San Francisco’s first ever city-sanctioned site that provides a space for unhoused people to park and live in their vehicles will close down next month.
The supervisor who supported it in his own district said there should be more sites like it, across The City.
In 2019, The City launched the Vehicle Triage Center at 2340 San Jose Ave., near the Balboa BART station, in response to complaints from residents about the increasing number of people living in their recreational vehicles.
Supervisor Ahsha Safai had initially pushed for an overnight parking ban of RVs in his district along De Wolf Street. But he met with criticism that the ban, similar to those used in other neighborhoods, would only push the vehicle dwellers around San Francisco. That prompted a new approach, in addition to the parking restriction.
“I feel like we did it right,” Safai told the San Francisco Examiner during a recent interview. “It turned out well.”
But now the site is expected to close down next month to make way for an 138-unit affordable housing complex by Mission Housing Development Corporation. Users of the site must leave by March 1 and it will be decommissioned by March 15, according to a Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) email obtained by the San Francisco Examiner. A spokesperson for the department confirmed the site would close March 15.
However, there remain hundreds of unhoused people living in cars and RVs throughout The City. And in some areas residents continue to complain about the impacts, including noisy generators.
A city tally from December found 771 vehicles being lived in by unhoused people, of which 186 were passenger cars and the other RVs, campers and vans. The most were identified in District 10, where there were 310. The second highest was in District 7 where there were 123, followed by 104 in District 9.
Safai argues that they have shown that offering the unhoused living in vehicles a safe place to park works, and he believes The City should open other sites to address the need while at the same time becoming “firmer” in enforcement.
“It far exceeded even my own expectations,” Safai said. “We’ve gotten people housed. It’s increased safety in the area. It’s been super cost effective.”
In its first year of operation, the site cost The City $1.7 million, according to new analysis released last week by the City Controller’s Office.
Of the 75 people who used it from November 2019 to November 2020, the period of the controller’s analysis, 44, or 27 households, left at some point during their stay, with varying outcomes. Two-thirds were living in RVs or other large vehicles.
Eleven received housing and eight were moved into temporary shelter for medical reasons. However, more than half of those who did leave left voluntarily or were denied service.
“In voluntary exits, clients may or may not indicate a reason or destination, and are most commonly noted as due to households leaving the site and not returning for more than 48 hours,” the report said. There were 18 who left voluntarily.
And seven people, comprising three households, “had a denial of service due to behaviors of one or more household members.”
An HSH spokesperson did not respond directly to a question about whether The City will open other sites, but said, “We believe the Vehicle Triage Center was a success.”
Safai plans to hold a Feb. 22 hearing before the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee to discuss the results. Multiple departments are expected to attend, including the Municipal Transportation Agency, Police Department, Department of Public Health and Planning Department.
“We want to talk about expanding this model citywide,” Safai said. “There is still a significant number of people that are living on the streets in vehicles. As this model has shown, we can transition them into a safe spot. We can get them the services that they need.”
Safai said that there are still RVs in his district, but “not like before.”
Board President Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents District 10, supports opening more sites.
“I have been working with HSH and community on identifying a possible site in D10,” Walton told the Examiner Monday. “As you know, we have had an increase of people living in vehicles in the district during the pandemic and we need to find a place where they can receive services until we can get folks permanently housed.”
“Obviously, permanent housing is the main goal, but we need to make sure people living in vehicles have food, medical services, proper restroom and hand washing stations and connection to wrap-around services,” he continued.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar also said she would “definitely want a site in my district,” but did not offer a timeline or specific sites. Although she noted, “We do have space in District 7.”
Melgar said she’s exploring sites and partnerships as well as service models. She said many of the unhoused population living in the vehicles are the working poor and don’t need intensive case management, but do need other tools like asset building services, and access to banking or employment to help them transition into housing.
The Coalition on Homelessness has long supported such sites.
“Lots of folks living in vehicles are working, but just can’t afford the high cost of housing and don’t need a higher level of care, just a place where they don’t have to worry about their home being towed while they are at work,” said Kelley Cutler, an organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness. “The challenge is that for it to be a success and a step towards permanent housing, we need affordable and adequate housing exits for people.”
The experience in District 11 seemingly could help backers win support for them in other areas.
Safai said that when he first proposed the idea there were some residents who feared the site would create more crime or attract more RVs, but that did not occur.
“I’ve had people come to me that were absolutely opposed to this that said my initial fears were absolutely incorrect,” Safai said. “There has not been one issue associated with the vehicle triage lot.”
The site is operated under city-contract by the nonprofit Urban Alchemy.
The City spent $1,662,503 on the site in its first year, which includes $552,783 in one-time capital costs expended by the Department of Public Works, the City Controller’ report said. That equates to $22,166 per client served in the past year. But if looking at just operational costs, it’s $14,796 per client served annually or $38,266 per parking spot.
The cost estimates do not include case management services provided by the Homeless Outreach Team, who performed that function as part of scheduled shifts, but were estimated at an additional $4,500 per parking spot, the report said.
Clients who moved into housing stayed at the site for an average of 103 days, while those who exited voluntarily or were denied service had average stays of 39 days.