What laws must people experiencing homelessness in LA abide by?

What laws must people experiencing homelessness in LA abide by?

Published on

July 1, 2024



Min Reading

General Shelter

By Law Soup Los Angeles

Homelessness is clearly a major (and growing) problem in and around the city of Los Angeles. Laws aimed at dealing with the activities of homeless people are often called “vagrancy laws” or “anti-vagrancy laws,” or even “quality of life laws.”

Cities across the country are increasingly passing and enforcing these laws, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which some people consider “criminalizing” homelessness. However, a recent court ruling says that cities cannot prosecute homeless people for sleeping on the streets when there is not enough shelter for them.

Other cities are taking an alternative approach focusing on helping homeless get off the streets, and many cities, like Los Angeles, are doing a mix of helping and penalizing. Even within LA County, each city has various approaches to laws related to homelessness which would be quite difficult to cover, so here we focus mostly on laws within the city of LA.

1. Getting Help

How can a homeless person get help and resources?

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) website has a list of resources, including shelter, mental health services, and much more. You can also call them at 800-548-6047, or simply dial 211 and follow the prompts.

2. Shelter

Do people have a legal right to shelter?

In California there is no legal right to shelter, which means the government is not required to provide a place to sleep for every individual who needs one. However, if the government does NOT provide enough shelters, it may NOT prevent people from sleeping on the streets at night.

Some lawmakers are looking to create a right to shelter, as New York has. California lawmakers are also considering going even further with potentially a requirement for homeless people to accept the shelter.

Are homeless people required to go into shelters?

No, but lawmakers are considering implementing this requirement.

3. Private Property

Are homeless people allowed on private property?

While the laws have been relaxed in terms of sleeping on the streets or in a car (see below), these laws do NOT apply to private property. That is, if any person (homeless or not) is on private property without permission of the owner, this is considered trespass.

4. Sleeping and Living in a Vehicle

Is it illegal to sleep or live in your car in Los Angeles?

There is no law against simply sleeping in a car in Los Angeles. However, it is currently illegal to “dwell” or live in a vehicle in certain areas of Los Angeles.

In the city of Los Angeles, it is illegal to live in a vehicle:

  • Overnight (9p – 6a) in residential areas, or
  • Any time within 1 block of a park, school, or daycare facility

However, it is legal to live in your car in commercial or other areas that are NOT within 1 block of a park, school, or daycare facility. (Of course, general parking restrictions still apply)

For more information on exactly where it is OK to live in a vehicle, see the Los Angeles City page on vehicle dwelling.

The law was set to expire in January 2020, but the city council extended it in May 2022. See the full text of the ordinance on vehicle dwelling.

Also note that you can’t leave your car in the same spot on a public street for more than 3 days (72 hours) at a time.

What is defined as living in a vehicle?

Dwelling means more than one of the following activities and when it reasonably appears, in light of all the circumstances, that a person is using a vehicle as a place of residence or accommodation:

  • 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, bodily fluids.
  • Obscuring some or all of the vehicle’s windows.
  • Preparing or cooking meals inside or on a vehicle.
  • Sleeping inside a vehicle.

What is the penalty for living in a vehicle?

Violations of this law are considered “infractions” (non criminal), with low fines: First violation is $25. Second violation $50 and all subsequent violations $75. Violators may be eligible for referral to a prosecutorial-led diversion program such as the Homeless Engagement and Response Team (HEART).

Are homeless people allowed to park their RVs on the street?

The same rules about RV parking apply to everyone, homeless or not. See a Guide to Oversize Vehicle Parking.

5. Being on the Sidewalk or Street

Is it illegal to block the sidewalk?

Yes. See a Guide to Public Spaces.

Is it illegal to sit, sleep, or “camp” on the sidewalk?

The “sidewalk camping ban” or “sit/lie” ban was recently revised by the Los Angeles City Council in August 2021. In general, it is illegal to “obstruct a street, sidewalk or other public right of way by sitting, lying or sleeping, or by storing, using, maintaining, or placing personal property in a manner that impedes passage.” In other words, a homeless person (or anyone else for that matter) may not take up so much space that they make it difficult or impossible for people to pass through that area.

More specifically, this also applies to the following areas:

  • Within 10 feet of any operational or utilizable driveway or loading dock
  • Within 5 feet of any operational or utilizable building entrance or exit
  • Within 2 feet of any fire hydrant, fire plug, or other fire department connection
  • Bike paths or lanes

And even where a homeless person is NOT blocking a path, in city-council designated areas, it is illegal to “sit, lie, sleep, or store, use, maintain, or place personal property, in or upon any street, sidewalk, or other public right-of-way within the distance stated on the posted signage” of certain property, including:

  • Property designated as a sensitive use (Max 500 feet): Sensitive use includes schools, day care centers, public parks, and public libraries.
  • An overpass, underpass, freeway ramp, tunnel, bridge, pedestrian bridge, subway, wash, spreading ground, or active railway (Max 500 feet)
  • Facilities opened after 2017 that provide shelter, safe sleeping, or safe parking to homeless persons, or that serves as a homeless services navigation center (Max 1000 feet)

In these areas, the city council must specifically designate the locations by name. So far they have listed 54 spots to enforce.

Can a private citizen or business prevent or remove an encampment?

If an encampment is on private property, the owner may consider this trespassing. The owner of the property has the right to remove the encampment or to set up any barriers or other methods to prevent encampments. However, it is illegal to inflict harm on the trespassers or damage their belongings.

If an encampment is on public property, such as the sidewalk, generally only the city may remove the encampment or set up barriers. Sometimes private businesses or residents set up large planters, fences, or walls on the sidewalk, but this is usually illegal unless they get a permit from the city.

What about Jones v. City of Los Angeles?

A court ruling in 2007 said that the city of LA must allow people to sleep on the sidewalk from 9pm to 6am until an additional 1,250 units of supportive housing are built. The court said that if you arrest people for sleeping on the street, but there is no shelter or housing for them to go to, you are essentially just criminalizing being homeless. However, the city believes enough housing has been built so that it can begin enforcing the ban on sleeping on the sidewalk. Others dispute that enough housing has been built, so it remains to be seen if the city will actually be able to continue enforcement.

Is it illegal to sit or stand in other public places?

You can’t sit or stand on or at the entrance of any church, hall, theater or other place of public assemblage in any manner so as to obstruct such entrance.

What is loitering and is it illegal?

Loitering is defined as hanging around without any particular purpose, and it is illegal in certain circumstances. See a Guide to Public Spaces.

Tents and Other Stuff on the Street

Is it legal to store things on the street?

You may have things on the street or sidewalk or other public area that can fit into a 60 gallon container, and only if you are present with the items. But items cannot block any path of a sidewalk or street, or be a hazard to others. And you must move your things for maintenance or cleanings.

It is NOT legal to maintain any large items that cannot fit into a 60 gallon container (except for bicycles, walkers, crutches or wheelchairs) on the street or sidewalk or other public area, including a mattress, couch, chair, other furniture or appliance, or any other “bulky items.”

It is NOT legal to leave any personal items unattended, whether large or small, in a public area. You also may not leave any trash or waste in a public area, as this is considered littering or “illegal dumping.”

Are tents on the street illegal?

Having a tent up on a street, sidewalk, or other public area is illegal from 6am to 9pm, unless it is raining or below 50 degrees. But tents can never block a path or present a safety hazard.

Are structures on the street illegal?

Yes, any shed or other structure on a street or sidewalk or other public area is generally illegal. If the structure is used as a shelter, the owner of the shelter must be given at least 24 hours notice before it is taken down (which must be completed within 72 hours), unless it blocks a path or presents a hazard. Otherwise it can be removed immediately.

What are the police allowed to do with the belongings of homeless people?

In the city of LA, officials need to give a person at least 24-hour notice before confiscating the person’s stuff illegally kept on the street (which must be completed within 72 hours). However if any of the stuff is property that threatens public health or safety, or consists of contraband or evidence of a crime, blocks a path, or is otherwise a hazard, police may remove it immediately without notice. Before destroying anything, the city must hold any possessions for 90 days to allow a person to claim them.

In particular for the Skid Row area in Downtown Los Angeles, before seizing any homeless person’s property, police must have an “objectively reasonable belief” that the items are abandoned, threaten public health or safety, or are contraband or evidence of a crime. And any medications and blankets or other sleeping items removed must be accessible within 24 hours after seizure. These additional burdens were created by a judge and then a settlement approved by the City Council, based on a lawsuit brought by homeless advocates. The lawsuit claimed that the property rights and other constitutional rights of homeless individuals are violated when police summarily remove medications and other items necessary for their survival. See more at the LA City Attorney page on homelessness and Guide to Police Conduct.

7. Donating Food

Is it illegal to donate food to a nonprofit (or could I be sued for it)?

NO! In fact, laws protect you from liability if you donate food to a non-profit and it later causes harm to someone who handles or eats it, as long as you did not intend to do any harm.

8. Soliciting or Begging

Is it illegal to ask or beg for money?

It is illegal to “aggressively” solicit, ask or beg for anything in a public place. This is often referred to, appropriately, as “aggressive solicitation.”

“Aggressive manner” means any of the following:

  • 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 to oneself or to another, damage to or loss of property, or otherwise be intimidated into giving money or other thing of value;
  • Intentionally touching or causing physical contact with another person or an occupied vehicle without that person’s consent in the course of soliciting, asking or begging;
  • Intentionally blocking or interfering with the safe or free passage of a pedestrian or vehicle by any means, including unreasonably causing a pedestrian or vehicle operator to take evasive action to avoid physical contact;
  • Using violent or threatening gestures toward a person solicited either before, during, or after soliciting, asking or begging;
  • Persisting in closely following or approaching a person, after the person solicited has been solicited and informed the solicitor by words or conduct that such person does not want to be solicited or does not want to give money or any other thing of value to the solicitor; or
  • Using profane, offensive or abusive language which is inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction, either before, during, or after solicitation.

Also, all solicitation is prohibited at these specified locations:

  • Banks and ATMs – within 15 feet of any entrance or exit of any bank, ATM, savings and loan association, credit union, or check cashing business during its business hours
  • Parking lot after dark
  • Public transportation

The penalty is infraction or misdemeanor, at the City Attorney’s discretion.

9. “Dumping” a Homeless Person

Is it illegal for a hospital to drop a homeless person on the street or at a shelter, or a different hospital?

This is often called “patient dumping” and it is illegal. In general, a health facility may not transport a patient to a location other than the patient’s residence without the written consent of either the patient or the patient’s legal representative (usually family). If the patient has no residence, then the hospital must transport the patient to the location the patient gives as his or her primary dwelling place. The Los Angeles City Attorney is cracking down on this practice.

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