“We Don’t Have Anywhere Else to Go”: Bernal RV Residents Face Deadline with No Exit Plan

by Madeleine Matz

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) recently began enforcing a ban on overnight parking on Bernal Heights Boulevard, endangering the homes of RV dwellers who have parked there for years. Now, the RV residents are protesting their impending eviction.

Two neighborhood residents—Armando Martinez, who lives in an RV on Bernal Heights Boulevard, and Flo Kelly, a traditionally housed neighbor—gathered vehicularly housed residents to give public comment at the March 5 SFMTA board meeting. The RV dwellers told the board how enforcing a parking ban would negatively impact them.  

Kelly and Martinez told Street Sheet that they only found out about an overnight parking ban on the south side of Bernal Heights Boulevard when the San Francisco Chronicle reported on February 21 that a long dormant law preventing overnight parking would be enforced. A few days later, the city installed signs to the same effect. Kelly added that the RV residents were later told by Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office they would have a grace period until March 28 before their RVs would be ticketed or towed. 

But Martinez told the board that parking control officers and police had started issuing tickets despite the promised grace period. “Yesterday [March 4] around 11 p.m., an MTA person came and gave everyone tickets for $108 because [we] were parked after 10 p.m.,” he said. 

“I spoke with him and he agreed not to give the RVs tickets, but he ticketed all of the cars [owned by RV residents],” he continued. “Subsequently, at 5 in the morning, a policeman who has been visiting us frequently and harassing me and others arrived and gave everybody a ticket on behalf of the police department, and then he harassed some of the people. He had a billy club out and he smashed it against the RV asking them to come out, etc., etc. I don’t want to belabor this, but it is not fun.” 

Another resident, who did not give her name, also reported that the police visited earlier on March 5 and tried to intimidate her into leaving, despite the promised grace period. 

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said in Spanish, which Martinez translated. “We rented before and we had to leave and ended up [in an RV]. We like it there because it is a peaceful place. … Because we have dogs we find it difficult to find another place to rent.

“My husband received the brunt of the policeman’s anger, and it seemed that the policeman wanted to hit my husband and asked if my husband was crazy,” the resident said. “But my husband just wanted to make coffee and heat up my home for the dogs.” 

Darwin Pena, another RV resident, also addressed the board. Speaking in Spanish with Martinez translating, he told the board that his fellow RV residents respect the law and their neighbors. 

“The only thing we can tell you is that we … take care of the property and vehicles,” he said. “There are other people who park late at night who throw garbage and leave the garbage. We pick up that garbage. We say hello to all the passersby. We clean the park; we clean up after everyone, not just us.”

In an interview with Street Sheet, Martinez shared that SFMTA told him and other residents that their tickets for late-night parking would be forgiven and that no more parking tickets would be issued until the grace period ends on March 28. But, Martinez reported, police officers have been finding other reasons to ticket the RV owners, including issuing $250 tickets to four RVs with expired registration on March 7 and again on March 11. 

San Francisco’s most recent Point In Time survey found that 24% of the city’s 4,397 unsheltered homeless people were sleeping in a vehicle. Many do so with the SFMTA’s tacit approval. Indeed, Martinez told Street Sheet that representatives from the SFMTA historically notified the RV residents before  they began ticketing for long term parking, allowing them to temporarily relocate to avoid citations. 

San Francisco may now be enforcing restrictive parking laws because it lost its right to tow vehicles for unpaid parking tickets: In July 2023, the California Court of Appeals declared that towing lawfully parked vehicles for unpaid parking tickets violates the state constitution. Towing vehicles for unpaid parking tickets—a practice activists call “poverty tows”—cost taxpayers while robbing RV and vehicle residents of their safety and security. After the ruling, Sasha Ellis, a supervising attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid, noted, “The court’s important ruling recognizes that towing practices can have dramatically inequitable impacts on low-income drivers, often disproportionately from Black and brown communities, including losing access to possessions, employment and even one’s primary shelter.”

The End Poverty Tows Coalition, a group of over 80 community-based organizations, is fighting to end police practices that harm poor and marginally housed people, including the seizure of vehicles for unpaid parking tickets, expired registration or long term parking. Their efforts are backed by the experts: A recent study from UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative recommended “increasing opportunities for individuals to retain their vehicles, which [provide] a form of shelter and transportation.”

Eleana Binder, policy manager at GLIDE and an organizer with the End Poverty Tows Coalition, noted that new parking restrictions have been emerging across San Francisco. She said that there have “recently [been] attempts to restrict legal parking [with a] shift to four-hour parking, angled parking [or] finding existing laws … narrowing the areas where parking is allowed.”  

For example, the Great Highway was recently redesigned to feature angled parking, which cannot accommodate RVs, in order to expel vehicularly housed residents.

“State law and ongoing court cases limit the City’s ability to enforce posted parking regulations,” District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio said in an interview with the San Francisco Neighborhood Newspaper Association. “Tickets can be issued, but towing is no longer allowed in most cases. That’s why I asked the SFMTA board of directors to reconfigure Lower Great Highway from Lincoln to Kirkham from parallel to angled parking.” The new restrictions will go into effect this month. 

The February Chronicle article about RVs on Bernal Heights Boulevard suggests that RV residents in the neighborhood might move into the vehicle triage center at Candlestick Park. But as the San Francisco Standard has reported, the triage center has failed to provide many promised services , including electricity. Martinez told the Chronicle that he was concerned he was going to feel “like [he was] being forced into a refugee camp.” 

Martinez explained that he found the rules of the center, which he believed to include a ban on visitors, as the one in Bayview does, to be “extremely restrictive.” At 59, he also expressed concerns about his age and health, which he believed would suffer at a shelter or campsite. Regardless, Martinez told Street Sheet that none of the RV residents had been offered a space at the vehicle triage center as of March 7. 

Pena emphasized another concern in his public comment to the SFMTA board. “There’s no other place to go,” he said. “I especially have my dogs, and the shelters won’t allow my dogs.” 

The Chronicle article states that when restrictive parking laws go into effect, “RVs rousted from one neighborhood merely gravitate towards another.” Binder identified a similar concern. “We’re trying to get the City to find a more sustainable solution. Pushing people from neighborhood to neighborhood is not a sustainable solution. A safe parking site where people can access more services and housing is a sustainable solution. Affordable housing is a sustainable solution.”

Binder added that in order for a vehicle triage center to be a good option, it may need to be located in the same neighborhood where an RV was already parked. She said, “People in RVs have lives just like everyone else. They have jobs, take their kids to school … People want to stay in the area [where they have parked] and have a safe parking spot in that area while they’re trying to get into permanent housing.”

Kelly believes that the root of the parking ban may have been complaints from housed neighbors about the RV community, including incendiary and untrue social media posts. Martinez said he was surprised “how easy it is for one neighbor to set in motion [the displacement] by complaining.”

Not all traditionally housed Bernal Heights residents share these views. Kelly collected approximately thirty letters of support from her traditionally housed neighbors for her neighbors living in RVs and delivered the letters to Mayor London Breed’s office, the SFMTA board and others. Martinez said that despite a vocal minority he had also received “a lot of support” from many of his housed neighbors. 

After hearing of the complaints, Martinez’s fellow RV residents have asked him: If they  “don’t want us here, how can we stay here?” Some have already left. Martinez has told the community that it remains to wait until he finds somewhere else for them to live. 

But, he told Street Sheet, “I’m not sure there is anywhere to go.”