People Living in Vehicles Need a Safe Place to Park, Not Fines or Jail

Woman living in her car

Woman living in her car

This week, Palo Alto, California passed a vehicle dwelling ban. People found living in their vehicles will be charged with a misdemeanor and face a maximum penalty of six months in county jail, a $1,000 fine or both. The criminalization of homelessness with laws like this,  actually creates more homelessness and greatly increases taxpayer costs. When a person just loses their job and apartment, they often will sleep in their car, or find a old RV on Craigslist to live in. Obviously, they are extremely low-income, so they do not have the ability to pay a fine. If they don’t pay the fine they go to jail, or they may go directly to jail, which taxpayers pay for. Either way, their car or RV is impounded causing them to be unsheltered homeless, which then causes a different and more tragic issue, and taxpayers pay for that too.

I first learned about mobile homelessness from Sandy, a woman I met who sleeps next to her car because she was arrested for sleeping in her car.  Since then, I have met many people who call their vehicles home.

As an outreach worker, I have been in several meetings where business owners and church leaders say they have compassion for vehicle residents, but then in the same breath say they cannot use their parking lots. COME ON FOLKS! Most church parking lots are used only twice a week, yet most churches won’t open their unused parking lots to people who need a safe place to park!!!

Although there should be services so no one has to sleep in a vehicle, I am glad that there are safe parking programs like I found on a recent trip to San Diego. Dreams for Change operates out of three parking lots around the city. I have to give a huge thanks to the churches that are not only allowing use of their parking lots, but also use of showers and bathrooms. That may seem like only a little, yet it is rare for a church to allow homeless people to use their facilities. If you work at or attend a faith based group that has a building and parking lot, I hope you will consider opening a safe parking program.

In the following video I interview Teresa L Smith, Ph.D., who co-founded Dreams for Change. Safe parking programs like this are actually very rare, so I am grateful for the opportunity to learn more and share their story. Passing laws to fine people, and sending them to jail for living in their vehicle is ridiculous. Criminalization increases taxpayer costs and creates more problems while solving nothing. Ideally,  I hope we’ll have adequate services so people will not have to live in any state of homelessness, but until then, please support safe parking programs in your community.



  • a2phil

    I’ve got an idea for a fund raiser…have t-shirts made up that say “homelessness is NOT a crime, the conditions that PERPETUATE it SHOULD BE!!”

  • Ed Reyes

    When I lost everything and overstayed my welcome at a relatives house. I learned if I had to sleep in my small rental car that the only safe place was to crawl into the trunk, sleep in fetal position, have the back seat slightly cracked open for air. Placed all my belongings on the car floor covered up. Reclined in the front seat only got me warnings from the cops. ?#?Live? ?#?Learn? ?#?Survive? ?#?Homelessness? Bravo Mark for bringing this to light!

  • Ed Reyes

    Great idea, so true. When people loose their jobs because of the economy, when natural disasters ruin families, when vets come home and have difficulties finding medical care, there are so many faces of homelessness. It should NOT be a crime.

  • Alan Thorsen

    A car at least provides some shelter. Where are homeless supposed to go ? I’m homeless and living in MY car and while I wasn’t on private property, just on city streets, I got hassled continuously by the cops- even when I was out walking – intimadation there too . ABT

  • Debi Reuter

    Homeless folks need to be kept safe. Homeless women are especially vulnerable. These kinds of laws make me sick inside. The law is criminal and immoral.

  • Debi Reuter

    I like this idea. How do we make it happen?

  • a2phil

    All it takes is a t-shirt shop and enough money…

  • a2phil

    The kind of laws the “powers that be” seem to specialize in… :(

  • Debi Reuter

    Money is the key. I need to work on that!

    Debi Reuter, MA
    Early Childhood Educator
    *”And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ~The Little Prince*

  • Jean-Louis C.

    what about social housing in the US … like in Europe? that low income workers live in an affordable apartment. A shame for such a rich country which can that finance wars worldwide but don’t have housing programs for the citizens.

  • a2phil

    Wars and prisons make more money for the 1%…

    America’s middle name is “Greed”…we CAN’T be a “civilized” country…

  • kimadagem

    I haven’t been to California in almost 30 years and would like to go back. But now that I’ve read this, Palo Alto will definitely *not* be on my list to places to visit. This kind of “law” (I use that term loosely) is akin to making homelessness illegal, which is not something I can condone in any form. I sure hope none of the people who supported this ever find themselves in the situation they just outlawed.

  • julie
  • julie

    print your own custom shirts with no upfront fees

  • Sophia Keenesburg

    Sure this is in the USA … socalled richest country on the face of this planet?
    And there are a lot of homes and ‘old’ buildings empty … why not put 1 + 1 together?

  • a2phil

    Makes so much sense, it’ll never happen…at least in the U.S…

  • Sis and bro

    Me and my brother live in our car and can’t find a good place to sleep at night so we move around . Cops do give a hard time. I have asked for help and not that much is giving.. Am just the fear of falling asleep at night. Is more then I could handle.

  • Lost4helping

    I hate being homeless. It’s not how I ever wanted to see myself but here I am, a 36 yr old female with no family and lost everything because I was helping someone who was homeless. I found this person was stealing from me and my daughter. So I told her she had to go. For whatever reason she couldn’t just leave and understand she only did it to herself. oh but of course not.. She had me rob, raped and beaten. Then had the person she paid ( who knows how) tell me threats with my daughter. It scared me to death but why?? I still to this day can not understand how she could do that to someone who only tried to help her. Anyways it turned into the biggest nightmare and most out of control part of my life ever. If I could tell you everything that came out that one decision to help her has tore me down you wouldn’t only be shocked but wouldn’t want to help a homeless person again. It really killed my life, heart and soul. I lost my daughter. I now sit and wonder how to get it all back but losing so much at heArt. I feel I scared to build again, I am so mentally shut down and tired…… I feel lost., I have heard the worst, been thru the worst things you could ever imagine my whole life. I still tried and stayed positive. I just space out and wish and pray to please let me find a way to pull out of this but here I am looking for some place to rest. Limited now as its becoming very cold and lonely. I hope best for everyone and thanks for listing to my problems . My point here is homeless people are just like any other person. Some really are the best people and some are out completely for themselves. Have no heart and search for their next victim to hit. This world has become so full of people to quick to judge abs refuse to listen. ( stereo typing) I miss my girl, I miss my life. I miss being a real person who everyone liked until my word voice was kicked out over only using heart. I hope the best for everyone, goodnight

  • Lost4helping

    Ps. Being a felon over 15 yrs ago. Cuts all odds and options more then half for any state assisted help for housing. Building from rock bottom is harder then anyone even understands and the only way to understand is be where you have never been soooo how do you get the energy after so many dead ends and disappointments? Rejection is harsh and and really hurt people.

  • Shaun Snapp

    You have to love the US legal system. Large banks can engage in any type of fraud, and get nothing. But if you sleep in your car in Palo Alto you get a misdemeanor.

  • Tess Voorhis

    With the economy the way it is, and the way it’s going to get bad again in the next couple of years, the homeless problem is going to get much worse. Accept the homeless situation and find a solution. Stop fining and condemning, most homeless don’t want to be out there.

  • Lavender Beepop

    Thank you magic mulattoes for all you do for us…

  • ruby

    some people are homeless due to unforeseen or temporary set back, but others have addictions and put themselves there, those are the ones that ruin it for others who are trying to get back on their feet, because San Diego has such nice weather all year, it breads opportunity for those who wont go to shelters because they have to “clean up their act and cant use when they are there”