San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 24, 2021
By Mallory Moench
Brothers James and Andre Keys live just 2 miles from where they grew up in Bayview-Hunters Point six decades ago. But instead of a house, they now call a 40-foot RV parked beside Candlestick Point State Recreation Area home.
It’s a step up from the Cadillac parked behind it, where they used to sleep along with James’ girlfriend.
The brothers said that ever since the bank foreclosed on their mother’s home after she died more than a decade ago, they’ve struggled to afford housing in their hometown. Andre, who is retired, bounced between shelters across the city, while James and his girlfriend, who depend on disability benefits, stayed with a friend until more than a year ago.
That’s when they joined the growing number of people living in vehicles on Hunters Point Expressway between the vacant former Candlestick Park lot and the state park. There, they found a beautiful bayfront view, but no electricity, bathroom or showers, forcing them to bury their waste and depend on a generator until it broke.
“Times got rough during this epidemic,” James, 59, said this past week under a hot midday sun. “We’re not begging, but we need people to help us.”
The pandemic exacerbated unemployment and homelessness while limiting shelter capacity across San Francisco, leading to an explosion in the number of inhabited vehicles in the area. A state parks spokesperson said the recreation area’s bathrooms, parking lots and campsites were closed “to protect park resources” from the encampments, but some argue those closures caused trash and human waste to pile up. The department said it “supports the city on finding solutions to resolve issues in and around the park.”
On Wednesday, roughly 92 vehicles ringed the trash-lined browned grass of the state park. Last month, the city found that the southeast neighborhood that includes Candlestick Point had 62% of all the inhabited vehicles in San Francisco — a total of 677 cars, RVs and trucks.
Everyone agrees the situation is untenable and inhumane, but a proposal to provide 150 spots for RV-dwellers in an unused parking lot in the state park is meeting with opposition from some area residents. In mid-September, Supervisor Shamann Walton, whose district includes the area, announced the plan to turn the lot into a city-run “vehicle triage center.” The site would allow unhoused people living in vehicles to park, and provide security, toilets, showers, electricity and case managers to help people find housing.
Safe parking sites are an increasingly common stopgap measure to help people in the absence of affordable housing. Berkeley will soon open a similar site and Oakland already has, while Richmond’s effort was delayed, but Candlestick may be the biggest proposal yet. San Francisco ran a smaller temporary site at Balboa Upper Yard until earlier this year and approved funding to open two more — the second location undetermined.
The Bayview proposal — supported by Mayor London Breed — came out of a homelessness working group of state and city officials, nonprofits and residents who met for 19 months. The group asked Assembly Member David Chiu to secure $5.6 million to set up the site, and the city is footing $6 million in operating costs over the next two years. The timeline for opening is uncertain, pending approval from the Board of Supervisors.
Some neighboring homeowners, who say the city let trash, sewage and illegal activity fester there, oppose the safe parking site, arguing the city is warehousing homeless people in a heavily Black neighborhood already struggling with historic environmental and economic problems. Instead, they want to see them spread across the city.
But many people living in vehicles are from the Bayview and can’t just be shipped off to other neighborhoods, said Michelle Pierce, director of Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates. Chiu, who lives near Candlestick, said in a statement that “while I appreciate that some would prefer we moved the center elsewhere, that’s not realistic given how many unhoused people already live here.”
Walton, who also lives nearby, said he “understood frustrations and concerns.”
“The vehicle triage center is the exact remedy that is needed to address their concerns,” he said.
The city hasn’t removed all vehicles because of a no-towing policy for inhabited vehicles, said city spokesperson Francis Zamora. Instead, agencies have tried to help, providing a portable toilet from December 2020 to February 2021, when federal funding ran out. Crews still take away debris at least three times a week and leave more than 100 trash bags weekly for residents.
Homeless outreach workers have offered shelter options, but only a couple of people have moved, said Emily Cohen, spokesperson for the homelessness department. She added that people living in vehicles are less likely to take a shelter offer than those staying in a tent. Cohen said the proposed site should have enough space to offer everyone along the expressway a spot, then the road will be cleared.
Half a dozen people, including the Keys brothers, told The Chronicle they would be willing to move in.
“I’m ready ... as long as they say, ‘You can stay, it’s safe, there are showers,’” said Carlos Macay, 67, sitting Wednesday outside the RV in which he’s lived for 20 years. An old friend of the Keys brothers, he said what he really needs is housing.
Farther down the road, Peggy Nathan, who shares an RV with her husband, Gilly, and their Chihuahua, Chiquita, said the site sounded like a “step up,” but wondered whether there was a “catch” such as rules about curfews or visitors. She has a permanent supportive housing unit in the Mission, but only uses it for showering and storage because it’s cramped and has a shared bathroom.
The couple prefer living in their RV. Gilly works five or six days a week in construction when jobs are available.
“We are trying to get a home,” Gilly said. “It’s just that rent is too expensive.”
Down the road at Gilman Playground, half a dozen homeowners held a news conference Wednesday to oppose the proposal.
Shirley Moore, vice president of the Bayview Hill Neighborhood Association, said neighbors feel unsafe and ignored after complaining to the city about problems there. She and others said the neighborhood, already struggling with toxic waste sites and delayed development, can’t absorb the site.
“We’re not being NIMBYs, but something has to be done,” Moore said. “This is another opportunity for them to solve homelessness at our expense. All we want is equity in the community. We feel sorry for the people who are unhoused, but we need to spread the unhoused ... throughout the city.”
Neighbor Timothy Alan Simon said he wants to see an “equitable distribution” of vehicles in more well-off parks.
But Chris Whipple, another board member from the same neighborhood association, supports the proposal.
“It’s not about bringing poverty into the Bayview, it’s about helping folks out of poverty who are already here,” he said.
Gwendolyn Westbrook, the CEO of United Council of Human Services, which runs shelter sites and delivers food to people living in vehicles, said the living situation doesn’t make people “criminal or bad.”
“They don’t have any housing. They have to stay someplace, so we need to do something until we can provide housing for them,” she said. “The community needs to join us to help people and stop being so selfish.”