For many, an RV seems like the perfect choice for a weekend getaway or a cross-country road trip — that is, for those who have the privilege and status to enjoy those luxuries. For others, it’s the only way to keep the lights on at night and have a roof over their head.
The Oversized Vehicle Ordinance (OVO) was passed by the Santa Cruz City Council through a 5-2 vote on Nov. 9, 2021. The ordinance prohibits the parking of oversized vehicles –– defined as vehicles over 20 feet long, or over eight feet tall and seven feet wide –– on public city streets from 12 a.m to 5 a.m. It further prohibits vehicles from having utility connections such as water, gas, and electrical as well as having neighboring open fires.
While the ordinance allows residents to purchase permits for their oversized vehicles adjacent to their residence, the ordinance significantly discriminates against houseless individuals who are unable to obtain permits because of their lack of permanent residence.
Proponents of the OVO laud the environmental benefits of the law, arguing that it would reduce trash and other damages created by oversized vehicles such as drug paraphernalia and human waste while also addressing crime.
Individuals who sleep in their vehicles often do so due to a lack of affordable housing, in addition to seeking more privacy and stability than encampments, shelters, and tents can offer.
These aspects of the ordinance disguise the fact that it criminalizes those living in the vehicles and implies that houselessness is inherently criminal. Failing to address the systematic shortcomings of the city’s response to the houseless community’s needs, these claims also lead to misrepresentation and further discrimination against the houseless community.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agrees with this notion. As first reported by The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the ACLU filed an appeal on Jan. 24 to have the OVO and associated Coastal Permits rescinded, arguing that the ordinance violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
“There are not enough adequate shelters, housing, or safe parking for the unhoused in the City,” the appeal said. “So, for many, the only place to protect oneself from the elements is to sleep or simply ‘be’ is in their vehicles.”
Santa Cruz is labeled as the least-affordable small city in the United States. Santa Cruz County has the highest per-capita rates of houselessness in California with 79.3 homeless individuals per 10,000 residents. Policing the problem will not lead to a substantial solution to houselessness in Santa Cruz, but rather hurt the population further.
According to a report from the American Public Health Association on housing and houselessness as a public health issue, criminalizing activities associated with houselessness are “not only ineffective in reducing homelessness and costly to enforce but serve as a barrier to income and housing stability.”
Despite making up nearly 2 percent of Santa Cruz’s population, houseless people have been continually mistreated, silenced, and erased by city policies designed to target their very existence. Santa Cruz houseless encampments face constant threats like systematic ‘sweeping,’ the act of city officials clearing encampments, proposals to prohibit camping, and environmental damage.
As both housing and poverty crises rage through California, and as a result of natural disasters like the Bonny Doon fire, many turn to RVs as a form of protection. Enactment of the OVO will uproot the individuals that take refuge in RVs. Rather than addressing systemic issues such as poverty and mental illness that exacerbate houselessness in Santa Cruz, the OVO is a huge slap in the face to people doing the work to get themselves into covered and private spaces with amenities that work better for them.
But even as they find solutions to their houselessness when the city won’t, the city continues with its streak of punishment, pushing the unsheltered out of sight by criminalizing and policing them.