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Lawsuit aims to legalize sleeping in cars



A Santa Rosa woman’s visit to poverty-wracked India has led to a lawsuit that has frozen Sonoma County’s ordinance preventing people from sleeping in their cars.

Hollie Clausen visited India in 2012 and was so struck by the level of homelessness on the Asian subcontinent that she sued the county and the city of Santa Rosa when she returned to stop policies she said unfairly affect the poor.

“In India, there’s millions of people everywhere, and they have nowhere to go,” Clausen said. “We should be lucky enough that people may have that one last possession, their car.”

The 2007 Healdsburg High School graduate won a small victory last week when Sheriff Steve Freitas agreed to stop issuing citations in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County while revisions are considered.

Santa Rosa officials are expected to do the same. City Attorney Caroline Fowler confirmed talks are ongoing with police Chief Tom Schwedhelm to stop enforcing the two-hour maximum for occupying a vehicle within the city limits while amendments are proposed.

That’s good news to Clausen, who believes the two policies should be struck down to protect the rights of homeless people.

“It doesn’t take much for people to appreciate if you don’t have a house, your next best option is your car,” said Clausen’s father, Santa Rosa attorney Mark T. Clausen, who helped file the suit in January.

The city and county have had laws prohibiting camping on the books for years. Santa Rosa first adopted its policy in 1994, and the county followed suit in 2002.

They were controversial at the time, Clausen said, but were forgotten by the public.

In county areas, it is illegal to inhabit a vehicle, camper, trailer or boat on a public street, on an alleyway or in a private common area for more than three hours. The city’s ordinance is essentially the same, only it limits occupancy to two hours.

Violators can be subject to tickets and fines starting at $100.

Hollie Clausen, 24, who is not homeless and was not cited, sued under a provision that allows taxpayers to bring litigation. Her mother, Mary Clausen, is a former board member for The Living Room, a shelter that provides housing for women and children.

“They’re parking somewhere, just trying to get by for the night until they get that job or get that loan,” Hollie Clausen said. “But it’s looked down upon, like they’re somebody that’s not worthy of getting the help that’s needed. If you’re down to the point where you only have your car to sleep in, why is that an issue?”

Clausen named several grounds to her suit. First, she said state vehicle code doesn’t prohibit the activity, so local laws can’t ban it. Also, she said the policies are unconstitutional in that they prevent homeless people from being free to remain in one place that is safe for them.

Mark Clausen said law enforcement’s contention that they don’t really enforce the laws and haven’t given out tickets is a sham. He said officers use them as a hammer over the heads of people to get them to move along or else receive a ticket.

“If they are not breaking the law, they should be left alone,” Mark Clausen said.

But supporters of the camping ban have said they want to limit what they consider trespassing and loitering in neighborhoods.

Freitas said it’s an infrequent complaint but one he does hear. He said county officials will work on proposed changes to the ordinance before bringing it to the Board of Supervisors for a hearing and adoption.

That could take at least two months, Deputy County Counsel Anne Keck said. It is too soon to say what the changes would be, if any, she said.

Santa Rosa also has made no decision about amending the existing policy, Fowler said. She suggested the issue could come back to the City Council in the next several months.

In the meantime, the sheriff has agreed to a temporary moratorium. “We’re going to stop enforcing that special section,” Freitas said. “We still don’t want people living in their vehicles.”

Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

9 Responses to “Lawsuit aims to legalize sleeping in cars”

  1. D C Reade says:

    I have my own business, Follower.

    I also travel a lot for work, When I get to this neck of the woods, my housing expenses double. Cheapest motel rate in the county is $55/night weekdays, $65 weekends. At $35/night, a tent site is about the same, once commuting mileage and shower expenses are factored in.

    You begrudge me trying to save $175 a week by alternating motel rooms with sleeping in my car?

    And what’s a traveler with road fatigue supposed to do, anyway? The responsible thing to do is to find a quiet place to nap and refresh. Except when I try, I get a policeman rapping on my window after five minutes, ordering me to move on. Basically forcing me to drive impaired.

    What a bunch of stereotypers in this comment thread, really.

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  2. Skippy says:

    Here’s a popular fantasy:
    “I don’t remember many people being homeless before Reagan turned the state hospital patients out on the street when he closed some of the state hospitals because he didn’t fund group homes to house them locally like he promised.”

    Lying sack of manure.
    The ACLU’s successful lawsuits forced the closure of the mental hospitals and forced the most vulnerable onto the streets.
    The all-communist ACLU.
    Not the best POTUS in 100 years.

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  3. Roxy says:

    I met a woman at a General Plan 2020 meeting that had “her Victorian home stolen from her in the railroad square area for environmental reasons where a fancy new hotel now sits. She and her daughter were forced to sleep in her car since she was left with the balance of her mortgage, leaving no landlord wanting to rent to her. She was then charged with child endangerment when she and her then 5 year old daughter were found in her car.” I think this is a great idea since more and more people are losing their homes for chain businesses, vacant strip malls and poorly constructed new homes.

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  4. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    When I was a kid and we were traveling between long moves we always slept in our big old Hudson. Just pulled to the side of the highway and settled in. Stopped occasionally for a motel for baths.

    I don’t remember many people being homeless before Reagan turned the state hospital patients out on the street when he closed some of the state hospitals because he didn’t fund group homes to house them locally like he promised.

    We need more services for people to get food and a safe place to sleep. Lots of these homeless are families with children who could be any one of us. We also need more compassion AND SERVICES for the mentally ill.

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  5. Josh Grahek says:

    It’s funny. I guess it takes an agnostic to post a statement that follows the dictums of Jesus. I can only guess my predecessors on this comment page…who hide behind pseudonyms…aren’t Christians…but I support her efforts. Homelessness is not easy. What is easy is vilifying them all as druggies and criminals. There isn’t a speck of “Turn the other cheek” or “feed the poor” in our response to them. It’s more selfishness, arrogance, and ignorance. Many who are homelessness want simply some stability to..indeed, as was smugly suggested…get a job, be productive, and escape their condition. Is compassion dead in this county?

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  6. Follower says:

    It’s amazing how many people think they’re “helping the poor” by making poverty as comfortable as possible.

    How about making STARTING A BUSINESS, creating new jobs and employing formerly poor people as comfortable as possible?

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  7. Skippy says:

    I support an ordinance making it legal for the homeless to sleep in Hollie Clausen’s car.

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  8. NIMBY TODAY! says:

    Maybe they can start lining the car and campers up on her street! I live in Railroad Square and have had a real adventure living with the “people in the cars”. If you leave a car door open or something on your from porch it is gone! You can add that to the drug dealers that pull up in their cars and sell their wares to the homeless. They know not to stay any more than 10 minutes to avoid the police! Lets keep making it easier for folks to just hang out!

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  9. Bad Math says:

    What a complete waste of resources. It is obvious this spoiled young lady is being propelled by her lawyer daddy to lead an issue so she can run for office at some point.

    You see it is a form of free advertising. Pick a subject that is all motherhood and apple pie and sue over it, like you really care.I hope the case is thrown out and they are made to pay the court fee’s.

    If she really cared she would spend her time and money serving the homeless, understanding why they are homeless, and dishing out food at the RGM rather than dishing out BS in the public forum.

    Go home and clean your room young lady.

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