Clock is ticking for SF’s RV dwellers

David Samples, 63, built his life through the strength of his hands.

He came to San Francisco shortly after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in search of work, and he found plenty. First he painted, then tried his hands as a roofer. Swinging a hammer and securing the tops of tall San Francisco buildings, like the Andrews Hotel near Union Square, kept Samples busy.

He lived simply in an RV in the Dogpatch. The neighborhood still had dirt roads, then.

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Samples found peace there. No rent, no landlord, plenty of freedom and surrounded by friends, who were his neighbors.

A grandchild of the Dust Bowl who hails from San Diego by way of Arkansas, Samples speaks in a plain spoken manner. He’s often humble.

“I liked it,” he said of RV living. “Just fun times, you know?”

That was then. Now, the man who built his life with his hands gets what he calls the “dropsies.” The strength leaves his hands unexpectedly, and he’ll drop objects at a moments notice. His ailment hasn’t quite been diagnosed, but he recalls a doctor mentioning Lou Gehrig’s disease, a muscular degenerative disorder that saps one’s strength swiftly.

Before last Thursday Samples again lived in an RV, a 1971 Chinook camper now parked in the Bayview, though he had been housed a decade between the two stints.

His ailing health wasn’t the only clock ticking on his RV life.

A kindly San Francisco Police Department officer gave Samples two months to clear out, saying that after that, he’d have to enforce against him. The RV motor crapped out. His car motor was shot. He pawned his few possessions just to repair his vehicles.

And just this week his “flappers,” the word he uses for his feet, started to give out on him.

He could hardly leave — or clean — his van. Flies began to swarm. When Samples fell on the concrete outside his Chinook, passersby walked right past him without offering a helping hand, though he asked for one. Telling the story under Thursday’s sun, his brow furrowed tight with creases, his face marked by disbelief.

“I didn’t know people could be like that,” he said.

That’s when the encampment resolution team came in.

Jason Albertson with the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and his team, were just across the street when Samples finally had enough. It was lucky for Samples: this targeted outreach of RVs has only just begun in recent months.

Samples is now housed temporarily at a city navigation center at 600 25th St., just a stone’s throw from where his first RV was parked decades ago.

Albertson, who has been working with the homeless nearly the same stretch of time — just a few years shy, in 1992 — said he felt a bit “at sea.”

“I don’t really know the population yet,” he said. “I’m sure if you talk to me in six months or a year I’ll tell you more about the population, and it’s characteristics.”

For years the encampment resolution team has built expertise in one area, and knows it well: tents. How people live in them, how they build communities in them, and the health implications of long term tent living on The City’s sidewalks, streets, and out-of-sight corners.

Though Albertson characterized the RVs as essentially “metal tents with wheels,” some methods in helping people there are different than those living in stretched nylon. While the department of homelessness wouldn’t provide people tents, for instance, they can buy car batteries or a water pump “if you intend to repair your vehicle and have somewhere to go out of town,” Albertson said.

And despite being in the early days of studying the homeless population in RVs, Albertson said he knows some things.

There’s a core set of RVs that do not move, Albertson said. Most of the RVs have migrated to the Bayview and other southeast neighborhoods following bans enacted street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, by San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, often at the behest of the Board of Supervisors.

Anecdotally, those living in parked RVs in the Bayview were also formerly housed in San Francisco, Albertson said. They’re from The City.

“They were able to get themselves what they think is a valid place to live and don’t see themselves as homeless,” he said.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Ahsha Safai and Supervisor Vallie Brown are working on long-term solutions to park RVs outside of neighborhoods where they cause neighbors to moan, and nearby services to help all of those people — people like Samples, who finally has four (non-mobile) walls around his bed.

“It all happened so fast,” Samples said. “It’s been a big day.”

And maybe soon hundreds of people living in RVs across San Francisco can say the same.

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