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Dawn Zrinski once was a homeowner and a small business owner, operating a small machine shop in Anaheim with her husband.
Then, Zrinski fell ill. She needed multiple surgeries. Her husband had a stroke, and couldn’t work while he was recovering.
Gone were their home in the Inland Empire, and the business. Zrinski moved into her storage unit, eventually scraping up the money to buy a used recreational vehicle.
For the past three years, Zrinksi, 47, and her now 18-year-old daughter and three dogs have called a 36-foot RV, and the curb along Dupont Street, a quiet Anaheim industrial neighborhood near Angel Stadium, their home.
Despite working two jobs cleaning an animal kennel and housecleaning, she struggles to save enough for a deposit on an apartment. Her husband, who now works in construction, lives in his car near job sites.
“This could be your daughter or your son – you can be sick and lose everything. I didn’t wake up one day and think, ‘I’m going to live in an RV with my daughter on the street,’” Zrinski said. “It’s not fun.”
Next month, the city of Anaheim is expected to begin enforcing a new ban on parking oversized vehicles on city streets, becoming one of the last Orange County cities to do so. According to a city staff report, only two Orange County cities do not have similar restrictions on parking oversized vehicles.
The new law has sparked fears among RV dwellers about how soon they will be required to leave the city and whether there are any safe, free places left to park in the county.
The oversized vehicle ban passed earlier this year as part of a larger overhaul of the city’s residential permit parking program. In many impacted neighborhoods, especially near apartments, residents complain about scarce street parking, trash and conflicts with neighbors over parking.
Homeowners also have complained about the proliferation of recreational vehicles parking in their neighborhoods, saying large RVs obstruct their view of the street and take up valuable parking spaces in their neighborhood.
Once the City Council creates penalties for violating the ban – a vote is expected at their July 17 meeting – the city will be able to begin issuing tickets and towing vehicles.
Nancy Van, who declined to give her entire last name citing privacy concerns, has parked her RV on Dupont Street for seven years. After a divorce and injury, Van became homeless for several years, couch surfing and staying in shelters. When her father died, Van received a small inheritance that allowed her to purchased a used RV, which she has parked on Dupont Street.
Van has no income and collects bottles and cans, often in the parking lot of Angel Stadium, for cash. She relies on food banks and, for several years, cooked out of her RV to feed homeless people at nearby parks.
Several brooms rest against the side of her vehicle, which she uses to sweep up leaves and trash along the entire street. Van said she watches the street, polices parking problems and does small tasks for local business owners to maintain a good relationship.
“You don’t park in front of a business or in front of [their] window. They pay money to be there,” said Van, reciting the “proper RV etiquette” that she follows to avoid disrupting the neighborhood where she parks. “We park along empty fences, we try not to park next to other RVs.”
Van acknowledges that some people live in RVs by choice, not necessity, but said she believes it’s a “constitutional right” for her to park on a public street as long as she’s not a nuisance. She argues that most people living in RVs try not to bother others, and the oversized vehicle ban has been pushed by people who simply don’t like the sight of an RV on the street.
“There are people who just hate RVs and they’ll come after us,” Van said.
The city says it will enforce the parking ban much like it has enforced its anti-camping ordinance, a law which allows the city to ticket and seize the belongings of people who camp in public spaces.
“We have been proactively reaching out to folks who may be impacted. RVs are part of this, but this could be trucks or cars for sale,” said city spokesman Mike Lyster.
Lyster said until the city council votes to create the penalties for violating the parking ban this month, oversized vehicles only will receive warnings; once the fees are approved, people could receive tickets of up to $79 or have their vehicles towed.
But given the number of people who rely on their RVs for shelter, Lyster said the law will be enforced selectively, and police will have the discretion to decide who should be ticketed and who would benefit from services for the homeless.
“If you’re talking about people who have no other place to go, enforcement is never going to be the answer to the problem,” Lyster said. “If it’s a small street and there’s a significant amount of issues where vehicles on that street are impacting other people, then we could have to address it in terms of having people relocate, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t keep working with them.”
CityNet, a nonprofit contracted by the city to do homeless outreach and connect people to shelter and services, has accompanied police officers and city workers to offer resources to people living in RVs.
“The street was never meant to be a place for people to live on,” Lyster said. “The streets are there first for transportation, secondarily, for public parking, which is kind of the crux of this issue. We’re trying to preserve a very scarce public resource.”
But Van said many people have been offered bus passes and spots in shelters by CityNet workers, unrealistic solutions for people who already consider their RVs as their homes.
“Why would I go back to a shelter when I have my RV? That’s like the last resort,” Van said.
Many RV parks only allow vehicles from the year 2000 or newer to stay long-term, meaning people like Zrinski – whose RV dates to 1989 – don’t have the option of moving into a park.
Even so, Zrinski said the weekly rent at many local RV parks is just as infeasible as an apartment, starting at $300 a week.
Zrinksi was able to qualify for financial assistance from the nonprofit Mercy House to pay for her deposit to move into an apartment, but said she has had difficulty finding an apartment that is both affordable and livable.
“I’ve been looking for a couple of months and every single place I’ve found is cockroach infested. I have such a fear of them,” Zrinski said. Others would not accept her pets, including one which is a registered service dog.
In another corner of town, at least thirteen RVs regularly park on Medical Center Drive, a street sandwiched between a car dealership, homes and a medical office complex.
Nancy Davis, 61, bought her RV last year after 4 ½ years of homelessness. Davis worked as a card dealer in Nevada until an injury required her to leave her job.
So she headed to California with her friend, who sought to find a nursing job. At first Davis slept on that friend’s couch, and later, in that friend’s car, which was so packed with belongings that she only had room to sleep in the driver’s seat.
Davis lived at the Friendship Shelter in Laguna Beach for more than a year, until she had quadruple bypass heart surgery in September 2017 and was asked to leave, because the facility does not have medical staff to accommodate her needs.
After the surgery, Davis received four months in disability back pay, money which she used to buy a used car and her RV. She receives roughly $1,000 in monthly income from disability and social security.
“I thought it would be cheaper than an apartment, but 25-year-old RVs need a lot of maintenance,” Davis said.
She describes the cluster of RVs on Medical Center Drive as a tight-knit neighborhood where people look out for one another and make sure the area is kept clean.
One of her neighbors, a 45-year-old woman named Shawndra with terminal, stage four cancer, lives on the street because she receives chemotherapy in the nearby medical complex.
Shawndra, who did not give a last name, receives $648 a month in disability pay and cannot work because of her illness. Like Davis, she purchased her used RV with money from disability backpay.
Davis moves her RV once every three days to avoid a ticket, and largely relies on solar power for electricity. She, and many others on Medical Center Drive, said they can’t afford the gasoline to move their RVs more frequently, and fears the new ban will mean they have to give up their vehicles altogether.
“$100 doesn’t even fill up my tank half way,” Davis said. “I’ve never filled it.”
Since her heart surgery, Davis has suffered complications and continues to feel stabbing pains in her chest when she coughs, sneezes or moves. Davis and Shawndra both say they have considered leaving Orange County to find a cheaper RV park, but because of their ongoing health problems, are staying in the area to continue receiving treatment and not change doctors.
Daniel Duarte, 50, works full time as a security guard and said he moved into an RV two years ago after he could no longer afford to pay rent. He also lives on Medical Center Drive in a vehicle from 1982.
“Most of my life I had a rental place. I work, but I’m down on my luck,” Duarte said. “I’m saddened and concerned [about the new law]. I don’t see the reason behind this.”
Although the city has shown no signs of slowing its plans to enforce the oversized vehicle ban, councilmembers have requested a staff report on using vacant properties as possible “safe parking” lots for people living in their cars or RVs. That report could come before the council as early as August.
In 2004, a nonprofit in the city of Santa Barbara launched small overnight parking lots across the city for homeless people living in cars.
The city of Los Angeles recently started a pilot safe parking program, but the initiative has been slow to get off the ground.
In Fullerton, St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church and the nonprofit Illumination Foundation are proposing a small 20-spot safe parking program in the church parking lot, although that project would not allow recreational vehicles, according to the Orange County Register.
Davis, who is part of a club for RV travelers, had hoped her health would improve enough after the surgery so she can travel.
“I got this with the dream of traveling – there are groups of older women who are RVer’s,” Davis said. “This seemed like I was going to be in full-time happy town.”
But since the vehicle ban passed, Davis said she has been overwhelmed by the stress of losing her RV and her only home.
“The possibility of them towing it is very real. I brought my house outright, it just happens to have wheels,” Davis said. “I do not consider myself homeless.”
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.
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