We understand why the San Luis Obispo City Council reaffirmed the city’s ban on sleeping in vehicles — the council sees it as the most effective tool to stop illegal camping — but that doesn’t mean we like it.
Nor are we especially fond of the heavy-handed tactics the council used to put the ordinance back on the books.
The council essentially sidestepped a judge’s ruling that temporarily ordered the city to stop issuing citations for sleeping in vehicles. Instead of allowing the case to proceed through court, the City Council decided to make sleeping in vehicles a health and safety violation, rather than a zoning violation.
What’s more, the council adopted it as an emergency measure, meaning it would take effect immediately.
We find the “emergency” declaration a stretch, especially because the number of vehicles parked along one of the most heavily “camped” thoroughfares — Prado Road — has decreased markedly.
We’re concerned, too, about the scope of the ordinance; in theory, even a tired motorist who pulled off the road for a few hours’ sleep would be breaking the law.
To be clear, we agree that roadsides cannot function as long-term campgrounds. Not only are there no restrooms or showers, there also are hazards associated with living at the side of busy roads, both for the campers and passersby. Prado Road, for example, is not well lit and there is no paved shoulder. Motorists driving at night are worried, and rightfully so, about hitting someone who may be crossing the street or getting in or out of a vehicle.
Also, businesses and residents living near Prado Road and other “car camping” areas should not have to put up with the problems that have been reported: public urination and defecation, littering, vandalism, fighting, sewage dumping and the like.
Justice would be better served if police could concentrate on cracking down on those more serious violations, but here’s the rub: From a practical standpoint, police say it’s extremely difficult to cite people for the types of violations that have been reported. They would have to catch them in the act, or find a witness who is willing to testify, and that’s a rare occurrence.
Instead, police use the sleeping ban as a “tool” to break up illegal encampments, because it’s far easier to witness someone sleeping in the middle of the night than to catch someone dumping sewage in the street or urinating in the bushes.
We don’t, for a minute, believe that police officers get a kick out of banging on camper doors and rousting people out of bed at 1 a.m. to slap them with a citation. They’ve been unfairly cast as the villains in this situation. That must end.
We should point out, too, that San Luis Obispo is not alone in this form of enforcement; a growing number of cities have banned sleeping in vehicles, and some that don’t already have a ban are considering one.
Officials insist such ordinances don’t target homeless people but target their behavior.
But isn’t that splitting hairs? Homeless people are the segment of the population most likely to be sleeping in their vehicles on a regular basis. They may not be “targeted” by a sleeping ban, but they’re certainly being sent amessage: If you want to sleep, well, you’d better go elsewhere.
And where, in San Luis Obispo, can they go?
The homeless shelter? The new, city-sanctioned safe parking program?
Those are viable options, but they don’t work for everyone.
The shelter is often full, the safe parking program accommodates only five vehicles, and not all homeless people are willing to accept conditions of the shelter or safe parking programs.
In response to the city’s ban on sleeping in vehicles, there have been increased calls for additional safe parking accommodations. We echo that.
As we’ve said before, we support expanding the safe parking program at Prado Day Center to other locations in both the city and the county, possibly in partnership with churches or other nonprofits that could provide parking lots and help with monitoring. Perhaps the program could be rotated among churches, much like the current “overflow” shelter program. Also, we urge officials to make some spots available to people who are willing to follow the rules but aren’t yet ready and/or interested in the more intensive case management services aimed at helping people into permanent housing. If city officials are worried that such a program could make San Luis Obispo a magnet for homeless campers coming from out of the area, then limit the length of time they can stay in safe parking lots here.
The idea of making vouchers available for area campgrounds — again in partnership with churches and nonprofits — is worth exploring, too.
We don’t expect the San Luis Obispo City Council to solve homelessness, any more than we expect it to end unemployment, or drug addiction or childhood obesity.
We do, however, look to council members to demonstrate leadership by approaching social challenges with integrity, creativity and compassion.
It’s time for the council to do exactly that.
Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.