Kurt Heilman has lived in San Francisco for more than 20 years.
He doesn’t reside in an iconic Victorian style house, one of the fresh new condominiums in Mission Bay or even in one of the single-room occupancy units that pepper the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods.
Rather, Heilman is one of the hundreds of residents living out of a vehicle that is parked on The City’s streets.
The 54-year-old became homeless in February 2015 when his building was sold, causing him to lose his rent-controlled apartment. Today, one of his biggest challenges is finding a place to park his mobile home.
That’s a common theme among those who live in their vehicles in San Francisco. In fact, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency directors at a recent board meeting expressed frustration with passing parking restrictions that ban people living in their vehicles from various sections of city streets.
The challenge is further complicated by neighbors who are upset that people living in their cars occupy limited parking spaces, while also potentially posing hygiene, health and safety issues from living in a vehicle.
The bulk of the burden to address the issue appears to fall on San Francisco transit officials, who are left chasing homeless residents living in their vehicles from neighborhood to neighborhood as they implement The City’s latest parking restrictions. Yet a permanent solution remains elusive.
The issue may be compounded in the coming months after San Francisco voters passed Proposition Q on Nov. 8 that bans tent encampments on sidewalks and authorizes city officials to remove them 24 hours after offering some form of shelter.
Having a vehicle can be the last major distinguishing possession some homeless residents have from being destitute on the city streets. But without a place to park, where will they go?
A Potential Solution
One solution some homeless advocates support is a safe parking program, where people living in their vehicles can park overnight in a monitored environment. Other amenities could potentially be provided like bathrooms, showers and food.
The idea of a safe parking program is gaining traction in West Coast cities like Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and Seattle.
Jennielynn Holmes is director of the Housing and Shelter Program in Santa Rosa, which is run by Catholic Charities. The nonprofit has been contracted by the city of Santa Rosa to operate its safe parking and safe camping program.
Holmes said the safe parking and camping program helps connect Santa Rosa homeless residents into more permanent housing because outreach workers were able to better track the movements of the homeless from night to night. Over time, they developed a portfolio of long-term services that help these families and individuals transition into permanent housing.
“In a three-month period, we moved 27 households straight into housing,” Holmes said. “Twenty-seven households were no longer homeless because we used this [safe parking program] as an engagement tool.”
It’s not likely that the program will come to San Francisco anytime soon, however. Sam Dodge, deputy director of San Francisco’s newly formed Department of Homeless and Supportive Services, said there has been some discussion on a safe parking program for The City but pointed out what he considered a flaw in the concept.
“These programs have not been successful for transitioning out of homelessness,” Dodge said.
Dodge further cited challenges in finding suitable locations with proper amenities and design. He also noted there are substantial differences between homeless living in their vehicles with a dry place to sleep and possible other amenities like a stove and bathroom from homeless living outright on the streets.
Dodge also pointed out that a focus group conducted of homeless people living in their vehicles in San Francisco indicated no interest in a safe parking program.
However, Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer for the Coalition of Homelessness, who was a part of some of those discussions, said that was an erroneous conclusion. She said there was a definite desire for a safe parking program but in a different form than was offered.
“The issue was not about declining a safe parking program, but … the [safe parking] option offered was so limited,” Cutler said. “People are definitely saying there is a need for some type of program.”
More importantly, however, Dodge said that the Department of Homelessness just started operating in July. He also identified higher priority programs like the Navigation Centers, two of which have already opened in the Mission and Civic Center neighborhoods.
“We got a lot of work in front of us,” Dodge said. “Just bringing the programs administered by other departments is great, but it’s been a lot of work.”
Nevertheless, some of the SFMTA directors said they would abstain from hearing any more requests for parking restrictions for oversize vehicles until further guidance was provided by other departments with more skill in handling homelessness issues.
“This is something bigger than the [SF]MTA. It is not their expertise,” said Andy Thornley, senior analyst of parking and sustainable streets. “It should be a partner … with the Department of Housing or something.”
Homelessness in The City
San Francisco’s homeless population has reportedly remained stable for the past decade, with 6,686 people in 2015 compared to 6,248 in 2005, according to the 2015 point-in-time Survey.
Of that number, 4 percent — approximately 268 people — are estimated to be living in their vehicles, be it a car, camper, recreational vehicle or bus.
Rachael Kagan, spokesperson for the Department of Health, noted that many people living in vehicles discard less human waste on the street than for those who are homeless living on the open street.
Some of San Francisco’s homeless who are living in their vehicles maintain jobs in The City.
Heilman, who lives in his mobile home, works as an in-home support worker and said his income is adequate but only because he is not paying rent. Otherwise, he would not be able to live in The City and believes he would not be able to find work if he moved.
He did not think a program for vehicles staying overnight would work because of the difficulty of finding a parking space in the daytime in The City.
“That will not work for any [long] vehicle because you can’t get parking during the daytime for such a long vehicle very easily,” Heilman said. “That [mobile home] is like living in an apartment.”
Heilman acknowledged such a program might work for people living in smaller cars and tents.
“I would say that if you had a choice between a tent and a shelter bed, you would probably prefer the tent,” Heilman said. “You can keep your possessions, you can have a partner with you, you can have a companion animal [and] you have some kind of privacy.”
Safe Parking, Safe Camping
Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have had the “Safe Parking, Safe Camping” pilot program in place for at least two years. They joined other cities like Santa Barbara and Seattle dealing with the homeless who live in their vehicles, but went one step further to include safe camping sites too.
In August, the Santa Rosa City Council declared a “homeless emergency” and formally sanctioned the safe parking and safe camping program. While the City Council’s guidelines still need to be formalized, the City Council’s declaration expedited implementation of the program.
Santa Rosa’s Community Housing Assistance Program authorizes a safe parking and camping site if the property owners assume responsibility for keeping the parking area safe and healthy for participants and surrounding neighborhood.
Eligible property types include those that meet the city’s definition for a meeting facility because such properties usually have amenities to serve the general public like bathrooms, temporary shelter and ability to store personal belongs.
Typically, overnight vehicles need to leave each morning around daybreak.
There is some discussion about making the program available on a longer-term basis in these communities.
Holmes, the program director, said that having safe parking and camping available is an effective engagement tool as outreach workers can stay connected with the person or family. Even if people will leave in the morning, they know it’s likely those same people will return in the evening.
She also mentioned that safety is less of an issue than expected. Their experience is that people who use the safe parking and camping program self-enforce informal safety rules to protect their temporary home.
An Engagement Tool
Advocates say there are advantages for San Francisco in supporting a safe parking and camping program besides just providing a safe place for people to rest and sleep. Santa Rosa’s safe parking, safe camping program makes it easier to offer other supportive social services including more permanent housing.
Safe parking and camping programs might make sense, advocates say, from a safety, health and environmental viewpoint, too, as homeless can have access to adequate facilities for bathing, grooming and bathroom needs. Meal programs can be provided and untreated waste and trash is disposed of properly.
“I am in favor in helping, but there is a lot of thought and planning that goes into the situation,” said Timothy Dews, pastor of San Francisco’s Calvary Hill Community Church in the Bayview neighborhood. “Something has to be done, otherwise we are going to move them from place to place.”
The 2015 point-in-time Survey did say that San Francisco has made substantial progress on homelessness. Since January 2004, various city-sponsored homeless programs have placed over 25,000 in permanent housing arrangements.
“Two thirds [of homeless] are permanent residents in a conventional way and … became homeless,” Thornley said. “They’ve been here for a long time — not just recently.”