Sleeping in Your Vehicle in Southern California (Illegal or Not)

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Many van and RV nomads want to visit sunny Southern California but cannot afford to spend on average $70 a night to stay in a campground or RV resort.

As a result, most van and RV nomads decide to stealth camp while in the cities. But is stealth camping illegal or not? This is the central question each stealth camper must themselves.

Unfortunately, most cities within Southern California have laws against sleeping in your vehicle on public roads and property. Most of the laws say you cannot sleep in your vehicle from the hours of 9 pm to 6 am on public property and within 500 feet of a residence or school.

The determination of whether it’s illegal to sleep in your vehicle is up to each city. Like I said before, most cities within Southern California have laws against sleeping in your vehicle. But each city’s ordinance might be a little bit different from each other.

Although most cities have laws to deter stealth camping, plenty of people still do it. If you decide to stealth camp while in Southern California, please read my other blog below.

Guide to Stealth Camping in Southern California

Understanding the laws of the city that you plan to visit and stealth camp in is important to ensure your safety, peace of mind, and you are prepared to deal with any legal issues if they arise. Continue to read on for more details on the habitation laws of the major cities within Southern California.

Why Do Cities Ban Sleeping in Vehicles?

Most cities have ban sleeping in vehicles to combat the rise in homelessness. The logic behind these laws is to force homeless people into government programs and housing.

With the explosion of homelessness in the big cities, especially Los Angeles and San Diego, they have seen a sharp increase in people sleeping in their vehicles in residential areas.

The residents have complained to the city and said the ban is necessary to ensure safety in the city’s neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, this has had a side effect on van and RV nomads who choose this lifestyle by choice and need a place to stay for the night.

Legal Language

Most of the laws are written in each of the cities against sleeping in your vehicle utilize the terminology “residential areas” and “vehicle dwellings”. The definition of these two are:

  • Residential Area: Street that adjoins one or more single-family or multi-family residentially zoned parcel
  • Vehicle Dwelling: A person is using a vehicle as part of a residence or accommodations.

The Law Seem to Change Constantly

The laws for sleeping in your vehicle throughout Southern California seem to change constantly. It seems every few years, the laws are rewritten to either be more strict or less strict about sleeping in your vehicle.

In 2014, a federal judge overturned the Los Angeles laws banning sleeping in your vehicle.

The late Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in his opinion: “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is exactly what has occurred here. The law is broad enough to cover any driver in Los Angeles who eats food or transports personal belongings in his or her vehicle. Yet it appears to be applied only to the homeless.”

As a result, the law was repealed but soon afterward replaced with the new law.

San Diego has also experienced similar situations. Their laws about sleeping in vehicle laws were relaxed only to be placed with more stringent ones.

The Ex-San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican elected in 2014, said at the time. “We will not allow the proliferation of ‘van life’ culture that takes advantage of San Diego’s generosity and destroys community character.”

Website: History of San Diego Laws on Sleeping in Your Vehicle

This constant change in the law makes it essential to understand what the law says in the city that you might be stealth camping in.

Safe Parking Programs

A lot of cities that have bans against sleeping in your vehicle have created safe parking areas. These areas are designed for homeless individuals who are living in their cars to have a safe place to park overnight that provides them essential resources.

These essential resources could be security, restroom facilities, water, and much more.

The only problem with these safe parking areas is there is not a lot of them. For the estimated 15000 people in Los Angeles who live out of their vehicle, there might be only 300 safe parking spots available.

Other communities have created safe parking programs too. The only drawback with a lot of these programs is that you must be a resident of that city to participate in it.

Enforcement of the Law

Most cities that have bans against sleeping in your vehicle enforce these laws very differently. I know from personal experience the majority of coastal communities enforce these laws very vigorously.

These communities have been greatly affected by people sleeping in their vehicles over the years. They have seen these numbers increase because most people want to stealth camp by the beach.

Unfortunately, a few of them leave trash, are loud, and cause a scene. This has ruined it for the rest of us.

Outside the beach communities, I do not believe these laws are strictly enforced. According to a Los Angeles Times article, LAPD data shows police wrote 288 tickets since a vehicle sleeping ban took effect in early 2017. During the first six months of 2019, cops wrote just 48 tickets.

Most law enforcement officers are just going to ask you to leave the area instead of writing you a ticket. I think if you comply with their instructions, most likely you will not receive a ticket.

As I say in my Guide to Stealth Camping in Southern California, most cops know you are sleeping in your vehicle but don’t care. They only care when they are called upon by a resident about you sleeping in your vehicle.

If you follow the rules that I mention in the guide, you should not have a problem. I have yet to hear of anyone ever getting a ticket for sleeping in their vehicle.

The Actual Laws of the Main Cities of Southern California

Now that we understand the laws against sleeping in your vehicle throughout Southern California, I want you to better understand the laws in the main cities that you will probably be visiting.

Los Angeles

The resources below detail the law for sleeping in your vehicle in Los Angeles and the safe parking program.

San Diego

The ordinance, known as a vehicle habitation ban, made it illegal for San Diegans to sleep in their cars on city streets. 

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is one of those cities that strictly enforces sleeping in your vehicle ban.  Santa Barbara is a relatively small town so there aren’t a lot of places to stealth camp within the city limits. The cops seem very aggressive and offering citations for people sleeping in their RV’s or vans outside the safe parking areas.

Ventura

Like most coastal communities, sleeping in your vehicle is against the law in Ventura.

Other Cities Laws on Sleeping in your Vehicle 

CityLegal or NotComment
Big BearIllegalBoondocking in the National Forest area outside town
Borrego SpringsIllegalPlenty of boondocking in Anza-Borrego
Laguna BeachIllegalVery Strick
Joshua TreeIllegalPlenty of BLM around the park
Morro BayIllegal10pm – 6am
San ClementeIllegalVery Strick
San Luis ObispoIllegal

References and Other Adventures: 

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