A lawsuit filed against the City and County of San Francisco last month over its practice of towing vehicles that people live in is the latest effort by homelessness advocates to reverse the city’s toxic relationship with the people who live on its streets. More than 4,000 vehicles are towed in San Francisco every year as a collection for unpaid tickets, a move that more commonly criminalizes the poor than punishes rich scofflaws.
“With few exceptions, the Fourth Amendment protects us all from the government taking and selling our belongings for its own profit.” said Elisa Della-Piana, legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, in December. “We’re calling on the city to follow the law and demonstrate holiday cheer by ending this harm to families already struggling to make ends meet.”
While the lawsuit wends its way through the courts, we have ample time to brainstorm some solutions to manage the hundreds of unhoused people in San Francisco who sleep in their vehicles every night. A quick fix can be found not too far away. In San Diego, you’ll find three large parking lots — two with 60 spots, one with 30 — run by an organization called Dreams for Change.
One-fifth of San Diego’s estimated 8,500 homeless live in vehicles, so while the parking lots are substantial, there’s still a waiting list. And, they’re far from perfect: No RVs are allowed, and the lots only open at 6 p.m., leaving anyone who works a graveyard shift out of luck. Anyone with a violent criminal history is banned, as is anyone who struggles with addiction issues or has used drugs within 24 hours of trying to enter.
But what these rules do create is a space for families, who often end up in their cars after losing their homes. As the waitlist for housing remains extensive, most participants stay in the Dreams for Change program and camp nightly in the lot for five months — far longer than your average Navigation Center stay.
The idea of creating a Navigation Center-style parking lot for people living in vehicles isn’t new; Supervisor Hillary Ronen introduced just such an idea in November, only to shelve it when Mayor London Breed pledged to provide better access to services. But while the unhoused wait for those services to arrive, people continue to struggle with finding safe spaces to park at night, and worry about leaving their vehicles in case they get towed.
“In the midst of a housing crisis, living in vehicles has become a necessity, and towing those vehicles becomes a tragedy,” says Kelley Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness, which co-launched the lawsuit against San Francisco.
In the midst of a housing crisis, there is no shortage of parking lots. The vacant McDonald’s site on Haight and Stanyan streets is available, as are a number of other sites slated for development across the city. At the very least, the DMV parking lot’s expanse could be converted into an overnight refuge, freeing up parking for people who live in the Haight and along the Panhandle where many RV-dwellers choose to set up camp today. It’ll take some city money, but acknowledging the existence of vehicle dwellers will go a long way to fixing the problem, instead of sweeping people and their cars to the outer edges of the city.
Read More from SF Weekly’s Smart Ideas Issue:
Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Paris’ Public Pissoirs
Would a San Francisco with Uritrottoirs smell more sweet?
Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Car-Free Streets
Can San Francisco emulate European cities that have designated auto-free zones?
Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Utilities Powered by the People
State regulators are weighing a dramatic shake-up of PG&E. Could San Francisco join dozens of other jurisdictions in establishing a public utility?