Having lost her job and her three-bedroom house, Darlene Knoll has joined the legions of downwardly mobile who are four wheels away from homelessness.
She is living out of her shabby 1978 RV, and every night she has to look for a place to park where she won't get hassled by the cops or insulted by residents.
"I'm not a piece of trash," the former home health-care aide said as she stroked one of five dogs in her cramped quarters parked in the waterfront community of Marina del Rey.
Amid the foreclosure crisis and the shaky economy, some California cities are seeing an increase in the number of people living out of their cars, vans or RVs.
Overnight parking restrictions
Acting on complaints from homeowners, the Los Angeles City Council got tough earlier this year by forbidding nearly all overnight parking in residential neighborhoods such as South Brentwood.
But some people are just crowding into other parts of the city, including the seaside community of Venice, where dozens of rusty, dilapidated campers can be seen lined up outside neat single-family homes. The stench of urine emanates from a few of the vehicles, and some residents say they have seen human waste left behind.
"They're nasty and gnarly," said Venice resident Jeff Scharlin. "We've heard about drug dealing and prostitution in them. I've never seen it, but visually they're a blight and they take up parking space."
In Los Angeles, as in many other cities, it is illegal to live in vehicles on public streets. But the law is not easy to enforce. Police have to enter a vehicle to find signs that people are living there, such as cooking or sleeping, and occupants often refuse to answer when cops knock.
An easier way is to restrict overnight parking. In L.A., a first offense carries a $50 fine, and subsequent violations can cost as much as $100.
Parking-enforcement officers often give vehicle owners a warning and tell them to move on before issuing a ticket, and that usually solves the problem, said Alan Willis, a city transportation engineer. But other cities in the area are not as lenient.
"I had my motor home towed in Culver City. It cost me $500 to get it out," said Desiri Hawkins, who lives in a small RV in Venice. "I got ticketed in Santa Monica and had to go to court."
Magnets for homeless
Tourist states with temperate climates, such as California and Florida, have long been magnets for the homeless. Los Angeles is the nation's homelessness capital, with an estimated 73,000 people on the streets. A survey of 3,230 homeless people last year in Los Angeles County found nearly 7 percent living in vehicles, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
"It's trending toward an increase," said Michael Stoop, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "People would rather live in a vehicle than wind up in a shelter, and you can't stay on a friend's couch forever."
People living out of their cars or campers tend to be more well-off than the homeless on the street. They usually have jobs or disability checks that enable them to maintain an old camper but do not allow them to afford rent.
"For more working-class and lower-middle-class people, the car is the first stop of being homeless, and sometimes it turns out to be a long stop," said Gary Blasi, a University of California, Los Angeles, law professor and activist on homeless issues.
Some Venice residents are clamoring for overnight parking restrictions. But parking limits in oceanfront neighborhoods are problematic because the California Coastal Commission requires communities to accommodate surfers, fishermen and other early-morning beachgoers.
"The complaints are getting louder and louder," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl.
Other cities make accommodations
For years, some cities such as Santa Barbara, Calif., and Eugene, Ore., have accommodated people who live out of their vehicles. Activists in Venice are looking at some of those ideas. Santa Barbara, for example, allows vehicles to stay from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. in church and city parking lots.
Knoll said she can barely afford to drive around with the rising price of gasoline eating away at the $950 monthly disability check she receives because of mental illness.
She said she is also sick of police waking her up in the wee hours by pounding on her vehicle with their nightsticks, and she is tired of fighting with residents who call her "lowlife scum" and hurl other insults.
"We need somewhere we can have a safe haven, where we won't be harassed," Knoll said as the wind from a passing car rocked her RV. "I never thought I'd be living like this, but I'm stuck. This is it for me."