The Californians forced to live in cars and RVs

As the state grapples with a housing crisis, thousands of people around the San Francisco Bay Area are sleeping in their vehicles

The faded, creased photograph shows a 13-year-old Vallie Brown smiling shyly as she pulls back her hair in the back of a large van. She is wearing a white one-piece swimsuit and at first glance, she looks like shes coming back from a sun-soaked day at the beach.

Looking at the picture of Brown, few people would suspect that the girl in the snapshot was living out of that van with her mother. That each night after it grew dark, she curled up on the backseats to sleep. That she wore that swimsuit under her clothes because she had to bathe in gas station bathrooms.

More than four decades later, and long before government data would ultimately confirm her suspicion, her experiences helped Brown to recognize that Californias housing crisis had taken another complicated turn that the tenuous existence of her family in her youth had become a reality for far too many in the present.

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I recognized the signs, Brown, now a San Francisco lawmaker, said. When you see a van or a car with curtains up, or a towel rolled up in the window for privacy. People with their doors open, and you see a bunch of stuff in their car, or theyre airing out clothing.

They dont consider themselves homeless, she continued, adding that the line between living in a vehicle and being homeless is sometimes blurry.

Vallie
Vallie Brown, 13, in the van she lived in with her mother. Photograph: Courtesy of Vallie Brown

All around the Bay Area, they hide in plain sight, the vehicles doubling as shelters. Some, as Brown described, are easily recognizable an overstuffed RV with so many items strapped to the sides that the wheels appear sunken down, a van with a taped-up window, a camper so antiquated that it doesnt seem operational. Others can pass as your neighbors car: a 2006 Lexus sedan in great condition, a late-model vehicle kept neat for Uber and Lyft rides.

San Francisco counted 1,794 people living out of their vehicles in 2019, a 45% increase from the last homeless count in 2017. Across the bay in Alameda county, home of Oakland, officials counted 2,817 individuals living out of vehicles more than double the 1,259 they counted in 2017.

The uptick in vehicle living comes as no surprise to housing advocates, who have long warned of the consequences of an untenable housing crisis in the region. For the last 10 years, California has constructed less than half the new homes needed to keep up with population growth, creating a scarcity that has driven up rents and home prices.

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In San Francisco, the median price of homes was $1.7m in 2019 and the median rent was $3,700 for a one-bedroom apartment. Amid the crisis, homelessness in general has surged. San Francisco saw a 17% rise in numbers, while Alameda county had a 43% uptick. Oakland alone constituted more than half of the countys entire homeless count.

Photos

Other parts of California have seen similar increases. Los Angeles county had a 12% increase in the homeless population over the last year, with the numbers surging to nearly 59,000 across the county. Officials tallied 9,981 cars, vans, RVs and campers acting as shelters for a staggering 16,525 people in 2019 28% of the countys entire unhoused population.

Officials have had to balance helping this population in a compassionate manner, while also addressing constituent complaints about them. Some cities like San Francisco and Berkeley have enforced oversized vehicle bans on certain streets, leading to the ticketing and towing of what is essentially peoples homes. Some, like San Francisco and Oakland have proposed safe parking zones, where individuals with vehicles that fit certain parameters can securely leave their belongings without fear of enforcement for an allotted period of time.

Abandoned
Abandoned cars dot the Community of Grace encampment near a Home Depot in Oakland, California. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

The tent life, forget it

Vehicle living is not a new phenomenon, especially in the west where the weather is milder than in other parts of the country. Brown and her older sister lived out of their van periodically throughout the 1970s, while their mother worked to save up money for the next apartment. She had odd jobs, and we moved a lot, and it was usually because we couldnt afford the rent, Brown said. Wed usually pick up and move before we got evicted.

But homeless advocates say the numbers are on the rise. The transient population is notoriously difficult to count, and those living in their vehicles are even more so because of their mobility. From their work with the population, however, advocates know that many have recently become homeless, and then got stuck in this life. Some are on their own. Some are with their families. Some have children. Some have steady work, and money saved up just not enough to finance the high cost of rent in California.

There are more and more people who have assets and means that are becoming homeless, which is very scary, said Jeff Kositsky, the director of San Franciscos Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, noting that many RVs, for example, are worth some money. [Their owners] are clearly people with some sort of assets, as opposed to some guy curled up in a blanket sleeping in a doorway.

Roberto Lopez, 44, falls into that category. He makes $25 an hour working construction, and manages a steady 40 hours a week. But hes been homeless since he lost his apartment two years ago. I thought, I can get another apartment, no problem, he said. But there was nothing less than $2,000.

Roberto
Roberto Lopez inside the kitchen at the Community of Grace encampment near a Home Depot in Oakland. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

At first, Lopez tried staying with family members. They have kids, they have their own families. They love me, they treat me good, but then three, four months later, frictions everywhere.

Now, Lopezs faded black minivan is part of the Community of Grace, an encampment on a paved lot in East Oakland, near the Interstate 880 overpass and a Home Depot. Flies buzz thick along the roadway leading up to it, circling piles of shoes, plywood and debris spilling out into street.

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Friendly and chatty, Lopez is quick to greet strangers entering the camp. His deep smile lines crinkled easily at the corners of his eyes as he teased the other camp residents passing by.

We have a thing going on here, Lopez said. Its a very good thing.

The camp consists of dozens of vans, cars, RVs and trailers, crammed into a circle alongside tiny houses and plywood structures. Theres a community kitchen and a designated garbage spot. Clothes hang along the fence enclosing the lot, part of a makeshift store where one resident sells items for $1 each.

Lopezs family thought he had to have been addicted to drugs and alcohol to be living at the camp. But I only started doing it because I saw the need to do this, he said.

Lopez doesnt want to live in his van forever, though. This is not my life, he insisted. But right now, he wants to stay with his friends. He wants to make sure theyre taken care of, like they take care of him. Its a community thing, he said. Its a family thing.

A
A makeshift dollar store at the Community of Grace encampment near a Home Depot in Oakland. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

For as long as people need shelter and have a vehicle, sleeping in a car is preferable to the alternatives.

It makes sense, that if someone loses their housing and they happen to own a vehicle or can get a vehicle, they will sleep in there rather than hard on the street, said Kelley Cutler, the human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, a San Francisco-based not-for-profit organization. If youre sleeping on the street, youre really at risk. Youre at risk in your vehicle, too, but at least you have some protection.

The tent life, forget it, said Chris Eakin, standing along Evans Avenue in San Francisco.

Eakin was soaking some dishes with soapy water on the pavement next to his faded orange-and-yellow RV. My sink broke down in there, so I got to do it out here, he explained. Inside his vehicle, his babies, a yellow labrador named Blondie and a brown-and-white mutt named Mimi, barked at the approach of a stranger.

Chris
Chris Eakin with his dogs Mimi, left, and Blondie, right, inside his RV parked on Toland Avenue in San Francisco, California. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

Eakin moved into his first RV at one of the lowest points of his life. He had been living in a tent on the streets after losing his work in flooring following a back injury. One day, he left his camping gear with a friend, only to return to find all his possessions stolen. The next day, Blondie was wrongfully accused of biting someone, and animal care and control took her away.

I just fell to my knees, Eakin said. I looked up, and I said, Well, if you can hear me, what do I do? Ive hit my end. And I got an answer, loud and clear: call your mom.

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He hadnt spoken to his family for years, but they reunited at animal care and control, helped him get Blondie back, and then helped him get his first RV.

That was six years ago. Since then, life has become exponentially better. Having an RV, I can lock the door and the dogs are safe, too.

Eakin feels comfortable enough now to leave from time to time to work odd jobs. He has a community of other RV dwellers. And he has a band, Grape Soda, with two of them. Their cramped studio is set up in one of their RVs, complete with a drum kit, guitars and a sound mixer.

But hes tired.

It just gets old, he said. The shower is broken at the moment. The gray water tank leaks, and so does the supply line. It would just be nice to be stable.

Dave,
Dave, of the band Grape Soda, outside his RV parked along Toland Avenue. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

Its one step from living hard on the streets

Aid workers say the needs of RV dwellers are divergent. Many vehicle dwellers dont consider themselves homeless, and therefore dont know of the resources available.

There are people who are extremely sick and living in extremely bad conditions, said Kositsky, the head of San Franciscos department of homelessness and supportive housing. Were talking about hoarding and cluttering, black water leaking into the streets, mold inside these vehicles that dont move. Theyre using it as a metal tent. Theyre not as visible and they can be in their vehicles, really sick, and no one will really know.

But in a recent survey, the department also found that 25% of people living out of their vehicles had homes elsewhere. They were what local economists call super commuters individuals who drive up to hundreds of miles into the city for the work week, returning on the weekends to their homes areas where housing is more affordable. Some are Uber and Lyft drivers. Most are contractors, in some form.

Our overall summary of this is that we think that at least half of the people need help, but at least half of the people do not need the kind of help that our department is able to offer, Kositsky said.

Short of a quick fix for the housing crisis that fuels the rise in homelessness, lawmakers have struggled to come up with policies to address the problem.

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On one hand, a car provides more security and safety for the individual, and attracts fewer complaints than tent encampments or the more visibly homeless. But still, constituents complain about vehicle dwellers. They take up valuable parking spaces. They leak gasoline and sewage. And in general, trash pickup doesnt exist for people living in cars. Not every individual has a working bathroom.

Cities around the region have considered some form of prohibiting oversized vehicles from overnight parking, efforts that homeless advocates have opposed. Its just a cycle where theyre shuffling people around and not creating places to go, said Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness.

The criminalization of vehicles also result in peoples homes getting ticketed or worse, towed with all their belongings and more often than not, the individuals dont have the funds to retrieve their cars out of impound.

When people are living in their vehicles, its one step from having to sleep hard on the street, and its one step from stable housing, Cutler said. Its extremely detrimental when they lose their vehicle.

Vallie Brown came into office as a San Francisco supervisor in 2018 and found the other supervisors asking for bans on certain streets in their districts. The approach did not sit well with her.

Vallie
Vallie Brown, the San Francisco district 5 supervisor, at her campaign headquarters in San Francisco. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

When Supervisor Ahsha Safa proposed a ban in his district, Brown dug up the old photo of her in the van.

I took it to him, and I said, Supervisor Safa, this is me. You dont know who is living in these vans. It can be someone like myself. Can we work together and think of another way?

They came back with a pilot program for the first safe parking site in San Francisco. They had to change planning, police and administration codes in the city, its illegal to sleep in ones car.

Across the bay, Oakland is expanding its first safe parking site, and working to establish its second. Berkeley, which banned overnight parking of RVs citywide in February, is now talking about opening its first. These sites will have security, bathrooms, showers and social services. People should be able to feel safe to leave their vehicles, and go to work.

A
A car encampment on a sidewalk in an industrial area in Oakland, California. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

The sites are not lacking in criticism. They can only take a limited amount of vehicles for a limited amount of time in San Francisco, individuals can only stay 90 days. Thats not enough, Cutler said especially when the driving force behind the crisis is a lack of affordable housing. This is an issue because there isnt adequate housing, she said.

Oakland officials announced last month that they would be cleaning out the Community of Grace encampment, where Roberto Lopez lives, and move the residents to shelters and an RV safe parking site when they become available.

Theres a sense of community there, and thats good, said Joe DeVries, an assistant to the Oakland city administrator. On the flip side, unregulated encampments always lead to problems. There are no fixed rules and no accountability.

Lets get people off the streets

Its hard for Brown to talk about her time living out of a van because she knows how embarrassed and ashamed her mother felt about it. She would tell us not to tell people, she said. She was afraid people would think she couldnt take care of her girls.

The
The area underneath the Interstate 280 overpass near Evans Avenue in San Francisco was recently lined with RVs until the city made them relocate. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

Her mother was working two full-time jobs at the time of her death when Brown was 14 and Brown knows many of the families still living out of their vehicles in California today are in the same situation.

For me, it was always a feeling that she did the best she could, Brown said. Life can be tough when you dont have money and you dont have a way out.

Its frustrating for her to walk the streets of her district and see families living the same reality she lived so many years ago with her family.

All Brown can do now is work to change this reality.

I think a lot of times, we dont know exactly what will work until we try it, Brown said. Im willing to try all new things. Lets get people off the streets.

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