The homeless crisis is not unique to Berkeley, but Berkeley is moving forward on a unique strategy to address the problem. At a Tuesday night Berkeley City Council meeting, councilmembers expressed unanimous support for a framework to create a vehicle dwelling park where people living in their cars can park and stay without threat of citation, and with access to basic sanitary services.
This is not some crazy “Only in Berkeley” concept. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ West Los Angeles campus recently opened a vehicle park for homeless veterans, though Berkeley’s plan would be far more ambitious.
“Homelessness is an emergency that really requires we have to think creatively about how we’re going to address this problem,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said at the meeting. “People who’ve been sleeping in their vehicles have been cited and those vehicles have been towed, which creates enormous economic hardship for people that are already marginally housed and are living in extreme poverty, and has resulted in people losing their cars and living on the streets.”
The plan is still in the very early stages, and a full proposal was not presented. But Arreguín was directed to work with city officials to identify a location where vehicles could park without impacting neighborhood residential parking and general quality of life. The site would offer basic amenities like Porta-Potties at first, and would add drinkable water and access to showers in the longer term.
“We need to have a place for vehicular residents to park,” said District 2 councilmember Cheryl Davila, a co-author of the preliminary framework. “Across Berkeley there are families with young children in the USD [Unified School District], there’s graduate students living in their vehicles without other options for housing. Keeping people in their cars when they do not have houses to offer is a priority. If they are not able to stay in their cars, they will be on the street.”
A large number of unhoused people spoke in favor of the measure during the public comment session. Many expressed a willingness to pay a small fee, and the proposal calls for a $2-$5 permit fee per day, or $60-$150 per month.
But with an estimated 400 people currently living in vehicles in Berkeley, this project would require a pretty large site. “We’re quite land-poor. We don’t have land for RV parks,” worried councilmember Linda Maio.
The council discussed reaching out to Caltrans, UC Berkeley, and other parties to identify potential sites. “The county has tons of land, and the county can talk regionally and could help enormously to identify locations,” said councilmember Sophie Hahn.
Officials did not vote on a specific plan Tuesday, but were unanimously supportive in asking Mayor Arreguín to bring them a detailed proposal. “We have the will here to do this, and I think that’s really critical,” according to councilmember Kate Harrison.
Vehicle dwelling parks may prove a creative method to making the best of a bad situation. Berkeley is setting a compassionate precedent for car camping, but there’s a risk of unintended consequences riding in too.