arranged for sleeping” during those hours can be cited.

Jenkins cautioned the council Tuesday that he may file additional litigation.

Police struggled with enforcement under the prior law, which required them to prove people were actually asleep inside their vehicles.

City zoning code prohibits vehicles from parking in the same place for more than 72 hours, but cars or recreational vehicles can move 500 feet to avoid a citation or being towed.

Advocates have criticized the city, saying it is not doing enough to help the homeless.

“You are treating the homeless as if they are some horribly defective people,” resident Jim Griffin said Tuesday night. “The program right now in San Luis Obispo is to terrorize them to get them out of town.”

Mayor Jan Marx defended the council’s decision, saying the new law provides “protection that the residents of San Luis Obispo need.”

The ordinance will come before the City Council next Tuesday for a second reading. It will take effect 30 days later.

However, as part of the settlement agreement, judicial approval is needed for the new signs. That could take months, according to city staff.