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Early one recent Friday morning, sanitation workers, homeless-outreach workers and LAPD officers arrived on a little street in the west of Los Angeles. Jasmine Avenue is lined with low-rise apartment blocks, an imposing Catholic Church, a school and a handful of dilapidated recreational vehicles.
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 managed to leave, under its own steam, with what smelled like sewage leaking along the road as it left. This clearance is one small part of what has been a piecemeal approach by officials trying to tackle a burgeoning phenomenon of people living permanently in RVs on these streets.
“I’ll take a motel room,” one RV owner told me as he packed up his belongings after about six months on Jasmine Avenue. “See what happens.” But he did not let the city tow and destroy his RV. He towed it elsewhere himself, using a chain and a beaten-up SUV. He wants to keep it.
“The idea sometimes our clients have is, ‘What if this doesn’t work? If this doesn’t work, then I’m back on the streets. I’m back to square one,’” said LaTonya Smith, interim CEO at the St. Joseph Center, a nonprofit that helps the city find accommodation for the unhoused. “People who are living in RVs consider themselves to be housed, and in order for them to leave that RV, sometimes we have to incentivize.”
There are, by the latest count, more than 11,000 people living in RVs across Los Angeles County. And that number has been rising. The Covid-19 pandemic forced more people into poverty. Some of the RV dwellers have jobs but either don’t want to pay apartment rent, or can’t afford to pay it, in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment costs around $2,500 a month.
Some RV dwellers own the vehicles, but others rent them to the monthly tune 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 RVs has grown, enforcing those restrictions has become harder. Large, immobile RVs require large tow trucks. And, according to the city, destroying a dilapidated RV that might contain harmful chemicals can cost up to $9,000 per vehicle.
Outreach workers from St. Joseph Center interact regularly with RV dwellers. A spokesperson told CNN: “Staff encounter a large percentage, probably safe to say as much as 80-85%, of individuals who are ‘leasing’ RVs or may have purchased an RV that is not suitable for habitation or a ‘legal’ sale.”
Park and others argue that these RVs endanger their residents and blight neighborhoods, acting as magnets for crime and damaging the environment. Some advocates for the unhoused agree the impact on city neighborhoods is an issue.
“There might be trash everywhere,” said Smith from the St. Joseph Center. “People come outside their neighborhoods and homes, that’s not something that they really want to see.”
In the five years since Los Angeles County commissioned one of many reports into the RV problem and potential solutions, the number of RVs on county streets has risen by more than 50% – from more than 4,500 in 2018 to more than 7,100 at last count. Reports are regularly requested and written by various city and county departments.
“I’m tired of studies and reports,” Park told CNN recently at her freshly painted City Hall office. She was elected last year on a platform dripping with intent to handle the various homelessness issues plaguing Los Angeles. Among her first targets: people she calls “vanlords,” some of whom, she says, rent out rotting, unsafe RVs. “There is a thriving trade in RVs being rented out as dwelling units on the internet,” Park said.
Park proposed a motion that would explicitly add RVs to part 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 business pertaining to new and used vehicles.” The motion would also force RV owners to comply with a state law, “which requires that any RV offered for sale, sold, rented or leased within California meet the design safety standards of the American National Standards Institute and Fire Protection Association.”
Right now, she said, “Apparently anybody in the city of Los Angeles can buy a junker RV off of a salvage lot and without any oversight or regulation, rent that unsafe inoperable vehicle out to a vulnerable person as a dwelling unit.”
“The point here is not to criminalize homelessness. The point is to regulate what is currently an unregulated marketplace that is causing serious public safety and environmental impacts all over the city,” Park said.
“Too often, RVs that are used as dwellings on LA’s streets are in grave disrepair,” Park’s proposed motion reads, in part. “Meaning that people living 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 helping people – mainly refugees from Russia and Ukraine – navigate van life on the streets of Los Angeles. “I lived myself in a motor home for two years. So I know how things (work), how the system works.”
He tells RV dwellers which streets they can park on, and connects them with private companies that service the vehicles for a fee: filling up the freshwater tanks, emptying the sewage tanks and sweeping the sidewalks.
“Everyone should have a right to use public streets,” Korikov told CNN. “If you cannot give them an apartment or give them a job to be able to afford an apartment and you tell them that you need to be in tents on the street, but not renting someone’s motor home, that’s evil.”
CNN put Korikov’s points to Park.
“I understand the dilemma,” she said. “On the other hand, I have seen too many of these explosions and these fires and we have got to deal with the collateral impacts that these vehicles are causing in our neighborhoods.” A small number of people have died in RV fires on the streets over the past few years, according to local reports.
Park says she is concerned that the unhoused are being exploited by the vanlords. And she is concerned about the impact the vans are having on the neighborhoods in her district, which includes Venice and much of western Los Angeles, where homeless populations tend to be higher.
One Venice resident told me he returned home from work recently to discover that the sewage tank in an RV had been emptied into the road. He had to walk through human waste to get to his front door.
“We have not resolved the RV issue yet,” Mayor Karen Bass told The Los Angeles Times in March. “But we absolutely will because it’s a very serious issue.”
One of her first moves when she took office as mayor late last year was to declare a state of emergency on homelessness. Her first target was not the RVs on the streets, but the tents on the sidewalks. Her administration has swept over a dozen tent encampments and moved more than 1,200 people into temporary accommodation in motels, the city administrative officer has said. The operation is dubbed Inside Safe.
The idea is to eventually move all those people into permanent housing, in line with an increasingly popular doctrine among housing researchers known as “housing first.” The theory is that the most impactful move in saving someone from homelessness is to provide them housing, with other services such as mental health or substance abuse treatment to follow.
Bass’ office, the city administrator’s office and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority cannot say how many of those people moved off those streets as part of Inside Safe are now in permanent housing. The mayor will hold a roundtable with the press in the coming weeks to discuss the data, her office said. The St. Joseph Center said is has found permanent housing for 32 people. A spokesperson told CNN the center expects those numbers to increase in June.
“I’m not going to leave people on the street while we’re building,” Bass told CNN this spring. “People die on these streets!”
When it comes to the RVs, a pilot program in one city council district has, over about 15 months, seen 41 RVs moved off the street 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 Monica Rodriguez told CNN. That city budget includes $1.3 billion for the fight against homelessness.
City officials have approved a plan to deal with the RVs that includes concerted outreach to those living in them, incentivizing them to move into motel rooms, creating safe parking areas that can accommodate RVs, and finding permanent housing for those living in RVs. Now that plan needs to be implemented.
That final and fundamental 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’s roof over their heads is all they can afford in Los Angeles.