San Mateo amends vehicle habitation law

San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals.

The San Mateo City Council moved on Monday to amend the city’s vehicle habitation ordinance to avoid running afoul of a court decision striking down a similar law in Los Angeles.

Since 1995, it has been illegal to live in a motor vehicle in San Mateo. But after the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined Los Angeles’ vehicle habitation ordinance was unconstitutional, San Mateo City Attorney Shawn Mason recommended modifying San Mateo’s law.

In the Los Angeles case, plaintiffs argued police used the law selectively, to criminalize and harass homeless residents. The court agreed with the four homeless plaintiffs, noting the law was so vague that it had been virtually impossible for the plaintiffs to avoid being cited or arrested.

Judge Harry Pregerson wrote, “…despite Plaintiffs’ repeated attempts to comply with [the ordinance], there appears to be nothing they can do to avoid violating the statute short of discarding all of their possessions or their vehicles, or leaving Los Angeles entirely.”

Because the Los Angeles law was found to have banned living in a car without adequately defining what behaviors constituted living in a car, Mason said his office recommended clarifying the San Mateo ordinance to avoid similar confusion.

Under the new wording, a person would have to be engaged in a combination of at least one activity from two separate categories in order to be cited. The first category includes storing bedding, cooking equipment, or other personal affects in a car that are not normally associated with vehicle use. The second category includes sleeping or preparing meals in a vehicle.

The City Council unanimously approved the proposed changes, and is expected to adopt them during its Jan. 19 meeting.

While the Los Angeles case stemmed from accusations police were using the law as a pretext for unjustly arresting homeless people and impounding their cars, San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals defended his city’s ordinance, claiming its enforcement emphasizes intervention rather than punishment.

“In the 20 years this law has been on the books, zero people have been arrested or fined,” Goethals said, “This would never have become an issue in San Mateo, because we never arrest anybody under this ordinance, so there’s nothing to appeal.”

The law’s value, Goethals explained, is that it enables police to contact homeless residents and make them aware of safety net services, which can provide better shelter and give them ways out of homelessness.

“We have enough funding and resources to make sure everybody has some place to go,” Goethals noted.

San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach said she was skeptical of the claim that there was adequate shelter space for every San Mateo resident currently living in a car.

“All shelters have short-term time limits because there are not enough of them,” Friedenbach said, “If they had housing options for everyone, there would be no homeless.”

Friedenbach added many car dwellers can’t stay in shelters because they work nights, are caretakers for people they can’t leave or have pets.

Goethals said San Mateo has an interest in protecting homeless residents from the hazards of living in cars, which can include being more vulnerable to crime. And the mayor rejected the idea the city was marginalizing its homeless population.

“These aren’t people we’re trying to get rid of or sweep under the rug,” Goethals said, “These are our people, and we don’t want to see anything bad happen to them.”

Samaritan House CEO Bart Charlow acknowledged there might not always be shelter space for every homeless individual in San Mateo, but said the county never allows homeless children to go unsheltered. He commended the San Mateo Police Department, describing officer interactions with the homeless as being consistently helpful and compassionate.

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