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Early on a recent Friday morning, sanitation workers, homeless outreach workers and Los Angeles police officers arrived on a small street in West Los Angeles. Jasmine Avenue is lined with low-rise apartment blocks, a towering Catholic church, a school, and a handful of dilapidated RVs.
That morning on Jasmine Avenue, RV residents were offered $500 gift cards and a motel room. The city also offered to tow and destroy their RVs. One RV made it off, under its own power, with what smelled like sewage dripping along the road as it left. This authorization is a small part of what has been a phased approach by officials trying to address a growing phenomenon of people living permanently in RVs on these streets.
“I’ll take a motel room,” an RV owner told me as he packed up his belongings after about six months on Jasmine Avenue. “Look what happens.” But he did not allow the city to tow and destroy his RV. He towed it elsewhere himself, using a chain and a beat-up SUV. He wants to keep it.
“The thought that our clients sometimes have is: ‘What if this doesn’t work? If this doesn’t work, then I’m back on the streets. I’m back full circle,’” said LaTonya Smith, interim executive director of the St. Joseph Center, a nonprofit organization that helps the city find housing for the homeless. “People who live in RVs are considered housed, and in order for them to leave that RV, sometimes we have to incentivize them.”
There are, at last count, more than 11,000 people living in mobile homes throughout Los Angeles County. And that number has been increasing. The Covid-19 pandemic pushed more people into poverty. Some of the inhabitants of RV have a job but do not want to pay for the apartment rent, or cannot afford to pay in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment costs about $2,500 a month.
Some RV dwellers own the vehicles, but others lease them for a monthly fee of a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000, City Councilwoman Traci Park told CNN.
In Los Angeles, you are allowed to sleep in a vehicle on some streets. There are, of course, parking restrictions on many streets. But as the number of mobile homes has grown, enforcing those restrictions has become more difficult. Large, stationary RVs require large cranes. And, according to the city, destroying a dilapidated RV that could contain harmful chemicals can cost up to $9,000 per vehicle.
Outreach workers at the St. Joseph Center regularly interact with RV dwellers. A spokesperson told CNN: “Staff are dealing with a large percentage, probably safe to say up to 80-85%, of people who are ‘leasing’ RVs or who may have purchased an RV that is not suitable for them. home or a ‘legal’ sale. .”
Park and others argue that these RVs endanger residents and blight neighborhoods, act as magnets for crime and harm the environment. Some homeless advocates agree that the impact on the city’s neighborhoods is an issue.
“There can be trash everywhere,” said Smith of the St. Joseph Center. “People are leaving their neighborhoods and houses, that’s not something they really want to see.”
In the five years since Los Angeles County commissioned one of many reports on the RV problem and possible solutions, the number of RVs on county streets has increased by more than 50%, from more than 4,500 in 2018 to more than 7,100 at last count. The reports are regularly requested and written by various city and county departments.
“I’m tired of studies and reporting,” Park told CNN recently in her freshly painted City Hall office. She was cast last year on a platform filled with intent to address the various homeless issues plaguing Los Angeles. Among her first targets: people she calls “vanlords,” some of whom, she says, rent rotten and unsafe RVs. “There is a thriving trade in RV rentals as housing units on the Internet,” Ella Park said.
Park proposed a motion that would explicitly add recreational vehicles to a portion of the city code that “prohibits a person or entity from reserving any street, parking space, or other public space without written authorization from the City while conducting vehicle-related business.” new and used”. .” The motion would also require RV owners to comply with a state law, “requiring that any recreational vehicle offered for sale, sold, rented, or leased within California meets the American National Institute of Safety Design Standards.” Standards and the Fire Protection Association”.
Right now, he said, “apparently, anyone in the city of Los Angeles can buy a junk RV at a junk lot and, without any oversight or regulation, rent that unsafe, inoperable vehicle to a vulnerable person as a housing unit.” “.
“The point here is not to criminalize homelessness. The point is to regulate what is currently an unregulated market that is causing serious environmental and public safety impacts throughout the city,” Park said.
“Too often, RVs used as homes on the streets of Los Angeles are in disrepair,” Park’s proposed motion reads in part. “Which means that the people who live in them face unsanitary and sometimes dangerous conditions.”
She has opposition.
“It’s actually good, to provide housing for people,” even if it’s an RV, said Dmitry Korikov, a filmmaker who says he volunteers to help people, mainly refugees from Russia and Ukraine, navigate the van life on the streets of Los Angeles. “I lived in a mobile home for two years. So I know how things (work), how the system works.”
It tells RV dwellers which streets to park on and connects them with private companies that service the vehicles for a fee: fill fresh water tanks, empty sewage tanks, and sweep sidewalks.
“Everyone should have the right to use the public streets,” Korikov told CNN. “If you can’t give them an apartment or give them a job to be able to afford an apartment and you tell them you need to be in tents on the street, but not rent someone’s RV, that’s bad.”
CNN put Korikov’s points on Park.
“I understand the dilemma,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve seen too many of these explosions and these fires and we have to deal with the collateral impacts that these vehicles are causing in our neighborhoods.” A small number of people have been killed in RV fires on the streets in recent years, according to local reports.
Park says that he is concerned that the vanlords will exploit the homeless. And he worries about the impact the trucks are having on neighborhoods in his district, which includes Venice and much of the west. Los Angeles, where homeless populations tend to be highest.
A Venice resident told me that he recently returned home from work to discover that the sewage tank of an RV had emptied on the road. He had to wade through human waste to get to his front door.
“We still haven’t solved the RV problem,” Mayor Karen Bass told the Los Angeles Times in March. “But we absolutely will because it’s a very serious problem.”
One of her first moves when she took office as mayor late last year was to declare a state of emergency over homelessness. Her first target was not the RVs on the streets, but the tents on the sidewalks. Her administration swept more than a dozen tent encampments and moved more than 1,000 people into temporary motel accommodations, the city’s administrative officer said. The operation is called Inside Safe.
The idea is to eventually move all of those people into permanent housing, in accordance with an increasingly popular doctrine among housing researchers known as “housing first.” The theory is that the most impactful move to save someone from homelessness is to provide them with housing, followed by other services like mental health or substance abuse treatment.
Bass’s office, the city manager’s office and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority cannot say how many of those people who moved off those streets as part of Inside Safe are now in permanent housing. The mayor will hold a press roundtable in the coming weeks to discuss the data, her office said. The St. Joseph Center said it has found permanent housing for 32 people. A spokesperson told CNN that the center expects those numbers to increase in June.
“I’m not going to leave people on the streets while we build,” Bass told CNN this spring. “People are dying on these streets!”
When it comes to RVs, a pilot program in a City Hall district has, over about 15 months, seen 41 RVs taken off the road and seven people moved into permanent housing. “That is why our program will be used as a model throughout the city, represented in the 2023-2024 budget adopted in May 2023,” Councilwoman Mónica Rodríguez told CNN. That city budget includes $1.3 billion to combat homelessness.
City officials approved a plan to deal with RVs that includes concerted outreach to those who live in them, incentivizing them to move into motel rooms, creating secure parking areas that can accommodate RVs, and finding permanent housing for those who live in them. in recreational vehicles. Now that plan needs to be implemented.
That final, foundational piece of this puzzle is arguably the most challenging.
“We need more housing. We need more affordable safe housing,” Smith said. But housing is expensive and takes time to build. And for now, for thousands of people, an RV roof over their heads is all they can afford in Los Angeles.