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Santa Monica Homeless Woman at Center of Key Circuit Court Ruling

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By Daniel Larios
Staff Writer

June 23, 2014 – In 2010, Patricia Warivonchik was one of 53 homeless individuals living in their vehicle in Santa Monica.  Little did she know when she took a short drive through Venice on November 13 that she would be one of four plaintiffs who on Thursday successfully overturned a Los Angeles law prohibiting the homeless from living in their cars.

The United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ three judge panel ruled that the law, which has been in the books since 1983, violated the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal treatment.

"For many homeless persons, their automobile may be their last major possession -- the means by which they can look for work and seek social services,” Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in the opinion.

“The City of Los Angeles has many options at its disposal to alleviate the plight and suffering of its homeless citizens. Selectively preventing the homeless and the poor from using their vehicles for activities many other citizens also conduct in their cars should not be one of those options."

According to the court ruling, on the day she was cited by LAPD, Warivonchik was driving through Venice on her way to sell her ceramic artwork at a local fair when Officer Randy Yoshioka and his partner pulled her over for failing to turn off her left blinker.

During the stop, Yoshioka and his partner issued a written warning for violating the LA ordinance banning individuals from living in their vehicles.  They also threatened to arrest her next time they saw her in Venice.

An epileptic who could no longer afford to pay rent in Venice, Warivonchik has been sleeping in her RV at a local Santa Monica church at night.

"The court's ruling strikes down an egregious city law that essentially makes it impossible for people who have lost their homes but still have their vehicles to survive in the City of Los Angeles," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

The four plaintiffs successfully appealed the decision from a lower district court that originally ruled in favor of the city in 2011. LA City Attorney Mike Feuer has said he will not be appealing the decision to the Supreme Court.

Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the Law Center, believes there are plenty of options other than “criminalizing homelessness.”

"Living in a car or other vehicle is certainly not a long-term solution to homelessness, but the City has many other means at its disposal to address the problem,” Bauman said. “Ensuring sufficient affordable housing for all should be the City's top priority, not criminalizing homelessness."

Santa Monica currently does not have a law prohibiting people from sleeping in their vehicles, according to the City Attorney’s Office.

Of the 742 homeless individuals counted during this year’s homeless census in Santa Monica, 57 were sleeping in their vehicles, down from 64 the previous year. (“Downtown Santa Monica Sees Major Decline in Overnight Homeless Population, Annual Count Shows,” February 25, 2014)

Officials at the Ocean Park Community Center, Santa Monica’s largest social service agency, attribute the relatively small number of homeless living in their cars to the city’s extensive programs that cater to the homeless.

In February, the City’s annual homeless count showed that more than half of the city’s homeless  -- 396 – were staying in shelters.

Los Angeles isn’t the only city affected by the ruling.

The Palo Alto City Council passed a similar measure in August. City officials had planned to enforce the ordinance in February but instead put it on hold until at least next year to await the outcome of the case.

According to Carol Sobel, the attorney for the plaintiffs, the ruling would also affect other communities that were considering their own vehicle-occupation measures in response to the Palo Alto and Los Angeles ordinances.

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