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By Erasmo Martinez, Bay News Rising staff reporter —
Melodie has lived in an RV since 2008, but this day, the 57-year-old looks distraught as she gazes down the road: A new sign that prohibits the overnight parking of large vehicles has thrown her into a panic.
“I don’t know where I’m going to park this tonight,” she said. “I don’t know where I’m going to park.”
Homeless individuals can avoid the dangers and discomfort of the street by living in their cars, if they have one. But they are subject to laws criminalizing the act. A San Francisco ordinance prohibits people from inhabiting cars from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Offenders can face a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.
RVs and cars doubling as homes are scattered throughout the Golden State. A bill decriminalizing sleeping in cars passed the state Assembly last month, and sailed through a state Senate committee on governance and finance. It will soon come up for a floor vote. Locally, experts say many such occupants are working people trying to survive in the San Francisco Bay Area’s high-priced housing market.
“We know there are hundreds of people, if not thousands living in their cars in San Francisco,” said Nicholas Kimura, a shelter client advocate from the Coalition on Homelessness.
In fact, some of the homeless people his organization helps work multiple jobs, attend school and raise families within their mobile living spaces.
A homeless woman, going by the initials AQ to protect her identity, like Melodie, works a combined 65 hours a week, bringing in about $3,000 each month.
She moved from Vallejo after an ex-boyfriend torched her family’s house in 2008. Now she works two jobs and maintains two RVs. Both jobs are conveniently a block apart. The 13-hour work days are not enough to move her, a boyfriend working as a day laborer and three dogs into housing.
“Either I’m homeless with no money, or I can’t get a job with health care,” she said. “I’m in between. It’s not enough to live.”
Her days start at 7 a.m. and end at 8 p.m. Sleep before 10 p.m. is essential to continue work the next day. Stress leaves her wondering how she will avoid police officers citing her for sleeping in the RVs.
Gas for one RV plus maintaining the other is a constant worry. Fresh food is the only option without a refrigerator.
Melodie faces the same difficulties while living in her own RVs. She keeps one in a secluded industrial area. The cost of gas and repairs prevent her from moving any farther from the current location. New signs banning late night parking popped up on a Monday.
The second RV is parked a mile away and her small, four-door car is close by. She receives disability checks, the result of a brain injury. The money is just enough to pay for monthly insurance, gas and a storage unit.
She started taking computer classes at City College and volunteers for a nonprofit organization, helping distribute materials to artists.
“Every time I get ready to leave to go to school, I just cringe, and then I have to brace myself, because every single day there can be a notice,” she said.
Before becoming homeless, she worked a steady job. The traumatic brain injury and ADD affected her job and living situation. Now alone, she has difficulty sleeping due to the continuous roar of semi-trucks and other large vehicles passing at night.
A law passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2012 made it possible for a neighborhood’s residents to ask the city to restrict parking of vehicles 22 feet in length and 7 feet high in approved areas. The vehicle cannot be parked from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. if a sign is placed on a street. Violators’ cars are subject to a towing. The legislation resulted from residents who complained that large vehicles consumed parking spaces.
“What we told them what was essentially going to happen is all these people living in their vehicles would get displaced,” said the Coalition on Homelessness’ Kimura. “Now they’re just a block or two away from where they were.”
Melodie and AQ both are affected by the new parking restrictions and find themselves moving more. Parking specifically designed for their situations is a problem solver they think might be helpful.
“Somewhere to park would be great where we’re not being harassed,” said AQ.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is aware of the potential conflictions between oversized vehicle restrictions and people living in vehicles, spokesperson Robert Lyles said in an email message. The ordinance is said to be an alternative to parking meters and other measures in areas needing restrictions.
“The SFMTA and our board continue to be very sensitive to potential adverse effects of oversized vehicle parking restrictions,” Lyles said. “We’ll be meeting with the SF Coalition on Homelessness in a couple of weeks to continue the dialogue on a measured and appropriate use of the OV restrictions.”
The department communicates with police departments to distribute warnings to vehicles possibly affected before signs are posted. The SFMTA cannot manage its own “safe parking,” but is interested in supporting future plans, he said.
As the vote on the statewide bill draws closer, Brian Devlin moves his small mobile home around San Francisco’s urban frontier. Resembling a child’s playhouse, it features an insulated roof, windows and storage space. Oakland artist Greg Kloehn, who creates and donates other “tiny homes,” made it available.
A clean and sober Devlin moved into San Francisco about three years ago and held a good-paying job. He soon relapsed, spiraling into drug addiction.
He has spent the past three months drug free. On one summer day, he launched a new venture building motorized bicycles. Even with the laws pertaining to large vehicles and homeless people on the street, Delvin’s temporary home is a way around some laws.
“We get hammered by the cops,” he said on a block where he is parked next to RVs with citations requesting a removal within three days. “They’ve written me tickets before, but they need to make up some new law for me to break so they can do something about it.”