Free Parking for Sale

Many say homeless guys who help commuters find street parking provide a valuable service. But others complain that they cause trouble.

Few would guess, judging from his looks alone, that Silas spends his nights in shelters or on cardboard boxes. Everything he wears is clean: the khaki baseball cap with the Native American dreamcatcher designs; the khaki zip-up jacket with a fuzzy gray lining; the frayed, easy-fit jeans; and the comfortable brown shoes. There are sprouts of gray hair poking through along his coffee-colored jaw and creased neckline, but it's clear that he shaves regularly.

The deep folds in Silas' brow hint that he has done his share of worrying. He grew up entrenched in Hunters Point gang warfare and gun violence. But the intricate lines at the corners of his eyes, embedded from many years of smiling, suggest plenty of good times, too.

Today, Silas says, he's one happy guy. He has his own business and seems to do quite well, though he's reluctant to say just how well. And he's got his girl — a homeless woman said to have a master's degree in psychology, along with a crack addiction. They're working on that.

Silas fought off his own addiction four years ago, and he's determined to help his girl, which is partly why he has asked her to be his woo-woo subcontractor. This job, they agree, is a way to keep people out of trouble.

Like an air traffic controller on the tarmac, Silas flags down cars and directs them into free parking spots with his rolled-up City Star newspaper. He watches over these cars all day. At five o'clock, he helps drivers back out of their spots, which are perpendicular to the curb.

Although he never physically parks a car, on this street Silas is considered by many people in the area to be an unofficial valet. This work doesn't seem to concern San Francisco transportation officials as much as his other service — the one that prevents parking-ticket money from going into city coffers.

A few times a week, parking control officers roll by on their blue-and-white Cushman money carts. They used to chalk the tires of every vehicle parked along Townsend's two-hour parking zone, but people kept rubbing it off. Now the officers punch the license-plate number into a handheld computer. If the vehicle is still within one block of its original spot two hours later, it earns a $50 ticket.

For years, parkers on Townsend who weren't vigilant about moving their cars wound up owing hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fines. Then came Silas. "Now I'm going in the office to save these people $50 a ticket," he announces around 11:15 a.m. on a recent Thursday. A parking control officer had come by at 9:15. Now she's back to issue the citations.

Silas sprints into 320 Townsend and then 330 like a homeless, horseless Paul Revere. "They givin' tickets! They givin' tickets!" he rasps. A week ago, he would have been on his walkie-talkie, calling regular customer Serguei Komarov in his 330 Townsend office. To facilitate Silas' job, Komarov and his officemates purchased the Motorola walkie-talkies several weeks ago. "I don't think you'll like the paper they gettin' ready to put on your car," Silas would announce. "It ain't advertising. That's a wrap. 10-4." But today, from frequent use, the battery is dead.

Once Silas screams his alert, a sea of drivers rushes from the buildings to move their cars. And that's still a pain. Some days, it can take as long as a half-hour to find a new spot on another block, which is all part of the transit agency's strategy to compel infuriated motorists to ditch their cars. But judging by the number of people who still drive to work, that goal has seen limited success.

Meanwhile, the city has been flush with parking ticket income: In the fiscal year of 2007, it amounted to about $90 million. That's a significant chunk of the MTA's budget ($685.5 million last year), which has a projected deficit of about $83 million over the next two years. On March 19, the MTA board met to discuss options for increasing revenue, including upping the fees on parking tickets by $10.

When he heard about Silas' efforts to reduce ticketing along Townsend, MTA spokesman Judson True became concerned. "He's making it easier for people to drive who we'd like to see on transit given the city's transit-first policy," he said.

Actually, Silas operates in a legal gray area. If somebody complains of feeling threatened or intimidated, then what Silas is doing is considered aggressive solicitation, or "flagging." But there's no law that prevents someone from alerting people when a parking control officer is coming.

"He may not be breaking the law by helping people out like this," True said, "but our job is to enforce the laws, so we'll find a way to do that despite his efforts."

Today's parking control officer, a short, dark-haired woman, seems to ignore Silas. However, he believes she's perfectly aware of him. Some days, Silas says, she waits for him to take a break before she records the license plates. Then their drivers don't get proper warnings, and dozens of tickets are issued.

Whether or not he catches the officers in action, there are always some drivers Silas can't save. "I don't know these people," he says, indicating a row of unfamiliar cars. "Some come and catch a train and go somewhere. I can't do nothing about that."

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This is great. This whole story. The kicker's a cherry on top.

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