Utah-born entrepreneur Austen Allred became something of a local folk hero last summer, after living for three months in a two-door Honda Civic while launching his startup in Silicon Valley.
"Very few people there knew I lived in the car," Allred says, insisting that he adopted homelessness as a necessity rather than a lifestyle choice. He says he came to Palo Alto with $1,000, procured a discount YMCA membership to take showers, and slept in the parking lot of a Mormon church. When his car broke down, he scalped soccer tickets to come up with $600 for repairs.
Allred is an outlier among car-dwellers: He's now running a moderately successful Web company with $50,000 in reserves. Most of the newly, partly, or perennially homeless are far less fortunate; they aren't ingratiating themselves with venture capitalists; they don't have the option to abscond to an apartment in Utah. Moreover, they're contending with a 43-year-old ordinance in San Francisco — and a newly proposed law in Palo Alto — that make it illegal to live in a vehicle.
Allred says he only got stopped by the cops once, while idling his car in an area known for drug trafficking. But he's heard horror stories from friends who parked on the more tightly patrolled backstreets of San Francisco.
That might change in light of a recent 9th Circuit decision to strike down a Los Angeles law against vehicle-dwelling. Ruling that the law was "unconstitutionally vague" and likely to promote discrimination, the federal appeals court set a precedent for any city trying to eradicate this swath of the homeless population.
It could be a huge point of contention in San Francisco, where, in 2012, the city also added an additional ban against overnight parking of large vans and trailers, which created transient communities along the Great Highway and the outer lip of Golden Gate Park. Here of course, housing prices and a fecund tech economy have created a perfect storm for the Austen Allreds of the world.
The oversized vehicle prohibition probably won't be affected by the new court ruling, and a city attorney's office spokesman says he's "not immediately clear" on whether the 1971 law will get chucked. Right now, it's fairly hard to enforce: The vehicle inhabitant has to be personally served with a misdemeanor, so if a cop knocks on the window and nobody answers, no one can be cited.
Allred, for one, would be happy to see it go. "I get the sentiment," he says. "But it seems a little absurd to ban being homeless. I would have loved to stay in an apartment if I could afford one."