Jorge Peña walked his tiny dog, Chiquita, around the inside perimeter of 711 71st Avenue in Oakland, behind the RVs parked neatly facing each other, stopping to say hello to his neighbor sitting in the shade. He is one of the first residents of Oakland’s new, invite-only “safe RV lot” next to Coliseum BART, and he calls it a “godsend.”
Jorge, who is 63, used to have a painting business. He says after he was denied payment for a ma- jor job, one thing led to another, and he found himself living in his RV. He had a stroke the same month he moved into the RV site, but he didn’t tell his family, who had previously o ered to take him in, because he didn’t want to worry them. He now sees a nurse practitioner at the nearby East- mont Mall who helps him with his heart. He gestured to the RV lot behind him: “This right here revived me.”
The day Street Spirit visited, the lot had nearly filled to capacity. The noise from BART trains overhead and passing cars from the street reverberate across the block, and the sidewalk outside is also a taxi line. But standing in the line of RVs, they block the noise, and it feels peaceful and quiet. People were keeping cool in the shade between their vehicles, as the temperature climbed to 91o over hot pavement.
The site, which is operated under a contract by Housing Consortium of the East Bay (HCEB), was created with a portion of an $8.6 million grant allocated from the state of California’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program in 2018. It currently o ers safe parking spaces for 30 RVs, electricity hookups, a hand-washing station, one extra-large tank of potable water, portable toilets, and security.
People living in RVs face many barriers to feeling secure
A shower truck comes once a week— which advocates and residents say is not quite enough. “I wish they would come more than once a week, but it is what it is,” says 39-year-old Jade Koga, one of the first new residents.
Nobody under 18 is permitted, which disquali es families with children from moving in. However, the site does allow dogs. “Almost everybody here’s got dogs,” said Jade. She has ve dogs, and she says it would be hard for her to nd a shelter or housing that would accommodate them.
Like Jorge Peña, Jade also sees the RV site as a “godsend.” She remembers sleeping very soundly her first night in the lot. For the first time in a while, she wasn’t worried about theft or someone messing with her vehicle while she slept. Break-ins, costly tickets, towing and harassment by police: People living in their RVs face many barriers to feeling secure.
One resident of the new RV site, Robert, remembers buying thick metal chain to strap down a generator and protect it from theft while parked outside on the street—but it was still stolen. Another resident, Deborah Benando, recalls when she parked her RV in Contra Costa County,
police would bang on her door in the middle of the night to tell her and her husband sleeping in the vehicle was illegal. Jorge Peña said he felt like
he was a “nuisance” to people when he parked on the street. His RV has accrued up to $800 in tickets he cannot pay. Once, he says, a neighbor called the police on his vehicle even when he was parked in a legal spot.
So far, the site seems to be a welcome intervention for the people who live there. However, advocates feel the barrier to entry is far too high for it to be lauded as a comprehensive solution. The site is invite-only—or an “invitation zone,” as Mayor Schaaf described it in June—which means that there is no application process. You have to be tapped by outreach workers in order to secure a spot.
The process for ensuring you are invited remains unclear. The city says it identified 22 RVs parked along 85th and Edes Avenues that it intended
to target for the site. Of the residents that Street Spirit spoke to, some who were living in RVs along that corridor say outreach workers knocked
on their doors weeks before the site opened, giving out yers about the safe parking lot. One said she phoned the site manager repeatedly before the site was open, eager to move off of the street as soon as possible. Another couple read about the site in the newspaper while they were living in their RV on the streets in Contra Costa County and came to Oakland in hopes
For the first time in a while, Jade wasn’t worried about theft, or someone messing with her RV.
of being invited. But there are many who have not been invited. Take Deandre Nash, for example. Deandre, who goes by Dre, had been living at Union Point Park in Oakland in his RV for a couple of weeks when the city handed out eviction notices on August 16. “I called 211 immediately and asked, ‘Are there any spots open at the RV site?’” he said. “The woman said it was invitation only. She said that’s the only parking site for RVs. I don’t know how you get a spot there.”
When that eviction began four days later, on August 20, Dre’s RV—which is inoperable—was towed.
According to city officials, the people who were evicted from Union Point were not offered a place in the safe parking site because, despite the city’s plans to expand the 71st Ave. site to accommodate 45 to 48 RVs by the end of August, it was full at the time. Still, the lack of transparency involved in the decision-making process causes confusion. For people like Dre, knowing whether he could eventually get a spot at the site could save a lot of energy. It could also save money spent on tow fees, as he moves his RV around the city in search of a new place to park, dodging eviction notices from the city.
The current residents of the safe parking site have mixed feelings about how adding more RVs will change the culture of their new home. Jade Koga says she trusts the site manager’s judgment about who to invite, but is worried that more people and more density could bring more conflict. When resident Robert heard about the plans, he expressed doubt about overcrowding and said he thinks it might be a mistake. But Deborah Benando smiled and spread her hands. “I think that’s wonderful,” she said, adding that she hoped the city could help more people.
A “disappearing act”
The city currently has plans to open three more RV sites, bringing the total to four—for now. Meanwhile, more and more people are living in their vehicles in Oakland.
According to the 2019 Point-in-Time count, a majority of unhoused people in Alameda County live in vehicles—35 percent. Increasingly, these people are finding stickers on their cars for removal, as notices for “No Overnight Parking” zones appear on street signs. Block by block, vehicle dwellers are being forced to move— and perhaps the city’s plans for RV sites are secondary to its plans for evictions. Needa Bee, an activist with Homeless Advocacy Working Group and The Village, calls the new RV site and ongoing evictions a “disappearing act.”
“I think this is the city’s attempt of making it uncomfortable for homeless people to be here, and for shuffling people around, so that people don’t have to look at them,” Needa says. She also says the city has an obligation to talk to the people they’re about to evict and develop programs based on the needs of people there—including people with inoperable vehicles and people who sleep in their cars.
‘The woman said it was invitation-only.’
“Somebody who has a running, functional RV, insurance, registration, is not in as deep a crisis as someone whose car doesn’t work, doesn’t have a driver’s license and can’t get their vehicle registered or insured,” she adds.
The consequences of these “No overnight parking” zones play out during evictions all over the city, including the one on 85th and Edes Avenues leading up to the opening of the safe parking site.
On July 11, after Mayor Schaaf announced the RV site, the city tagged approximately 70 vehicles parked on 85th and Edes for removal, plastering “No overnight parking” signs along the road, according to a public records request.
By July 16, five days later, the city’s records say most of the vehicles marked and tagged on 85th and Edes had left when police arrived to empty the street. An independent journalist named Omar Yassin happened to be on the street that morning: He had received an urgent text message from an older man living in his inoperable van, who was out of options for towing his broken-down vehicle on eviction day.
Yassin had been working on a story about the city’s expanded “No overnight parking” zones, including along the 85th and Edes corridor. “This was a gigantic area,” Yassin says. “This was going to be a square mile area where you couldn’t park your RV and sleep.” According to Yassin’s reporting, residents with inoperable vehicles parked along the street had to call acquaintances to help them move or face the city’s tow trucks and the loss of their belongings.
‘I don’t know how you get a spot there’
The city reports it towed 11 vehicles on July 16—but that number could have been 14 if Yassin and other residents of that vehicle encampment hadn’t been there to help, Yassinsays. Assistant city administrator Joe DeVries says the police department told him the RVs ultimately towed from the encampment on July 16 were completely unoccupied and empty of personal belongings. But from Yassin’s reporting, it appears police certainly intended to tow lived-in vehicles: In an incident recorded on video, he stood between police and a woman’s occupied trailer, pleading for officers to let a neighbor tow her to the safe RV site, instead of allowing OPD’s towing contractor to take her trailer to an impound lot. Ultimately, on the morning of the eviction, just two vehicles were allowed to be towed to the safe RV site.
“I didn’t go there to do a public spectacle, to remark about a social or political situation. It just ended up being that way,” says Yassin. “I ended up being an activist there, because there was no other option.”
The RV site is a pilot program, and the city’s initial plan is to run it for six months. DeVries con rmed the city doesn’t know what’s next for the site or its residents after its pilot period ends. “We’re not sure what happens in six months,” he told Street Spirit.
DeVries also said the residents of the RV site are a different population from those who live in the city’s Tu Sheds, acknowledging that some RV owners would score lower on the needs assessment that the county requires for placing people in housing.
Candice Elder, founder and executive director of the East Oakland Collective, says it seems the site is going well for residents, but the prospect
of the pilot ending without a plan to house them is worrisome.
“What is the city’s plan when the six months is over for the site, and residents have to move back?” she asks.
Jade Koga is grateful for the time she has in the lot, even if it is ultimately only six months. “Should be enough time to get a job and get back on my feet,” Jade says.
Neighboring cities haven’t taken sufficient action to protect RV dwellers.
Other residents weren’t sure what they would do if the city cut o access to the site. Robert said if the city closed the lot, or if residents were disinvited, he would just park his RV on the street again. Jorge Peña told Street Spirit it would be hard to decide whether to give up his RV if he secured longer-term housing. But Deborah Benando was ecstatic about the idea of leaving her RV behind. She and her husband were waiting for Social Security bene ts to arrive, and they hope to secure a spot in a new development that will provide affordable housing for homeless veterans. For Deborah, carting water from the water tank to her RV each night and washing dishes in a tub gets old.
Neighboring cities haven’t taken sufficient action to protect RV dwellers or people who live in their cars. East Palo Alto has a safe parking program that currently serves 16 RVs, but it’s run by a nonprofit organization, not the city. In June, the city council of Mountain View debated an ordinance that would have banned RVs from parking on public streets at all hours. But after strong local outcry and opposition from civil rights groups like the ACLU, leaders postponed the decision. San Francisco plans to open a safe lot for overnight parking near the Balboa Park BART station by November or December, offering about 30 spots for mid-to-large sized vehicles, including vans and RVs. It will also be invite-only, and people will only be allowed to stay for 90 days. In March, Berkeley’s city council passed an all-out ban on parking RVs on public streets overnight, to take effect later this year. They are currently in the process of implementing a short- term safe parking site for RV dwellers like the one in Oakland. However, residents would only be allowed to stay there for two weeks before being made to move on.
All four residents of Oakland’s new RV site who talked to Street Spirit described how significant it was that they feel they now have space to think, and greater peace of mind.
Doesn’t everyone deserve that?
Ariel Boone is a freelance journalist and reporter for KPFA News in Oakland, California. She previously worked at Democracy Now! in New York.