Renting space in a van has become the best housing solution for some people living on the streets.

With two days left at a Venice hostel and nowhere else to stay, Teresa Spencer was preparing to sleep on the beach.

Then, a friend told her about the “vanlord.”

Within a week, Spencer, who has been homeless on the Westside since 2011, was renting a van parked in a residential neighborhood in Venice for $300 a month.

The vanlord’s name is Gary Gallerie. He lives in a van in Venice and rents out another 14, most of which don’t run. Bearing bumper stickers that proclaim “Van life is not a crime,” they sit in front of the neighborhood’s multimillion dollar homes for weeks at a time.

Spencer, now a social media manager, started living in her car eight years ago after her roommate died and she was laid off from her job. After she lost her car, she started crashing on friends’ couches and sleeping on the beach.

She briefly stayed in a homeless shelter, but said she couldn’t go back because she had to live in close quarters to people with severe, untreated mental illness. They would defecate, urinate and hoard trash in the cubicles they shared and threaten to attack her if she looked at them the wrong way, she said.

After a stay on a family member’s couch earlier this year, Spencer checked into a hostel in Venice that allows guests to book a bed for up to 14 days. She began renting the van in May, just before her stay was up. It’s the first time in years that she’s been able to live in relative privacy and safety, she said.

“It’s peaceful,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about someone attacking me or taking my stuff.”

Almost a third of the roughly 60,000 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County live in their vehicles, according to the 2019 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority point-in-time count. In Venice, that population increased by 65% last year to 447 people.

Local homelessness experts said a vehicle rental business like Gallerie’s is unprecedented, but not surprising in a region where a renter has to make triple the minimum wage to afford the median monthly rent of about $2,500. Basic shelter for $300 a month is bound to appeal to people trying to get off the street, said Gary Painter, director of USC’s Homeless Policy Research Institute.

“People recognize that it’s better to live with some kind of shelter than it is to be completely unsheltered,” Painter said. “It’s not shocking that people are thinking about these makeshift solutions.”

Emily Uyeda Kantrim, director of Safe Parking LA, a nonprofit that turns parking lots into overnight parking for people living in their vehicles, said it’s not uncommon for people to rent vehicles that don’t run. She has never heard of someone renting out more than a dozen such vehicles, however.

“When someone is renting a vehicle that’s not operable, often that’s someone trying to move forward,” she said. “Having somewhere you can store your stuff and sleep inside is preferable to sleeping on the sidewalk, where there’s a risk of having your belongings stolen or confiscated by the police.”

Spencer’s van is parked on a quiet street between the Venice Beach Boardwalk and Abbot Kinney, lined with well-kept bungalows and sleek, modern homes.

Spencer tries not to attract attention to herself, keeping the van’s door closed and leaving only when nobody is walking by. She likes to lie inside the van during the day, watching passers by from behind its tinted windows.

Van tenants have the keys to the back doors of the vehicles but do not have keys to the ignition and are unable to drive the vans. Gallerie moves the vans that run when necessary and pays to tow the non-operational vehicles to new locations.

Spencer’s vehicle is parked near several other vans Gallerie owns, including the one he lives in, and the neighbors and police have noticed.

“I got a note saying that the neighborhood had had enough,” Spencer said.

Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association, said Gallerie’s vans, as well as other vans and RVs parked in the neighborhood, take away parking from residents, many of whom don’t have off-street parking. People living in the vehicles often empty sewage and trash into the gutter, he added.

“It puts a real burden on the community and erodes the quality of life here,” he said.

Ryavec fought to restrict overnight RV parking throughout the 2000s, resulting in a 2009 vote by the Venice Neighborhood Council that made it illegal to live in a vehicle in many parts of Venice. Spencer’s van is parked on a street where it’s only legal to live in a vehicle during the day. The police have to see signs of someone living in the vehicle to enforce the restriction, however.

Spencer said she understands why residents don’t want the vehicles in the neighborhood, especially because they are parked so close together.

“I don’t think (Gallerie) is going to get away with this much longer,” she said. “It can’t be so concentrated. You have to have consideration for the neighborhood.”

Ultimately, though, Spencer doesn’t want to go back to a homeless shelter or live on the street. Having a private place to sleep and store her belongings has helped her focus on the long term, she said. She sees her caseworkers regularly and is applying for permanent housing.

“Bottom line, being homeless requires people to do sketchy things to get shelter and sleep,” she said. “Without those, it’s hard to keep it together.”

Ryavec said he would like to see the vans and RVs in his neighborhood relocated to a safe parking program. But Uyeda Kantrim said because people enrolled in Safe Parking LA must leave the parking lots early in the morning, it’s impossible for the program to accommodate a vehicle that doesn’t run.

“We can’t serve them in our program, but we connect them to an outreach team who can provide them with services,” Uyeda Kantrim said.

It would still be extremely difficult for someone living in a drivable van or RV to use Safe Parking LA’s lots because they’re so small, she said. The largest lot the organization operates holds 25 cars.

The overall capacity of safe parking programs in Los Angeles County is very limited, Uyeda Kantrim said. Ten lots operated by a handful of nonprofits with funding from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority provide space for 125 vehicles. The first opened in spring 2017.

“Safe parking as a concept is the remedy for all people sleeping in their vehicles on a city street,” she said. “But how it’s been rolled out in the last few years is so small in its scope and costs a lot of money.”

While there are a few safe parking lots in West Los Angeles, there are none in Venice. Ryavec said he wants to keep it that way.

“They need to get out of proximity to residential neighborhoods,” he said.

But Painter said Venice can’t expect its van and RV problem to go away without safe parking lots in the neighborhood.

“Homeowners in a number of places think if you don’t provide mechanisms that are better than living on the streets, people will go elsewhere,” he said. “We don’t have evidence that actually happens.”

Spencer said she would move inland to a less expensive area if given the opportunity. Recently, her caseworker brought up an opportunity for subsidized housing in Azusa, but it fell through. She would not be able to pay for a market-rate apartment there; the average rent is $1,500, according to Yardi Matrix.

“Asking why I wouldn’t move somewhere cheaper is a totally valid question,” she said. “If something came up that I could afford, I would move in a heartbeat. But right now, there isn’t.”

Gallerie declined to comment for this story.

madeleine@smdp.com

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14 Comments

  1. Boy I’d love to be able to afford to be homeless in Venice! Are you kidding me?? This is legal? If Gallerie owns all these vans and lives in one, he can afford to have a real place to live. The vans don’t have bathrooms or showers and if you can’t poop where you live, I don’t even want to think about where they are going. This isn’t right. And let me get this straight, she’s been homeless for 8 years and has had no job during that time? Doesn’t sound like she’s really trying, and who needs to when you can live on Venice in the ritzy neighborhood in a van? Where’s the $300 coming from if she’s out of work and homeless? Probably from the overtaxed people of Venice? Get out of CA. In Arizona you can live much cheaper and sleep outside all year round based on the amount of folks I see doing it. Quit crapping on our streets and find a better way! This is not the answer and CA needs to wake up soon because the people who can just barely afford to live there are going to come to their senses and move out, and then all CA will have are the van people, who can’t pay them because they’re all just getting a handout! When I went broke after losing my job in 2003, I MOVED! Wake up and smell the coffee folks.

  2. This is totally ridiculous . She likes to lay in the van all day. Get a job then you can afford to at least get a roommate and live in an apartment like the rest of the world…..I

  3. Move out of California, get a job (8 years she’s been homeless with no work? Give me a break.) and quit crapping on people’s lawns. She said she couldn’t stay in a homeless shelter because of the crazies….well, living in a broken down van for $300, with no toilet no shower, and living in front of someone’s house for the ritzy neighborhood I would say constitutes crazy. California is soon going to lose their tax paying, expensive home buying people because they’ll be tired of people crapping on their sidewalks and paying the bills for these people and then what will you have? Nothing but people living in broken down vans. I left CA in 2003 because there wasn’t any work, I couldn’t afford the $900 rent in Covina, and now I live in Az where you can afford to live, and work, and go to school. Sorry, I’m not living in Venice and paying high rents or mortgage to have people defecating on my front lawn.

  4. After reading the above comments I sense the same coincidental theme, an obvious ignorance of the greater problem of finding gainful employment while being homeless. I’m not sure how the women is supposed to get up? Nor am I sure how she is supposed to do it on minimum wage jobs in an era when rents are at historic highs while multi million dollar price tags are attached to what were once funky affordable housing in Venice?
    Real estate agents put a premium on listings sellers are happy with who seek to realize heady profits. Able buyers stand in line to price out competition. It’s a viscous cycle that defines the difference between affordable housing and all the housing the affluent can afford.
    None of this is new, its how rent control got a foothold in Santa Monica to begin with and despite the fact of rent control one need only look at what has come of real estate prices where once $180k housing now fetches $3m?
    It is not sustainable.

  5. Hi I’m Teresa Spencer. I was the person featured in the story. The story that I was interviewed for over an hour of which I thought was about how people of any economic situation can end up on the street. To clarify. I have NOT been homeless for 8 years. When my BOYFRIEND died 8 years ago. the day after I was LAID OFF. Our apartment (on San Vicente in Santa Monica) that I had lived in for 5 years and he had lived in for 12 years went from $1800 a month to $3600 a month. I then slept in my car dealing with grief and trying to figure out how to fix things, WHILE WORKING. During that 3 months I managed to NEVER CRAP ON A LAWN. I am working now. I go the the library to charge and use the restroom. I can use the restroom at work. I go for services. I can get a shower 4 days a week. I STILL do not crap on a sidewalk. Funny thing, I actually told Madeleine that I can go 12 to 16 hours without going to the bathroom, it’s not rocket science. I generally don’t even get to the van until after 11pm. I sometimes walk the 3 miles from work to save bus fare. I am up and out around 7am or 8am. I am a veteran with a service connected injury that I have recently started a claim on. I have had 2 apartments in Texas where I lived to care for my mother and came back to the place I have called home most of my life when she died. I was living a $10,000 a month lifestyle prior to my divorce. The article was supposed to be a discussion about how someone can have all the trappings that constitute a successful lifestyle and end up on the street 20 years later. When I was approached to be interviewed, I was told that my story was interesting and Madeleine claimed she wanted to tell my story. At this point I’m wondering if she even taped our interview since the quotes are from texts we were sending to each other. I was trying to show that everything is so messed up that private citizens are handing out food and trying to come up with solutions. JR Thomas, at what point did she claim that I sit in a van all day. What i told her was that I was so embarrassed by my situation that I sometimes wait and watch for 15 – 20 minutes to get out of the van because I hate being labled as you two have done. I expressed to her that this is a temporary situation that I am in while I get housing. I guess the rest of the world is renting apartments, Really? So, now you don’t even consider the thousands of homeless people part of the world? The article was supposed to tell what it was like for someone who has had 3 homes at once, expensive cars and all that goes with that lifestyle to find themselves living in such a complex, heartbreaking situation. The article was supposed to be about how someone can live paycheck to paycheck and end up sleeping in front of a lawn, just like the lawn they had. All it can take is an injury, job loss, car accident, lawsuit, divorce, earthquake, flood or copious other anomylous events and you could be living on the street and apparently C Smith Ross and JR Thomas would have to go crap on the first nice lawn they found because that’s exactly what crosses someone’s mind when they end up without shelter. If your still reading this…. somehow I doubt you read a whole story before being triggered, in order to be in a shelter you must be able to check multiple boxes. You must be chronically homeless. You cannot just land on the street and they take you in. You must be mentally unstable or disabled, preferably both or a veteran. Even though I am a veteran, there is not a facility here for women. Millions of dollars that no one can find were supposed to be used for housing. So, yes I served so that you twerps can make disgusting assumptions about someone going through a hard time. SMDP maybe you should take a lesson in journalism. I don’t know why you wanted my photo and wasted my time asking about my story when your goal was to out the Vanlord. For the record, I didn’t even know Gary’s last name, so maybe, I was thrown under the bus… make that van because I wasn’t a good source for SMDP’s true agenda. You didn’t tell my story, you misrepresented my situation and then told a convoluted story. It goes to show that you can’t expect true journalism in a free publication.

  6. Sounds like Gallerie is already managing a safe parking program of sorts. The City of Los Angeles might want to consider blending some form of his work with existing services.

    As an FYI, Neighborhoods Councils serve only in an advisory capacity to the City. It was the City that imposed the prohibition, no doubt due to heavy pressure from Mr. Ryavec, who appears to have made it his mission to prioritize systemic inequality over equitable solutions.

  7. Thank you for this article. I know Mr Gallerie personally and his efforts to help the homeless are endless. The “vanlord” started with himself and just grew when he saw the want from others to have a safe place to sleep. He has strict rules for his tenants and uses the money from rent to help maintain the vans, including cleaning, maintenance, registration fees, and illegal impound fees. The cost of rent is so outrageous that even with a job and a roommate most people can’t afford to live here.

    I understand the residents perspective, but I also hope they realize that those dumping trash or sewage are likely not Mr Gallerie’s tenants. He’d kick them out immediately if he were to find that to be true.

    Mr. Gallerie has been a van tenant for over 15 years himself. An air force veteran, a father, a grandfather… a man that just needed somewhere to sleep and decided not to leave.

  8. This Gallerie guy is operating a business that likely isn’t registered with state and local authorities or tax boards and hasn’t sought zoning approvals from the city. He and his tenants pay nothing for water or sewer services or policing or schools. Said shorter, the whole operation is illegal in a bunch of different ways.

    If this “vanlord” wants to charge people to transport them in his vehicles to places where rents are less than $2,000 a month, fine. But “renting” to them so they all can live here and free-ride on people who DO pay their bills should not be an option.

    LA and SM have seen many more people living in vans or campers in the last couple years. It’s fair to guess that there are more vanlords than just this one.

  9. Isn’t it something? the more so-called the town the more vagrants as not there is. California is a hellhole only an illegal could love.

  10. First, I’ve known Teresa Spencer for years, and she has never gone a day without working or looking for work.

    She hates being in a situation that bothers anyone. I assure you she does everything humanly possible not to infringe on anyone. She doesn’t have a drug or drinking problem. She doesn’t panhandle.

    She’s a veteran who served our country until an injury that nearly saw her get her leg amputated. And she’s had the worst run of bad luck you can imagine.

    A terrible divorce where she was cheated out of house and home. She rebuilt her life and lived with a boyfriend. When he died, she wasn’t on the lease and lost her home again.

    When her sick mother took a turn for the worse, she took care of her until she died, leaving Teresa with bills and unexpected responsibilities.

    She told her story so that people might understand that we are all three feet away from the street. And that not all homeless people are crazy rangers shitting in yards and bringing down home values.

    If you see Teresa on the street, you won’t know she’s homeless. She’s bathed, well-groomed, and she has a job. It pays for storage so she doesn’t have to carry her belongings everywhere. It pays for a phone so she can stay in touch with work clients. It isn’t enough for an apartment.

    The writer of this article missed the point and threw Teresa under the van, as it were. Obviously, the van option isn’t available to her after that.

    She made one comment about watching people from the van and ignorant people accuse her of lying around all day. Incompetent reporting and people who assume the worst are now part of what makes her life hard.

    To the gutless “anonymous” above, you clearly lack even a tenth of Teresa’s character. You’d do well to listen to her as, in my experience, people like you doth protest to much. You’re probably a paycheck from dumpster diving.

    The people here who think they are better than others are a bigger problem than poverty or homelessness.

    When you want to hurt a disabled veteran instead of try to help her, YOU are the person who doesn’t deserve the freedoms veterans provided this country.

    America isn’t great anymore. And you selfish assholes are the reason.

  11. The rest of the story is revealed now by Teresa herself. A female veteran. A dutiful daughter. A widow. And salt of the earth stand up person.
    By her and Mr Watkins accounts the cautionary tale here is clear, but for the grace of God everyone is vulnerable to circumstances beyond our control when adversity strikes that would put us three feet away.
    If Teresa reads this, get up to the WLAVA and apply at New Directions which does provide for women.
    Hang in there Teresa despite the vitriol and character assassination directed your way here in these comments you’re a role model to me. Your grit and determination to adjust, adapt, and survive is inspiring and a testament to who your parents raised up.
    I/we may never read or hear of your ultimate triumph over the trials and tribulations your are now challenged by in other news accounts, a blockbuster book, and stupendous movie, but you must know there are strangers you will never meet really care about you and the others thus affected, otherwise an army of volunteers everywhere would not give of their time and money to provide whatever assistance they are.
    Hang in there Teresa is my fervent prayer . I need you to triumph and never forget and save others when you do.
    Amen.

  12. I cannot believe the judgmental, selfish assholes who commented here or the ones in Venice who turn up their noses at homeless people “eroding their quality of life.” Get over yourselves. Our country is rapidly turning into a feudal hellhole of very rich versus very poor, while jerks like you cheer every tax break for the wealthy and every attempt to shred the social safety net, and the unfortunate victims are people like Miss Spencer.

    I think the “vanlord” is doing a great public service, and stepping in where the local government has clearly failed to take care of its people . It can happen to anyone, yes, including the self-important, smug jerks passing judgment on this woman. I hope that when it does, you are greeted with more compassion than you have shown.

  13. @ JosieB really its comical to see you complaining about homeless people not paying taxes for water, sewer and police. Potential new home buyers should feel the same way about prop 13. Why should someone pay $20K a year in property taxes while there neighbor pays $5K. Have some compassion.

  14. At the time of this publication I was already at a shelter called OPCC. I have been assaulted twice, one time was by a woman that bit me twice! There are no consequences. I am heavily medicated to deal with the mental illnesses, constant noise and physical violence. Suicide would have been better, but hey I’m not bothering anyone in Venice anymore! Thank you to those of you showed compassion.

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