Before They Haul Your Home: Stories of Ending Poverty Tows

Towing practices have always been a particular plague for poor and homeless people, especially in San Francisco – the city with the nation’s highest towing fees, averaging $574 in the current fiscal year. However, the current pandemic has brought renewed attention to these “poverty tows” and possibly an opportunity to end them.

From mid-March to June 15, people in vehicles experienced some relief when ticketing and non-emergency towing were halted due to the shelter-in-place order, but these practices have since resumed.

A five-person legal team from The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is representing the Coalition on Homelessness, as well as 26 other organizations and individuals, and they are fighting against the towing practices of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) in the name of economic and racial justice.

On June 19, 2020, the lawyers wrote their first letter to SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin and the agency’s board, urging them to implement more just policies and end poverty tows.

For example, they recommend improving the SFMTA’s low-income payment plan by sending out monthly payment statements and email or text reminders. This would make it easier for people to keep track of their payments. The lawyers further argue that people should have the opportunity to re-enroll with their same unpaid citations even after they have defaulted. Finally, they suggest a warning system for people to be notified through text when their vehicle is about to get towed, giving people the last-minute chance to move their vehicle.

Fast forward to mid-July, when we – an outreach team from the Coalition on Homelessness – reached out to people living in their vehicles in Bayview to ask about their recent ticketing and towing experiences.

On Bayshore Avenue, we walked up a block where around five trailers were parked. One of the first people we met was Ron Trathen. He quickly told us that he had extensive experiences with ticketing, towing, hearings and the City-contracted towing service known as AutoReturn. He was outspoken and savvy regarding municipal codes and relevant documentation required for towing hearings.

Ron Trathen in front of his current mobile home in Bayview, SF. 

Ron’s first towing experience was in the Avenues. He told us that he owed $1,000 to AutoReturn for the extra towing and storage charges due to his vehicle’s bigger size. AutoReturn gave him 30 days to pay before his trailer would be up for auction. When he checked on his trailer after 20 days, he was told that it was already auctioned off. When pointing out the 30-day rule, he was told that his van was in a different value category and that the 30-day rule did not apply. He never saw that trailer again, nor any of the contents that were inside.

Ron’s other towing experience went a little differently. Yet, he had to deal with equally uncooperative employees and unforgiving rules at AutoReturn. His vehicle was parked on private property when it got towed. Ron managed to contest this towing at a towing hearing, at which he presented a GPS map showing the exact location of the slab of private property on which he had parked. But the hearing officer at AutoReturn was not interested in the map nor Ron’s argument.

When it was clear to Ron that he would not get his vehicle back, he tried to get his belongings – at least. At AutoReturn, he was given 15-minute intervals to get his stuff out, which means only 15 minutes at a time, minus the time it takes to walk through the warehouse to the vehicle. Ron took 10 trips to AutoReturn because he had his whole RV full of belongings to retrieve. At some point, employees started rushing him, and eventually, he was told he could recover no more of his possessions, with half of his belongings remaining in his RV. Eventually, Ron was able to find the person who bought his RV at the auction and thus could get some more of his stuff back.

Ron can’t help but think that AutoReturn employees purposefully make things even more difficult for people who are already under stress of losing their home and belongings. 

On another day, in the same area, we met a man, Damar Johnson, who recounted similarly stressful experiences with AutoReturn. When we walked up to Damar and let him know we were interested in people’s towing experiences, he became talkative.

Damar Johnson in front of his current mobile home parked in Bayview, SF. 

Damar had been towed twice in the past, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The memory and the frustration around it are fresh in his mind. His vehicles got towed in the past because he couldn’t keep track of the many tickets he received. As we have heard from many other vehicle owners, Damar had received tickets because he couldn’t – and still cannot – safely drive his van due to mechanical issues. Hence he receives tickets on street cleaning days. 

Damar also told us that the MTA is operating in new ways; up until a few months ago SFMTA enforcers would drive around, write down the ticket while physically present at the vehicle, and then place the ticket. This way – assuming that one was present at that moment – vehicle owners had the chance to communicate and, at times, negotiate or move their vehicle. Today though, most tickets are generated and registered by photo monitoring and only placed on the vehicle once they’re already in the SFMTA’s system. With this change in procedure, any possibility for negotiation or last-minute moving gets lost — a process of depersonalization and dehumanization.

Damar explained to us in detail how the rules around retrieval imposed by AutoReturn have changed as well, and that it has gotten more complicated and obstacle-ridden. After receiving a bill for towing and storing that many, including Damar, are unable to pay, vehicle owners are confronted with frustrating rules around access to their towed vehicle and their belongings inside.

Damar tells us that the minimum paperwork required is the release of liability statement for the vehicle. Without this form, you cannot even get something as important as your ID out of your vehicle. If you have this form, you need to fill out a sheet at AutoReturn and state precisely what items you want to get out. These stated items are the only items that you are allowed to return with.

Moreover, if you wish to get all of your belongings out of the car, you have to have the paperwork proving that you are the vehicle’s registered owner. In Damar’s case, he had lost it, meaning that he had to go to the DMV, hence yet another bill of around $200. When he returned to AutoReturn, they suddenly also expected the paperwork for the insurance of the vehicle.

At the end of the day, Damar gave up, defeated in his battle with AutoReturn to get his vehicle and belongings back, only to be stuck with more payments, more bureaucracy and no success.

Every requirement puts another barrier in your way and imposes an even higher financial burden – a cycle that forces you to give up, as Damar puts it. 

Finally, he tells us that even if he had been successful in getting back his vehicle at the AutoReturn auction, he would have encountered another risk. That is because, at the auction center, all license plates are removed from the vehicles. As a homeless person you therefore run the risk of driving a vehicle without a license plate while searching for a spot to stay –since you don’t have a safe garage and home to drive to– and getting pulled over by the police or fined by the MTA first thing after getting your vehicle back.

Damar wants nothing more than to get out of this situation and into a home. For now, he knows that he will be moving soon since the risk of being towed is too high. He will likely have to abandon his van, as it is too damaged to be fixed on the spot, and moving the vehicle constantly is a stressful reality. A reality that Damar has been dealing with for a long time now.

Poverty tows need to end. Far too many people share Ron and Damar’s experiences throughout this city — experiences of cycles into poverty, debt and homelessness. The SFMTA has to start taking responsibility and stop punishing people for being poor and homeless.