Columbus laws silent on living in car

Some people live in their vehicles because they can’t afford rent, and in Columbus, there’s little to stop them from parking their homes in front of yours.

Eileah Ohning is among those with such mobile homes. She and her boyfriend are reconfiguring a van so they can live in it to save money.

Ohning is an adjunct professor of photography at Columbus State Community College and a producer for a New York-based advertising and media agency. She lived in her car for a year, from 2015 to 2016, for the same reason: She was trying to pay off student loans of $42,000 after attending Ohio State University.

“I did have other options,” she said. “I could afford apartments, but barely.”

If she paid rent, however, she wouldn’t have money left over for a down payment on a house.

People living in, or sleeping in, their vehicles have become so commonplace that many cities across the country have passed ordinances to regulate the practice.

That includes Wooster, in northeastern Ohio, which in 2013 made it a minor misdemeanor for anyone to live or sleep in a vehicle. The city defined human habitation as six or more hours of “eating, resting, recreating and/or sleeping.”

Los Angeles prohibits people living in vehicles from parking in residential areas between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., and from parking within 500 feet of schools, preschools, day-care facilities and parks.

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Columbus has no such ordinance, although a resident of the Knolls, a Northwest Side neighborhood near Henderson and Olentangy River roads, recently called the city council about enacting one after residents became worried when they noticed a woman living in her car on a neighborhood street for about a month.

Resident Brandon Huff said he sent emails to the offices of the mayor, city attorney and city council. He fears that people living in cars could park outside houses and stalk the inhabitants.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, 39 percent of the 187 cities surveyed in 2016 had adopted ordinances dealing with homeless people in cars, up from 16 percent in 2006. Many of the cities are in warm-weather states such as California and Florida.

Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the center, said these regulations have been multiplying quickly in cities where chronic homelessness remains a serious problem, exacerbated by a lack of affordable housing and overburdened shelters.

But Bauman said that most of these laws “are not constructive.”

“You’re criminalizing or civilly punishing people for survival,” she said.

“It’s a mistake,” Bauman added. “There is ample evidence that criminal strategies do not work, do not reduce visible homelessness,” and instead waste community resources on what she calls “inefficient strategies.”

“There is a cost to taxpayers,” she said, money that could instead be invested in other ways to help homeless people, including housing.

Kent Beittel, executive director of The Open Shelter Inc., a Columbus nonprofit group that helps the homeless and “marginally housed” in central Ohio, said many homeless people are doing whatever they can to find stability. “That’s where cars come in,” he said.

Among them is 24-year-old Aaron Campbell, who now stays at a shelter and uses services provided by Star House, a drop-in shelter in Columbus for homeless youths in central Ohio. But he lived in his car for five months, including after he lost his job at a warehouse.

Campbell would move his car at night to places such as Goodale Park and Confluence Park, where he could sleep, or to shopping areas where trucks park.

He has endured frostbite. And he believes it would be a big mistake if Columbus enacted laws regulating where people like him could park.

“The vehicle itself is shelter. That would be taking my home away, technically,” Campbell said.

Ohning, now 31, lived in her 2004 Acura TSX for a year, taking showers at a Planet Fitness gym where she had a low-cost membership and parking and sleeping in neighborhoods where she felt safe.

“I was very respectful of the neighborhood,” Ohning said. “I tried to move around to be respectful. I didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable.”

She said she never felt endangered. “I did keep a low profile,” she said. “I was very careful about certain areas I parked in.”

Ohning said she didn’t run into others sleeping in their cars. “I was totally clueless about what was happening.”

But she knows more now. So she and her boyfriend are outfitting their 2006 Freightliner Sprinter cargo van with a bed, kitchen, shower and toilet, hoping to use the van no longer than till the end of the year.

At some point, they might want to buy “alternative housing,” she said.

In an email, she said she has thought about a container home on a foundation.

“There is a big movement in recent years of people wanting to downsize, minimize, and not be a slave to high mortgages or rents,” she wrote. “I truly think this movement will only grow.

“People are resourceful, and I don’t think there’s a great way to force people to live in traditional housing if they’ve decided their budgets or lives just don’t fit well in that setting.”

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