“When you're on social security and that's all you have and that's all you have in the world, [your vehicle is] your home. And they come and take it away and leave you sitting at the side of the road with nothing except what you could grab in five minutes. I think it's pretty messed up.”
Carolyn Vargas wipes tears from her eyes as she recollects the morning of July 25 when San Diego Police towed her 36-foot RV, her home for the past four years. The reason for the tow: several unpaid parking tickets - tickets, she said that she had been making payments on.
“Here I am, like, making payments on these tickets and they tow me anyway. That doesn't seem fair. Maybe it seemed fair to the officer that day but to me, it doesn’t seem fair to me.”
On August 22, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced a program to make it possible for homeless people such as Vargas to reduce outstanding parking fines. To become eligible, program recipients must submit all of their parking tickets and register for the Homeless Court Service Program as well as completed a recovery program. According to the city, the initiative has wiped out 542 parking tickets for 63 people.
Unfortunately for Vargas and hundreds of others, the announcement came late.
According to data obtained by NBC 7 Investigates, the City of San Diego has towed 4,767 vehicles because of unpaid parking tickets since 2015.
Of those vehicles towed, 3,231 were released whereas 1,452 have been sold.
Since 2015, the records show city and tow companies collected nearly $1.6 million in fines and impound fees.
Ann Menasche is an attorney with Disability Rights California. Menasche is the lead attorney currently fighting the City’s Vehicle Habitation Ordinance in federal court. Menasche says the high number of tows is a further example of the city’s enforcement of San Diego’s homeless population.
"The city should not be making life worse for people and making the homeless crisis worse by taking away a person's only shelter, making it harder for them to get on their feet and really jeopardizing their health and safety," said Menasche. “It is getting worse and not better for people on fixed incomes, people with disabilities, seniors because that’s really who we're talking about: people with disabilities, seniors.”
“Those are the people that are suffering, those are the people being thrown out on the streets and having their shelter taken from them.”
In Vargas’ case, she said with impound fees, it would cost her $3,000 to get her RV out of impound. Her granddaughter launched a fundraising drive on GoFundMe but she is far from the amount needed.
Hoping to avoid having to sleep on the streets, Vargas asked her oldest daughter to loan her enough money to purchase a small, dilapidated mini-van from auction for $500.
It is now home for her, her boyfriend, and their two cats and dog.
“I know they are targeting homeless people. I know they are,” said Vargas. “It's sad. I've gone to city council meetings. They don't have any answers. Nobody has a solution.”
Vargas told NBC 7 that while she is happy to hear the city has expanded the unpaid parking ticket program, much more needs to be done.
“Rent is a joke. We can’t afford to pay rent. And, if we did we wouldn’t have money for food. That’s why the city needs to help. Build an RV Park, charge $400 a month and I bet you people can afford that and be safe, not live in fear of waking up to a parking ticket on your windshield and then having your home taken away.”
A spokesperson for the San Diego Police Department told NBC 7 Investigates that the city does not keep any money generated from the sale of the vehicles, instead the tow companies which contract with the city keeps it to pay for impound and towing fees.
“Its implementation is still so new for us the police department, it is something we will have to evaluate to see if it affects us, if at all. We are always in support of someone breaking the cycle of homelessness and the Clean Plates Program appears to be one way people can while simultaneously improving their own situation to move into permanent housing."
In a new podcast called INSIGHT, journalists Paul Krueger and Dorian Hargrove discuss their investigation into how San Diego Police have increasingly issued steep fines for homeless residents over the last five years. Could ticketing transients end San Diego’s homeless crisis? Listen below or click here.