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No Place Like Curb 

So many San Franciscans live in cars, vans, campers, and buses that the city wants to create a "vehicular community" where they could legally park. But if we build it, will the "houseless" come?

Wednesday, Dec 16 1998
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One after another, the reflections of dilapidated trailers, decommissioned school buses, and late-model RVs roll through the rearview mirror of the unmarked police car. Officer Paul Swiatko squints in the dawn glare as he drives by the hundreds of dented Winnebagos and pickup trucks with duct-taped camper shells that line the streets of Mission Bay and lower Potrero Hill.

On this 7 a.m. patrol, it is Swiatko's job to roust the long rows of offenders living in their illegally parked vehicles. Yet Swiatko cruises past blocks of beat-up Volkswagen vans and sagging Airstreams without bothering to slow down. He not only recognizes all the mobile encampments this morning, he even knows the names of those sleeping behind every dew-covered window. He's seen them many times before, and despite the occasional districtwide sweep, the vehicles keep coming back. They come back for a reason: On most days it's just Swiatko on the beat, and one officer is not enough to ticket and tow all the parking violators. So Swiatko leaves the quiet regulars alone, scanning the streets for newcomers to tag and put in his 3-inch-thick homeless dossier. "It's the ones I don't know about that worry me," he says.

As he turns the corner from Third Street onto 16th, a rusted station wagon catches his eye. Swiatko (who pronounces his name "Swee-at-co," but is widely known on the street as "Swat-co") stops and gets out of his car. The undercover officer is wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, and a green parka that unzips to reveal a police badge hanging around his neck. His shaved head is offset by a bushy mustache, and covered by an Oakland A's baseball cap. The sturdy, nearly 6-foot ex-Marine approaches the old station wagon with deliberate steps. Unsure of who is behind the newspapered windows, and anticipating the dogs that have jumped from under vehicles before, Swiatko unsnaps his holster. He raps on the driver side window with his left hand, keeping his right hand on the butt of his gun.

"Come out, Police Department," he yells.
The white Chevy Impala starts to rock as the occupant stirs inside. Swiatko stands back and crouches, ready to draw, if needed. The driver's door finally opens and a disheveled, frail man spills out of a rat's nest covering the seats and dashboard. On top of the car, a blue tarp is tied to some boxes and broken furniture; it flaps in the wind. A small hibachi grill and more piles of junk litter the curb.

"You got a bit of a trash pit here," Swiatko tells the man, asking for identification.

The man is named Jun; he was born in the Philippines and is 50 years old -- but looks 70. Still waking up, he rubs his eyes and pats his matted hair as Swiatko looms over him.

"Do you know why I'm here?"
"Yes, I sleep in my car," Jun replies, admitting his infraction, but not apologizing for it. He stares up at Swiatko, shiny brown eyes the only sign of life left in a weathered, defeated face, and begins to defend his last vestige of a home.

"I know it is illegal," Jun continues. "But do I have a choice? It's better than outside, and if I sleep in the street, I die."

Taped on a wall inside the former firehouse near the intersection of Third and Fourth streets is a giant piece of drawing paper with a meeting agenda outlined in Magic Marker. Now a soup kitchen, the firehouse hosts a group of people every Thursday evening. The people, who all live in cars, stand and introduce themselves to each other, 12-step style.

"Hi, I'm Joan, and I live in a van."
"I'm Guinea -- vehicularly housed and proud!"
They get together to talk about mobile survival, swapping information about the nooks and crannies of the city: the free water taps, the lowest-priced gas stations, the construction sites that leave their Porta Pottis open so they can be discreetly used as RV waste dumps. But the most important topic is where to park. The people at this meeting hope to determine, based on recent ticketing activity, which streets are safest from police patrols. Ticketing activity, after all, can lead to tow trucks. And the greatest fear in the world for the people in this room is getting towed. For them, that would mean losing their homes.

Scribbled on the large meeting outline, under "Announcements" and "Towing Updates," is the section that riles everyone every Thursday: "Swiatko Strategies." Anyone who has ever lived in a car on the streets of San Francisco knows Swiatko; just mention his name and vehicle dwellers bristle. They've all met him at one time or another, and a good part of their existence is devoted to moving their cars around town in an effort to avoid his early morning knock on the window.

"Swiatko has been their nemesis for years," says Ronnie Eagles, a Coalition on Homelessness project worker who helps organize the Thursday night gatherings. "He's given those people nothing but the blues."

The curbside campers have some hope they can be rid of the Swiatko threat sometime before the 48-year-old officer retires. The Thursday night meetings started two years ago with an idea -- a dream, really -- of establishing a vehicular community, a place where members could move their cars from the city streets onto a giant piece of vacant industrial land. A Swiatko-free zone. There, basic facilities such as toilets and showers would be set up, and the mobile residents could come and go as they please without fear of tickets and tow trucks.

Although not all curbside campers live in their vehicles by choice, most consider these living arrangements to be a matter of pride. Those with RVs and converted school buses -- some of them carpeted and furnished with couches, full-size beds, and kitchen appliances -- consider vehicular dwelling the only way to stay in a desirable city and beat paying its astronomical rents. For others, who live in vans or the back seats of cars, residing in a vehicle is one step up from living out of a shopping cart.

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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