The Legal Issues of Sleeping in a Car

by | Oct 1, 2020 | Formation, Homelessness, Reflections

Between the streets and a car, the choice is simple. But is it legal?

Here is another example of something I never gave much thought to.

Living in vehicles is quite different if you are a retiree enjoying your golden years or if you are homeless. At some level I knew that. But at another level, I did not think of the legal issue

Aside from the cramped space and lack of proper facilities, those who live in their vehicles also have to worry about the legality of their lifestyle – something that is frequently in flux as laws change.

Insights offered by Kayla Robbins 

A crucial determining factor is where you’re parking your car.

Parking on Private Property with Permission

Sleeping in your car is perfectly legal if it’s parked on property you own or if you’re parked on someone else’s property with their permission, like in the driveway of a friend.

Things get trickier from there.

If you can, it’s always best to ask permission first, since the owner of the lot can have you removed by police if they’re so inclined. The legality of it depends entirely on the continued permission of the lot owner, which can change in a moment, turning your attempt at shuteye into an act of trespassing.

If this does happen, the best-case scenario is you’ll be awoken by a knock on your window and told to move along and find a new place to park for the night. You may be ticketed, forcibly removed from the premises, or worse, depending on the situation.

Safe Parking Programs

Some people have seen the need for safe parking places for people living out of their cars. In Los Angeles, LAHSA has instituted a new program called Safe Parking LA that provides safe, patrolled parking spots that can be used overnight. Safe Parking LA also provides access to bathroom facilities and social services.

Vehicle Vagrancy

Even if you’re careful where you park, living in your vehicle may still be illegal in certain cities. In fact, bans on sleeping in vehicles increased by 119% in just three years, with 81 cities joining in. These policies are cruel and push people out of their cars and onto the street, which helps no one. You can hear a firsthand account of this from Sandy.

Luckily, some cities have recently rethought that policy, a trend that will hopefully continue.

Cities without bans may not necessarily be kind to vehicle dwellers, though. Some just get more creative by punishing people for indecent exposure if they change clothes inside their cars or using anti-loitering laws to fine people who stay in one place for too long.

Compassion for Vehicle Dwellers Costs Little

Just like other types of homelessness, vehicle dwellers face an uphill battle against the powers that be. Even in places where living in a vehicle is legal, authorities can make trouble if they want to.

Safe parking lots are a welcome compromise to give vehicle dwellers a safe place to park overnight for as long as they need them. They should be implemented more widely. Maybe you could campaign for one in your city?

Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. Learn more about her. 

Thanks also to Invisible People for being the “bighearted brand” and publishing her.