(August 30, 2021, Washington, D.C.) – Last Friday, legal organizations in California and Washington joined to protect the constitutional rights of people living in vehicles by filing a brief as amici curiae with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Potter v. City of Lacey.
The federal lawsuit challenges a City of Lacey, Washington law that prohibits parking recreational vehicles for more than four hours each day and authorizing the immediate tow and impoundment of the vehicle homes as punishment. The law was passed—along with other anti-camping measures designed to force people without permanent housing out of the city—in violation of constitutional and human rights.
The National Homelessness Law Center (the Law Center), Disability Rights California, Disability Rights Advocates, ACLU-Washington, ACLU-California, and Columbia Legal Services submitted a brief in support of Potter’s appeal, highlighting the growing problem of anti-homeless laws aimed at people living in vehicles. Despite being a rapidly growing population of people priced out of the housing market, laws punishing homelessness are pervasive.
Data from the Law Center’s Housing Not Handcuffs 2019 report found that half of U.S. cities have at least one law prohibiting living in vehicles, even when vehicles are a person’s best or only option for shelter. The report also found that laws punishing living in vehicles, which can result in permanent loss of the vehicle home to tow and impoundment, are the fastest growing category of anti-homeless law in the nation.
These have the purpose and effect of kicking people who live in vehicles out of town, even when vehicles offer the most secure, stable, and dignified shelter available to people who have been priced out of the traditional housing market. “Exclusion of individuals and discrimination are not valid government interests” amici argue. “There exists a long, inglorious history of governments, both federal and local, pursuing policies of exclusion, and nearly all such attempts have been shut down by the courts.”
Laws punishing living in vehicles violate multiple constitutional rights, including the right to travel and be free from excessive punishment, and particularly affect people of color and people with disabilities who are overrepresented in the homeless population.
“Enforcement of these laws leave people living in vehicles at constant risk of losing their best, or only, available option for shelter,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the Law Center. “Without their vehicles, people experiencing homelessness will end up unsheltered on the streets, adding to an already dire encampment crisis.”
“It is cruel and unconstitutional to pass laws that target, harass, or otherwise make achieving stability impossible for people living in vehicular homes,” said John Do, Staff Attorney for the Racial & Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California. “A mere parking violation should never result in someone losing their home, mode of transportation, and all of their belongings. This approach effectively increases the number of people living unsheltered on the street and is antithetical to what the City of Lacey should be doing to help people navigate dueling crises: a global pandemic and severe shortage of affordable housing.”
The amicus brief was prepared with the assistance of the pro bono law firm, Alston & Bird. Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled.
The National Homelessness Law Center (the Law Center) is the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to prevent and end homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education.