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.