Headway Finally Made on Safe Parking Plan for the Homeless

S.F. often leads the way on social justice issues, but it’s years behind other California cities in acknowledging people who live in their vehicles.

David Samples walks around his 1971 Chinook RV, Sept. 21, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume)

“My mother was a single mother who supported me and my sister between waitressing and factory jobs,” Supervisor Vallie Brown began. “She did the best she could, but sometimes we couldn’t make the rent. We would leave before we were evicted, and many times when we didn’t have enough money to get an apartment, we would live in a van, which my mother’s friend donated to us. That vehicle — it was our lifeline. If we didn’t have that, I’m not sure where we would have gone.”

On Tuesday, after seven months of work, Brown’s office introduced legislation to create a safe overnight-parking program for people who live in their vehicles. For many, vehicles are the last step between home and living on the street. They provide a place to store belongings, and a door that locks to keep its inhabitants safe.

But in a ticket-and-tow-happy city, the risk of losing one’s vehicular home over unpaid parking citations, an expired registration, or simply because you ran out of gas is significant. It’s beyond many people’s means to pay the steep fines to get a car off the lot once it’s been towed, and the fear hanging over people that the city could claim their homes is constant.

“I couldn’t begin to tell you how hard it is to be on the street and come up with enough to have a vehicle. You feel like you actually did something,” a man who goes by the name “Sunbear” told supervisors Tuesday. “I’ve had four RVs and six vans towed.”

After 12 years without a roof over his head that was also attached to a building foundation, Sunbear is now housed, but the trauma of his time on the streets has stuck with him. “Every Tuesday and Wednesday I wake up in a panic when I wake up to the sound of the street sweeper,” he says.

Others live in constant fear of having their entire home carted off by a tow truck.

“It was a struggle — even leaving it for a moment was too risky,” says a woman with the nickname “Roadkill.” “We were always afraid of being persecuted. It finally got taken away, and when I asked the S.F. Police Department why they told us that the neighbors near where it was parked considered it an eyesore. But for me it was the only safe place me and my children had.”

Sunbear and Roadkill’s stories are not uncommon. In October 2018, a manual count disclosed that there were 432 inhabited vehicles citywide, including 313 RVs and 113 passenger cars. Everyone agrees that number represents an underestimate. It’s not always easy to tell from looking at a car that someone lives in it, something many such people hide out of shame of fear. They shower at gyms and do their laundry at laundromats (as many people do) so that co-workers or teachers stay in the dark.  

Raina Cruz, who spoke at City Hall Tuesday with the help of a translator, described the panic she feels when police approach her vehicle — and her kids begging officers not to take them away. She says she wakes up early every morning to get the kids to school, so they can change and brush their teeth before classes start.

“I invite any of these politicians to come and trade places with me for 24 hours, so that they can see what it’s really like, and so they can be inspired to make changes,” she said.

Finding a safe place for people to park — without risk of tickets, towing, or police interactions — is an issue advocates have been working on for decades. However, San Francisco’s citywide response has been remarkably slow. Santa Barbara implemented an overnight parking program with supportive services in 2004. San Diego has had one in place since 2009. Los Angeles joined in with more than half a dozen lots in various neighborhoods in 2018. San Jose approved theirs earlier this year.

Brown’s own history of living in a vehicle no doubt led her to jump on the legislation, and despite support from a majority of supervisors on the Board, yet the battle is far from over. The mayor has set aside $1 million to fund the program, but a parking lot has yet to be selected. And that in itself could be a massive battle. The Embarcadero Navigation Center is tied up in community arguments, and despite having been funded for more than a year, the city has yet to find a location for a Navigation Center for youth. A similar struggle to identify a site is entirely possible, and potential backlash from neighbors if the city turns a parking lot near homes into an overnight shelter with bathrooms, showers, and other services.

Plus, the definition of “eligible vehicularly housed persons,” as described in the current draft of legislation, has yet to be hashed out. The San Diego lot’s rules exclude anyone with a violent criminal history, and prohibit anyone who struggles with addiction issues or has used drugs within 24 hours from trying to enter.

Nevertheless, the dialogue among city politicians is changing, and more and more there appears to be an emphasis on meeting people where they are, instead of demanding they adhere to a prewritten set of rules to access care. Supervisor Matt Haney voiced this loudly and clearly at a safe-parking rally on Tuesday.

“Sometimes when we talk about our homelessness we talk about the number of tents, and reducing the number of tents,” he said. “But the reality is this is not about tents, and this legislation is not about cars, it’s about human beings. Human beings a safe and secure place to live. They deserve to be met where they are. They deserve to have their human rights valued.

“When we have a situation in our city where we choose to criminalize people rather than find solutions to actually ensure they have a dignified place to leave we’re moving in the wrong direction,” he added.

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