At a recent December community meeting hosted by District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen in San Francisco’s Portola neighborhood, the shouting from the audience began before Supervisor Ronen was able to begin her opening remarks. The angry outbursts continued to interrupt the 90 minute meeting, which included comments from the heads of SF’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Municipal Transportation Agency, and Bayview Station police.
‘Let them go to Pacific Heights!,’ one angry neighborhood resident yelled. ‘They don’t belong here, and we don’t want them here!’
Another one shouted ‘We’re not the Bayview, we’re the Portola! We don’t care about anybody else!.’
The subject that night was the 15-20 inhabited RVs parked on any given evening around the Portola’s North Basin Reservoir, and members of the surrounding community had come to hear what the City plans to do to with those RVs. Many of the residents view the families and individuals living in those vehicles as unwelcome outsiders, and say they have felt unsafe since their arrival. ‘We don’t know who they are,’ was a common refrain. Some residents even pointed out and harassed one RV dweller who was attending the meeting – ‘He’s one of them!’ – and tried to shout down another vehicularly housed woman while she spoke during the public comments portion of the event. ‘For those people living in RVs, it’s a lifestyle that they’ve chosen,’ claimed one lifelong Portola resident in another comment.
Earlier that evening, a few blocks away on Felton Street, another Portola resident had a different take on the RVs. ‘Where else are they supposed to go?,’ she asked quietly while feeding a few of the neighborhood’s stray cats. ‘They have nowhere to go, and they have to live somewhere. The whole thing is sad.’
It’s estimated that there are about 7500 San Franciscans who are experiencing homelessness at any given time. Under the direction of Mayor London Breed, both SFPD and SFDPW have ramped up daily enforcement of the citywide ban on tents, especially in the areas around SoMa, Civic Center, and the Inner Mission, where police regularly patrol the streets looking for violations. There are over 1200 people on the City’s waiting list for a 90-day shelter bed, with no guarantee of being placed into transitional or permanent housing at the end of that stay. Some of San Francisco’s homeless residents do not feel safe living in congregate settings, and in several shelter facilities, theft can be common, so many opt to remain on the streets. As a result, many unhoused people feel that they have no choice but to move further away from central San Francisco into some of the City’s primarily residential outer neighborhoods, as well as less-populated and more isolated industrial areas, in hopes of escaping attention from City officials and law enforcement.
Included in that group are 1200+ people who have moved into vehicles, and many of them can be found clustered in residential areas of the Mission, Sunnydale, and SoMa, as well as industrial parks in the Bayview. Living in one’s vehicle is illegal in San Francisco, and City Hall has now begun focussing enforcement attention and resources on the RVs and campers inhabited by these otherwise homeless San Franciscans, creating and enforcing overnight and 72-hour parking bans in more and more residential areas. Even in some relatively isolated and industrial parts of the Bayview, where many vehicle dwellers have moved to seek relief from the increased enforcement in residential areas, the frustrations of having to move frequently and fears of being towed or ticketed are common.
Over the last 20 years, the City has occasionally discussed creating a safe parking program for people living in their vehicles, but no concrete plans have ever been produced. In the meantime, enforcement and bans have been steadily increasing. In early November, Mayor Breed announced in a press release that she, along with Supervisors Vallie Brown and Ahsha Safai had created ‘a data-driven, city-wide program’ to address vehicular homelessness. Aside from a new team of three HOT outreach workers created to work with the vehicularly housed, and plans for more parking bans and increased enforcement, no program has been put into place. Any robust or sizable city-approved parking alternatives are still in the exploratory and investigative stages, and will take time to implement. Meanwhile, HSH, in conjunction with the MTA, have been identifying areas to clear of inhabited vehicles, and sending the HOT vehicle encampment resolution team out to speak with vehicle residents to attempt to get them to accept City services and get their vehicles off of municipal streets.
With limited resources to offer, the City has found it difficult to get residents of vehicles to accept services. For instance, according to Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Director Jeff Kositsky, only 4 out of the 23 vehicle dwellers contacted in the Portola’s North Basin Reservoir area were offered services by HOT and found them adequate enough to accept. Kositsky announced this figure during Supervisor Ronen’s Portola community meeting, and characterized the 19 other vehicle residents as being service-resistant. This classification is often trotted out by city officials to describe those who opt to stay out of the city’s shelter and navigation centers, and used to justify HSH’s low success rate at connecting unhoused people with the services, support, and housing needed to get back on their feet and achieve independence. But this paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture of what’s going on, and once again reduces San Francisco’s homeless population to a problem of numbers instead of system design and implementation.
Couper Orona, a 45 year-old homeless disabled firefighter who has previously lived in tents on both Erie and Division Streets, has been living in an RV on the streets of SoMa for a little under a year. In that time, police have forced Ms Orona to move locations three times. On one occasion, she says she nearly had her vehicle towed and impounded by law enforcement before convincing a sympathetic officer to let her keep her home. ‘I was in a tent before, and they wanted to move us off the street with the sweeps,’ Orona said. ‘Now, I’m in an RV, I’m inside, I’m better than I was in a tent, and they’re right back to doing sweeps to keep moving me again.’ With no safe and legal alternative parking options, and little more than a bed at a shelter or navigation center without a place to store vehicles being offered by city workers, Ms Orona has chosen to remain in her RV, moving locations as needed, and always trying to stay one step ahead of city enforcement officials. It’s an endlessly stressful and nomadic lifestyle, similar to the one she previously experienced as a tent-dweller, and she says she is still caught in the city’s ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy of frequent homeless sweeps and the ever-present threat of property loss or confiscation. ‘Why am I going to go into a shelter or a navigation center when I have my RV? I have a bathroom, I have a stove, I have a bed, I have a workspace. I just need a safe space to park. Why should I have to give that up just to take steps backward in my life?’ Her frustration is shared by many other people living in vehicles across the City. Like Ms Orona, many of them have previously lived unsheltered or in tents, and worked hard to save the money needed to purchase their vehicles and make necessary repairs. In a city where the average market rate is over $2500 per month, affordable permanent housing can take months, often even years to find, and emergency shelter housing is offered by the City on a temporary basis only, with little storage available for personal belongings, and none for clients’ vehicles. HOT has tried to refer many SF RV dwellers to Bay Area RV parks, only one of which is in San Francisco. Most rental fees at nearby RV parks cost nearly as much as a studio apartment.
The citywide and nationwide housing crisis isn’t going to get better overnight. Some new SF public and low-cost housing is in the planning stages, but will take time to be built. Even in combination with the city’s BMR requirements for newly-built apartment buildings, and the upcoming influx of Prop C tax money – partially earmarked for construction of new affordable housing – thousands of homeless San Franciscans may have to wait years until suitable housing is made available to them. Until then, many unhoused residents may continue to choose vehicle living as their best option. Investing in robust safe parking alternatives for them produces better outcomes for all San Francisco neighbors – housed and unhoused.