Homeless Tent in Los Angeles

Laws and Ordinances on Homelessness in Southern California

The laws and ordinances governing homelessness in cities and counties of Southern California is something of a patchwork that can prove to be confusing in some instances. This stems from the reality that each city and county in Southern California, indeed across the state, has the legal authority to implement its own set of ordinances pertaining to homelessness and related matters. With that said, there is some similarity in the ordinances pertaining to homelessness in the various counties comprising Southern California. What follows is an overview presentation of the laws and ordinances involving homelessness in these major Southern California counties.

  • Los Angeles
  • Orange
  • Riverside
  • San Bernardino
  • San Diego
  • Santa Barbara
  • Ventura

The examination of ordinances pertaining to homelessness begins with Los Angeles for two reasons. First, Los Angeles is by far the most populated county in the region. Indeed, Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the United States. Second, to a fairly significant degree, notable number of cities and counties oftentimes adopt practices and ordinances as they pertain to homelessness. In many ways, and in most other Southern California counties, the issue is not so much a marked difference in ordinances as it is in the manner in which these laws are enforced.

In addition, a number of important court cases regarding homelessness and the homeless population have arisen in Los Angeles county as well. As is discussed in a moment, these court cases can have a permanent impact on an existing ordinance or a temporary one, depending on the circumstances of concern to a judicial body.

Los Angeles County Ordinances Impacting Homelessness

There exists an array of ordinances and regulations in Los Angeles County that impact the homeless population. As a cautionary note, there can be some additional or modified restrictions found in some communities in the greater Los Angeles area. As a consequence, while the best information is presented to you here for your consideration, if you have a specific question or issue associated with homelessness in a particular city in Los Angeles County, you are wise to doublecheck the status of ordinances in an individual municipality as well. For example, as you will see, the city and county of Los Angeles designates specific time frames in which a tent can be placed on public property. That time frame might be different in another city in the county.

Sleeping or Camping on Public Property

Whether sleeping or camping on public property is permitted in Los Angeles depends on the nature of that public property. Technically speaking, it is unlawful to “sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.” In theory, this ordinance could be applied to limit sleeping or camping in public parks, at least to some degree. In fact, that has not been the manner in which the ordinance has been applied in recent years as the result of judicial intervention. In fact, a court ruled over 10 years ago that the city and county must permit people to sleep on sidewalks and in other public areas from 9:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. until 1,250 new units of supportive housing are built. The Mayor of Los Angeles contends that has now occurred. Advocates for the homeless argue this has not occurred. Thus, the enforcement of this ordinance, at least as it pertains to sidewalks, is in a state of uncertainty.

Ordinances currently permit a homeless person the ability to pitch a tent on a sidewalk under certain circumstances. A tent can be placed on a sidewalk or other public space if the temperature dips to 50 degrees or lower.

Homeless Encampments

Ordinances and associated enforcement of them in Los Angeles County currently approach homeless encampments in two ways. First, ordinances permit the immediate removal of a homeless encampment on private property. Second, generally speaking, a homeless encampment will be permitted to stand on certain public properties provided it does not block a pathway or some sort or present a safety hazard.

If a homeless encampment is deemed to block a pathway or to present a safety hazard on public property, those individuals occupying the camp must be provided with 72 hours notice to remove their belongings before officials can come in and remove the items. Even if the items are removed, they must be maintained for 90 additional days to permit owners of these items an opportunity to reclaim them.

Sleeping or Living in a Car

In Los Angeles, a person legally can sleep in a car. However, “living” in a car is illegal in certain areas:

  • Overnight between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in a residential area
  • Anytime within one block of a school, daycare facility, or park

In Los Angeles, a person legally can live in a vehicle in a commercial or other non-residential zone, but not within one block of a school, daycare, or park. (As an aside, the ordinance governing living in a car is set to expire in July 2019. The city and county are said to be exploring alternatives to the existing ordinance.)

Ordinances do provide insights into what is considered “living” in a car. If one or more of these conditions exist a person can be deemed to be living in a car:

  • Possessing inside or on a vehicle items that are not associated with ordinary vehicle use, such as a sleeping bag, bedroll, blanket, sheet, pillow, kitchen utensils, cookware, cooking equipment, or bodily fluids
  • Obscuring some or all of the vehicle’s windows
  • Preparing or cooking meals inside or on a vehicle
  • Sleeping inside a vehicle

Giving Food to Homeless Individuals

One of the persistent myths throughout Los Angeles County is that it is illegal to give food to a homeless person. In fact, a person can provide food to a homeless individual and donate food to a nonprofit organization to be used to feed homeless people. If the food is donated to a nonprofit organization, Los Angeles ordinances protect a donor from liability if for some reason an individual becomes ill from eating the food.

Panhandling in Los Angeles

Ordinances in the county and in cities throughout the jurisdiction prohibit what is known as “aggressive panhandling.” Provided aggressive panhandling doesn’t occur, a homeless person can receive cash from individuals. Aggressive panhandling generally is defined as:

  • Approaching or speaking to a person, or following a person before, during or after soliciting, asking or begging, if that conduct is intended or is likely to cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm.
  • Intentionally touching or causing physical contact with another person or an occupied vehicle without that person’s consent.
  • Intentionally blocking or interfering with the safe or free passage of a pedestrian or vehicle by any means.
  • Using violent or threatening gestures toward a person solicited either before, during, or after soliciting.
  • Persisting in closely following or approaching a person, after the person solicited has been solicited.
  • Using profane, offensive, or abusive language which is inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction, either before, during, or after solicitation.

Loitering in Los Angeles County

Loitering laws historically were means of severely restricting where homeless individuals could congregate. These laws oftentimes were said to “make homelessness a crime.” In recent years, as the result of court decisions, loitering laws have been altered to eliminate what appeared to be an intent to sanction homeless people. Loitering ordinances in the greater Los Angeles area have been replicated in other jurisdictions in Southern California. Loitering in Los Angeles is prohibited as follows, pursuant to local ordinances and the state penal code:

  • In a tunnel, pedestrian subway, bridge overpass, or at or near the entrance thereto or exit therefrom, or at or near any abutment or retaining wall adjacent to such entrance or exit, or any retaining wall or abutment adjacent to any freeway, street or highway open and used for vehicular traffic
  • In a hotel, where the manager has told a person to leave
  • In an airport, at a bus stop, or in a train station
  • In a public bathroom with the intent to have sex with someone

Homeless Patient Dumping

Over the course of the past decade, the “dumping” of homeless patients by some hospitals in the greater Los Angeles area has been an issue. Patient dumping is now prohibited by ordinance throughout Los Angeles County. In a nutshell, patient dumping is releasing a patient to the streets after treatment or transporting a patient without that individual’s express consent to a sector of the city or county where homeless individuals are thought to congregate.

Orange County Ordinances Impacting Homelessness

Orange County has an ordinance scheme quite like what is in place in Los Angeles County. With that said, and as was noted, the manner of enforcement must be considered in addition to ordinances on the books. There is a particular distinction between enforcement in Los Angeles County and in Orange County.

Orange County, one or the wealthiest not only in California but in the country, has a homeless population hovering at about 5,000 people on any given night. In 2018, Orange County initiated a markedly aggressive program to eliminate homeless encampments and camping by homeless people more generally in the county.

Orange County currently has 250 beds in shelters and a significant dearth in affordable housing units. Thus, beyond leaving the county all together, homeless individuals have few options at the present time than to live out of doors and in other non-residential spaces, including congregating in encampments.

In 2018, Orange County targeted a homeless encampment in a dry riverbed several miles from Disneyworld. Upwards to 1,000 people, or 20 percent of the county’s homeless population, was thought to reside in the encampment. These efforts even garnered the attention and condemnation of the United Nations, through the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing.

Despite the uprooting of the homeless population, housed residences of the area expressed what many deemed to be justifiable concerns associated with the massive encampment. The encampment fairly could be said to be a significant source of crimes being committed in the surrounding area. In addition, the sanitary conditions presented by the encampment presented a health hazard.

This massive homeless encampment is said to have arisen in the first instance because stricter ordinances in the various cities making up Orange County forced people without homes from those jurisdictions. In other words, although the ordinances of Orange County are not vastly different from what exist in Los Angeles, the level of enforcement in the cities comprising Orange County, and in the county itself, is notable more stringent.

Riverside County Ordinances Impacting Homelessness

Riverside County has an ordinance scheme impacting the homeless population that is akin to that found in Los Angeles. In addition, unlike what was discussed in regard to Orange County, ordinances in Riverside are being enforced in a manner that also is akin to the approach in Los Angeles.

Riverside County records about 2,400 homeless people in county. In 2018, Riverside launched its Ending Homelessness in Riverside County initiative, a comprehensive 23-part program to end homelessness in the county through:

  • Prevention
  • Collaboration and coordination
  • Rapid housing placement

One area in which Riverside County has been more lenient than Los Angeles County, and certainly Orange County, in addressing the needs of the homeless population is by making zoning changes in different locations in the county. These zoning changes are designed to open certain sectors of communities in the county to emergency, transitional, and supportive housing for homeless people.

San Bernardino County Ordinances Impacting Homelessness

Overall, the scheme of ordinances in place in San Bernardino County is akin to what is found in Los Angeles County. Indeed, San Bernardino County has been following the same course in regard to enforcement (or non-enforcement) of certain existing ordinances as they impact the homeless population based on the previously referenced court decision. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of that court decision, San Bernardino County enacted an ordinance that established the San Bernardino County Homeless Partnership. The Partnership consists of a variety of stakeholders and principals, including:

  • San Bernardino County Government
  • Municipal governments in San Bernardino County
  • Community organizations
  • Faith-based organizations
  • Educational institutions
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Private businesses
  • Federal governmental agencies
  • State governmental agencies

San Diego County Ordinances Impacting Homelessness

2019 marked a significant transition in ordinances in San Diego impacting the homeless population. Although the immediate changes in ordinances impacting the homeless population apply only to the City of San Diego at this juncture, they are expected to be replicated by other cities in the county in the relatively immediate future.

San Diego, and other cities in the county, maintained ordinances that made it illegal for people to live in their vehicles. The reality has been that a significant percentage of homeless people in the county have been forced to live in their vehicles. As a consequence, they faced fines for finding shelter in this manner.

The San Diego City Council enacted an ordinance in February 2019 permitting people to live in their cars, an ordinance that mirrors what is on the books in Los Angeles. The ordinance followed a federal court order in 2018 that enjoined the city from enforcing its law penalizing people for living in their vehicles.

With this modification in the law, the largest population center in San Diego County now has an overall ordinance structure associated with the homeless population that is akin to what is found in Los Angeles. Other individual cities in San Diego County are expected to follow suit either later in 2019 or sometime in 2020.

Santa Barbara County Ordinances Impacting Homelessness

Of all Southern California Counties, Santa Barbara County fairly can be said to be on the steadiest trajectory to making a significant cut in its homeless population over the course of the coming decade. The county has a homeless population of approximately 1,500 people. Indeed, the county has enacted ordinances and partnered with a variety of other stakeholders to develop an action plan that has a realistic chance of eliminating chronic homelessness in the county well within the coming decade.

With that background noted, Santa Barbara County has maintained and enforced ordinances in a manner that provides a bit more leniency to the homeless population in that county than what is found in Los Angeles. With a significantly smaller homeless population, and a solid set of resources in the county to assist in the development of long-term housing solutions, the county is able to be more flexible in addressing the needs of the homeless population without imposing what homeless advocates contend are unnecessarily restrictive if not punitive ordinances and enforcement schemes (like what arguable is being seen in Orange County today).

Ventura County Ordinances Impacting Homelessness

Like Santa Barbara County, Ventura County has a homeless population at about 1,500 people. The county has developed a comprehensive initiative, involving multiple stakeholders, designed to eliminate chronic homelessness in the coming decade.

Exiting ordinances in Ventura County, and the manner of their enforcement, is akin to what is seen in Los Angeles County at this juncture in time. The City of Ventura has lead the way in the county more generally when it comes to ordinances in effect and associated enforcement schemes, as enumerated by the Safe and Clean Public Spaces Initiative. Through the initiative, Ventura is striving to strike a balance between the needs of the homeless population and those of housed residences as well.

In the final analysis, Southern California counties find themselves faced with the needs of their homeless populations as well as the legitimated demands of housed residents in their jurisdictions as well. This reality has resulted in an ongoing endeavor to achieve balance, safety, and fairness in ordinances and associated enforcement.