Oversized-vehicle parking bans are leaving people who sleep in RVs and vans searching for places to park and live, and leaving public officials trying to balance their empathy for those people with public nuisance complaints.
Communities throughout the Bay Area are grappling with ways to address homelessness and the conflicts it raise. From Napa to Santa Cruz, some homeless people are finding shelter by living in RVs, vans, and cars.
But some of their housed neighbors and local businesses are complaining.
In the past few years, some cities including San Francisco, Palo Alto, and San Mateo have instituted restrictions on parking for oversized vehicles.
That’s leaving people who sleep in RVs and vans searching for places to park and live, while public officials try to balance their empathy with public-nuisance complaints.
Where do I go?
Denise, who didn’t want to use her last name, lives in a van with her husband.
Until July, they parked in a place they really liked just outside the city of San Rafael. Then, she found out the county was banning oversize vehicle parking on that street.
Denise says she was frantic when she lost her parking spot.
“‘Oh my god where am I gonna go? What am I gonna do?’” she remembers asking herself. “Same thing that happened to me before I found the parking spot.”
Denise and her husband had been moving around the streets for more than a year. If they couldn’t find a permanent place, sometimes they would move multiple times in one night.
“I don't know how to describe that empty and scared … feeling,” Denise says.
Parking bans throughout Marin have created a domino effect. Last year, the City of San Rafael banned any oversized vehicle from parking on any city street.
So, people moved their RVs and vans to unincorporated areas. Permanent residents in those areas complained, and in response the Marin County Board of Supervisors restricted overnight and oversize vehicle parking on nineteen county streets.
One of those was Auburn Street in the Lomita Park neighborhood just outside San Rafael. Since the ban passed, the handful of RVs and vans that parked here have moved on.
Now, long-time residents Jack Fulton and Ron Sieg are clearing off residual trash. These guys have a lot of pride in their neighborhood.
“It's a really special street cause it's real country. It's close to freeways and everything,” Sieg says. “But it has been getting better and better and better. It had a little touch of roughness for a few years, but it's looking good.”
Sieg says when the RVs moved in, he didn’t feel as safe in his own home, he had tools stolen, and had strangers walk into his house.
“I didn't used to lock my door but now I do. There was a drug problem on the street.”
Denise challenges that idea. She tells me the homeless she knows are more concerned about food and shelter than drugs. She also says the homeless didn’t create the trash problem on county roads.
Fulton and Sieg also acknowledge that a lot of the trash comes from people throwing litter out of cars and from others avoiding the fees at the dump down the road.
On our way to that dump to get rid of all the trash they picked up, I ask Sieg if he thinks these parking bans just move encampments around the county, kicking their issue to another neighborhood.
“Well, that's how it has to happen though. Homeless people do not have the right to sit at your doorstep. That's just how it is. They don't have that right,” Sieg says. “We only owe them the truth. And when you move ‘em around that's the truth. You don't get to sit in my life. You don't get to do that, you know?”
A week later, I go back to Lomita Park with Denise, who used to park her van here before the all-out ban on oversized vehicles. She shows me her favorite spot under a big tree.
“It shielded us from rain. It shielded us from heat,” she says. “And it made it possible to actually tolerate.”
When they were banned from parking in Lomita Park, Denise says she and her husband started frantically driving around looking for a new spot.
“Not like you know speeding or anything,” she says. “Drove around going ‘Can I get away with parking there? Oh my God. Where am I gonna park? Oh where am I gonna sleep?’”
Denise takes me on a driving tour of some of the places she used to park, making sure I stay under the speed limit and don’t take any risky turns while driving.
Denise and her husband eventually find a more permanent spot on the side of a road, but she won’t let me anywhere near it.
She says they’re worried about police finding their spot and looking like snitches to other people living on the streets.
Forced out of your home
For Denise, living in a van is a step up from living on the streets — which she did for a couple of years.
Other people have to sell their RVs.
Jude Denton is one of them. He downsized to a van to deal with San Rafael’s oversize vehicle parking ban. He doesn’t have enough space for most of his belongings in his van, so he stores them in a pickup truck.
“They've been coming down real hard on the motor-home situation and basically making it so we can't have our motor homes on the streets whatsoever,” Denton says.
His van has just enough space for a double futon mattress in the back. He misses all the space and amenities he had in his RV.
“You know I used to be able to have a shower and a place to put all my stuff and be able to stretch my legs out,” Denton says. “Now I'm in a freaking van and it's so small and compact. It's harder.”
What's the solution?
In June, one Marin County Supervisor floated the idea of a safe parking program like Sonoma County has. The county could designate a spot for vehicle residents to park legally, with access to bathrooms and other services.
But the idea hasn’t moved forward.
Carrie Sager is the homelessness program coordinator at Marin Health and Human Services.
She says the parking bans are a good short term solution for a complicated problem.
“The most effective way to deal with any homelessness issue is to get people into permanent housing,” she says. “The oversized vehicle ban has been a mitigation effort. So I think, you know, is it an effective solution? No. But it is maybe an effective Band-Aid as we try to address the underlying issues.”
In the meantime, the Board of Supervisors is just a vote away from restricting overnight and oversize vehicle parking on any county street.
And the people who live in vans and RVs say they’re running out of options.