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Friday, September 4, 2009

They Rumble Away in the Morning ...

Recently, Catherine Saillant, a Los Angeles Times writer reported on Ventura County's newest and most reluctant vagabonds – the “mobile homeless.” These are people who pass the night inside aging recreational vehicles at busy shopping mall parking lots. For privacy, they hang bed sheets in windows. They rumble away in the morning.

A knock on the door brings a barking or a wary face. They're embarrassed -- and tired of being told to move along. More than anything, they want to be left alone. "We've had some tough times," said Mike, an electrician parked with his girlfriend, Denise, in his 1973 RV at a Sam's Club in Oxnard. "We're just trying to make ends meet without getting harassed."

The couple said they've been cited by police three times for illegal overnight parking in the month since they left their Oxnard rental home after Denise lost her job as a home health aide.

Housing advocates, social workers and police in Ventura County all say they've seen an increase in the mobile homeless. Their counterparts elsewhere in California are seeing the same thing.

But municipal leaders worry about a backlash from angry residents who don't want strangers staying overnight near their homes. Business owners fear shantytowns on public and private lots.

The debate is playing out in Ventura County, where cities 12 miles apart have adopted starkly divergent policies. After hearing heated comment on both sides of the issue last month, Ventura city leaders decided that people no longer will be cited and fined $125 for sleeping in parking lots. Police in the beach town will now give a warning before issuing a citation.

In Camarillo, a 15-minute drive south on U.S. Highway 101, the reception was decidedly different. The City Council recently passed its first-ever ban on sleeping in vehicles, spurred by business owners complaining about RVs parked for days in shopping mall lots.

The city manager said it would be unfair to portray the well-tended bedroom community of Camarillo as coldhearted. "If someone is truly homeless, let us connect them to a resource that is safer than sleeping in your vehicle," Bankston said.


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