By Ben Baczkowski
On December 11, 2019, San Francisco city officials officially announced the opening of the Vehicle Triage Center (VTC) located on San Jose Avenue near Balboa Park BART station. The yearlong pilot program will provide a secure parking location and targeted services for folks living in their vehicles, and is the first safe parking facility of its kind in San Francisco’s history. The site includes up to 30 parking spaces with mobile blackwater pumping services, access to shower facilities, bathrooms and electricity and will operate for one year, after which the location is slated for an affordable housing development.
According to the most recent point-in-time count, the unsheltered population in San Francisco rose by 17% in 2019, with a significant part of that increase comprised of individuals residing in vehicles or RVs. And as vehicular homelessness has become more visible to housed neighbors, the official response from the city has been to “sweep” the unhoused community from one street to the next, neighborhood to neighborhood, through a combination of parking bans and police harassment. Though the city continues to deny that it conducts sweeps, during Mayor London Breed’s inauguration speech on January 8, she conveyed a message of “tough love” towards the unhoused community, signaling an even more aggressive approach to dealing with people living on the streets.
Over the summer District 11 Supervisor Asha Safái’s office held two community meetings at Balboa High School to present the VTC program to the neighborhood and solicit feedback. Several vocal opponents of the center gave public comment and claimed that it would bring crime and additional unhoused people to the traditionally working class immigrant neighborhood. Captain Jack Hart from the San Francisco Police Department repeatedly countered that narrative with the fact that crime has been steadily decreasing in San Francisco, and that there is no such evidence to support the idea that homelessness is connected with a rise in criminality. In fact, City data has recently demonstrated that crime rates have actually decreased around the Navigation Centers which, unlike traditional homeless shelters allow 24/7 access to temporary residence. Many D11 residents showed support for the program, citing the need to help our fellow neighbors get back on their feet, many of whom were previously housed in the community.
Currently the VTC is 60% occupied and is home to 12 RVs and eight cars with a total of 28 residents. However, details on the success of the City’s outreach efforts have been scarce to non-existent. According to Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) officials, the VTC pilot program is narrowly focused on single adults that are identified by HSH assessment to be “high priority” for housing, which means that they have been homeless for over 10 years, combined with other factors which make them highly vulnerable — although not much is known publicly about the methodology.
HSH’s Vehicle Encampment Resolution Team (VERT) has been tasked with conducting the outreach and mobile coordinated entry assessments for the VTC which began in December 2019. During that process city workers evaluate people through Coordinated Entry, the starting point for access to San Francisco’s Homelessness Response System, at which time the person(s) are given a score which identifies them either as “priority” for permanent supportive housing, or candidates for “problem solving” services reserved for people who are assessed to be less vulnerable people according to HSH.
But there have been calls from members of the D11 community for greater transparency from the City, specifically about how it is conducting outreach for the parking center and whether the program will ultimately be able to achieve its stated goal of getting folks into permanent housing. There is very little clarity about how individuals are prioritized for access to the VTC, and to community members the process appears to be inflexible. Furthermore, several members of both the housed and unhoused community have criticized the City’s outreach efforts as being minimal, and that referrals to VERT and HSH from the community have gone unaddressed. The local D11 business and neighborhood communities have been tentatively supportive of the program, but many have articulated that they want to see a greater sustained effort on the part of the City at getting people connected with permanently affordable housing. At a recent Vehicle Triage Center Work Group meeting, neighbors asked why several groupings of vehicles had not been reached by City workers, to which HSH replied that “we are soliciting advice for outreach opportunities from community.”
The vehicularly housed community has similarly pointed to major sweeps of vehicle encampments in the Bayview and Potrero Hill neighborhoods and ask “why weren’t people from those communities offered spots at the VTC?” The official response from HSH is that all members of those communities were offered services during the “resolution” of that encampment. However Sophia Thibadeoux is one such former resident who disagrees with the official response. She alleges that their community on Jerrold Avenue and Rankin Street was unceremoniously removed from their location during the January 8 sweep of the encampment with a backhoe, and also alleges that community members were never offered space in the VTC, nor other services from City outreach workers. The fact is that there are very limited resources available to city outreach workers, and even if there are shelter beds available on any given day, there is not enough permanent supportive housing on the other side of the pipeline to effectively deal with the volume of people in crisis.
Whether the Vehicle Triage Center will succeed in getting folks connected to stable permanent housing isn’t yet clear. However there is no doubt that there is a rapidly growing need for additional safe parking spaces in San Francisco for people displaced by gentrification. The core of the homelessness crisis continues to be the lack of affordable housing caused by financial speculation, and the massive wave of evictions that accompanied skyrocketing housing and rental costs; however it will take concerted political pressure to enact policies which will wrest control of housing policy away from the real estate industry. In the meantime, the Vehicle Triage Center is a very limited effort to mitigate the crisis and offer at least some response to the rise in vehicular homelessness.