Home Is Where the Car Is

Tales of the wheeled homeless

As Third Street stretches past its SOMA roots and toward China Basin you see the cars and station wagons and RVs of the wheeled nomads all over the place. They park in alleys, on sidewalks, in parking lots, and right on the curb.

Just north of Illinois and 24th Street is the Emperor Arcadia's home, an old '63 Dodge hippie bus that looks like a cross between the Partridge Family truckster and the Tijuana cross-town local. It's parked on the sidewalk of an old warehouse, surrounded by an insurmountable junk moat of chairs, signs, posters, plants, and rope.

Another China Basin nomad, heading up the street to his own '70s-era Winnebago, laughs as I approach the Emperor's pad.

"Just call for him, he'll come out," he says.
I do as told and sure enough, about five minutes later, a grizzled and stooped figure about 65 years old emerges from the fortress, waving a document in his hand. Beaming from ear to ear, the old man shows me the way to a makeshift picnic table surrounded by streamers and lawn chairs.

The Emperor is convinced he's the reincarnation of Christ, and the paper he waves is a 10-page manifesto that details how he realized his true identity on July 4, 1963, and which he sent to the Supreme Court last year. After three decades of trying to get the world to acknowledge his theories on medicine, electromagnetic forces, and the hereafter, he's about had it.

"Fuck these people," he says. "They're so damn stupid, they can't even comprehend what I've got to say."

The Emperor says he's been around San Francisco forever, and talks of partying with the beatniks, the hippies after them, and the punkers still later. Old City Hall hands remember his rambling discourses before the Board of Supervisors back in the early '80s (he called himself a crow prince then and wore a crown). Currently, the Emperor is pissed about having no access to a shower. He wishes Fleishacker Pool were still around.

About five years ago he lived in a Tenderloin hotel at 250 Taylor, but the tenants got the boot when the building was condemned, thereby turning the Emperor loose again. The landlord was forced to pay former tenants damages, of which the Emperor got $2,000. He bought his home from some hippie friends at the old Church of Nazareth, and ever since, like Papa with a brand-new beater, wherever he parks his car is his home.

He makes his living recycling paper, cardboard, bottles, and glass and reaps a little welfare, but only to the extent of going to local soup kitchens.

The majority of his money comes in the form of a monthly $700 social security check.

"We should encourage private property owners to take in the homeless as caretakers of abandoned land," he says. "What I'm doing here is a solution to the homeless problem. In return for maintaining the premises, I get to park my vehicle on private property."

When I tell the Emperor that I'm interested in meeting more of the wheeled homeless, he directs me toward the Mission Rock Resort, a restaurant on China Basin Boulevard. Within spitting distance of the Mission Rock I find a surprisingly well-kept, 30-foot RV with curtains and a side door. As I knock on the door, I see a man lying on his couch. I knock again, and he barks an answer. Two minutes later, we're sitting inside.

"I've just had a real bad string of luck," says Orr, a 45-year-old ex-Marine who still only uses his military-issue nickname. "After taking a leave of absence to go to Chicago and bury my father, I came back and I didn't have a job. I was doing real well, and then you wake up one day and you're homeless."

He packed up his belongings when he could no longer pay rent on his apartment and moved into his RV on Aug. 1. Like many of his compadres in the world of the mobile homeless, he drove down to China Basin.

Orr is a thin-faced, working-class kinda guy. His tattoos and bloodshot eyes put me on guard, at first, but we settle into a groove after realizing that years ago in New York we lived a block away from each other.

Unlike most of the nomads, Orr has a car, too. He lives off his savings and the military disability he draws from having broken his back 20 years ago.

He's hoping for another job in the commercial driving trade, but he has too many points on his license. A point comes off every month, so he's waiting it out.

He says the cops come around every now and then to ticket the van people, and that leads to a conversation about how there's nowhere for people like him to go, which eventually ends with a familiar diatribe on how Jordan is an asshole and Matrix isn't worth shit. As we finish, he asks that I make sure my article doesn't bring the cops down on the nomad community. Although the van people of China Basin are ubiquitous, Deborah Marshall, manager and co-owner of the Mission Rock Resort, cites a decline in their numbers over the last month.

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