Motor homes have become a fixture on Los Angeles streets in recent years, a reflection of the growing number of homeless people living out of campers.
Along with the increase in RVs, calls to haul them away are rising. But the city has hit a roadblock as the number of tow companies willing to do the work dwindles.
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, 2,363 people across the city live in the motor homes. That’s a 20 percent increase from 2016.
City officials say that increase has led to a rise in enforcement measures, often in response to complaints from residents and business owners to remove campers that are unregistered or have overstayed the 72-hour limit on city streets.
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But earlier this year, the city hit a snag in responding to the towing requests, after a pair of towing contractors quit, citing the unsanitary conditions of the vehicles and the inability to recoup the cost of towing them.
The city was left with one company in Wilmington, Pepe’s Towing, to handle all of the city’s towing jobs for vehicles heavier than 10,000 pounds.
Bertha Maldonado, the manager at Pepe’s Towing, said Thursday she now has a yard crammed with 55 vehicles, and they have towing jobs scheduled into August.
Detective Benjamin Jones, who runs the Los Angeles Police Department’s towing service, said that in March, the city instituted a so-called “emergency stop” on the towing of motor homes. Unless the vehicle is tied to a crime or traffic accident, city departments must make an appointment to have the vehicles hauled away, which means it could take as long as two weeks to tow the vehicles, he said.
Contractors say the campers and RVs are often so dilapidated or damaged, they are in danger of falling apart while being towed. The vehicles frequently contain overflowing or leaking sewer tanks, and can come with pests such as fleas, ticks, mice and rats.
It is also difficult to justify the cost of impounding the vehicles since few of their original owners, many of whom are homeless, could afford to pick them up, or they often are only able to auction them off at basement rates, many contractors say.
The city of Los Angeles impounded “approximately” 1,000 motor homes and trailers in 2016, but only about half were claimed, according to a city report.
Jones has seen firsthand the pushback on the motor homes. His shop fields towing requests from other city agencies, particularly the transportation and police departments, which are often responding to complaints from residents and business owners.
Jones said about two to three years ago, he started seeing an increase in motor homes being impounded. That rise, he said, became acute in the middle of last year.
“I don’t think it’s people saying they don’t like the homeless,” Jones said. “It’s the secondary effects. It’s the garbage, needles, feces, urine. They’re often overwhelmed by the odor.”
He pointed to the example of Manchester Square, a city-owned area near the Los Angeles airport, as a reflection of what has happened citywide. That area used to have “one guy on the corner in a motor home,” but that grew to as many as 50 motor homes lined up in a row, he said.
Jones’ office helped clear out that motor home encampment, which was on land that was being developed into a rental car facility and parking for the airport.
With an average of about 83 motor homes being impounded each month last year, two of the city’s towing contractors expressed concerns in September that they were not up to the task of dealing with the sanitation issues that accompany the campers.
One of those companies is Canoga Park-based Howard Sommers, which handles the city towing assignments in the San Fernando Valley. The other contractor is ATS-Northeast Tow Inc. in Cypress Park.
In mid-March, the two companies terminated their contracts for towing heavy vehicles like motor homes and house cars.
The city put out a request for contractors in April to replace Howard Sommers and ATS, but it got no response, Jones said.
Randi Sommers, president of the Canoga Park towing company, wrote in a Sept. 27, 2016, letter to Jones, that in addition to the financial burden, “the work, time and effort to tow and store these vehicles has become a nightmare.”
Sommers explained that there is only one salvage yard where they can send the motor homes that are unclaimed to get junked, but that yard refuses to accept the vehicles unless towing employees have removed the 30-40 gallon propane tanks connected to the campers, taken out the refrigerators, which contain ammonia, and emptied out the sewer tanks.
Sommers wrote that they do not have the licenses nor are they “equipped to do this kind of work.”
Jones said they are hoping a new arrangement with the city’s existing towing contractors will resolve the current backlog. The plan will shift the work of towing the heavier vehicles to at least eight of the other contractors that currently only tow vehicles lighter than 10,000 pounds.
Under the plan, the city will pay the towing companies a $ 540 hazardous materials and waste fee if the vehicle is junked, and will cover the difference in cost if the motor homes are sold at auction below the $ 540 amount.
City crews will also need to “contain” the sanitation issues, such as stop up any leaks in sewer tanks, before calling out a towing company, Jones said.
Enlisting new tow companies
Eight other companies, if not a few more, are expected to enter modified contracts with these terms starting Monday, according to Jones.
But for now, Pepe’s Towing, which previously was known as Los Angeles Tow, continued on Thursday to handle the heavy-duty towing jobs from their South Bay headquarters, including one across town in Woodland Hills.
Maldonado, the manager at Pepe’s, said they stuck with their contract because unlike the other two companies, they specialize in heavy-duty towing jobs. Since they began taking on more of the assignments, though, they have had to flea bomb their offices every Sunday. She pointed to a large flea bite mark on her shoulder, as an example of the problem.
She said the motor homes are “really a pain” to unload, and during auctions, final bids are usually between $ 50 to $ 100. But they are able to balance the more complicated, less desirable tows, with the impound fees, which start at several hundred dollars and usually run more than a $ 1,000, while the nicer campers can sell for several thousand dollars.
“Every once in awhile we get some good ones,” she said.