An RV park housing the homeless in San Francisco has become a runaway success story
This story was produced as part of a larger project by Nicole Karlis, a participant in the 2020 California Fellowship.
Click here for the landing page for all of Nicole's 2020 California Fellowship stories.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.— Over the last decade, San Francisco's Pier 94 has undergone something of a renaissance. A hidden wetlands habitat that was once buried in heavy scrap metals and star thistle, environmentalists hailed this corner of the Bayview neighborhood as a restoration success story. The Golden Gate Audobon society helped transformed the pier into a haven for butterflies, birds and mammals. But once the coronavirus pandemic hit, Pier 94 became a spot for another kind of refuge: 120 recreational vehicles to house people who long called the streets home.
Tucked between cargo ships on the Bay and mounds of dirt near the railyard, the RV Park is part of California's Project Room Key program, which aimed to open up 15,000 hotel rooms to the state's homeless population when the pandemic took hold in March. As part of the initiative, the city of San Francisco acquired 120 recreational vehicles and trailers at the end of April to house homeless in the city's Bayview and Hunters Point neighborhood, at a cost of $90,000 per unit. If there were ever a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, Gwendolyn Westbrook, who is the CEO of United Council of Human Services in San Francisco and advocated for securing the site, tells me it's what's happening at Pier 94.
"Without the pandemic we never would have got our RV camp," Westbrook says. "People came here from sitting in chairs for the last 16 or 17 years to now being able to lay down and not have to worry; it's amazing to see everything that this pandemic has changed, the good and the bad."
The RV park, which is technically a transitional non-congregate shelter, is big enough to walk around by foot, but you can drive around the perimeter in a golf cart, which the staff does frequently. Dirt roads with street names have been created and are defined by the rows of trailers that each have an address, giving residents a neighborhood feeling. The difference in their quality of life, Westbrook notes, is physically visible from when they first arrived.
"You can see it in the face, the difference in the way they treat people," Westbrook says. "You can tell they're saying to themselves, 'it's an opportunity,' you can tell by the way they look now versus the way they were looking when they were on the street."
The RV park comes with a variety of amenities beyond a personal space. There's a laundry department where residents can drop off their clothes to get washed twice a week. For those who arrived without clothes, site managers provide them. There's an on-site medical team of three nurses and two doctors. Residents are fed three times a day; meals can either be delivered to their RVs, or they can get shuttled to a nearby cafeteria run by the United Council of Human Services. Residents received 15-inch televisions and iPads upon arrival, too, in addition to vouchers to receive ID cards or driver's licenses if needed. And despite the pandemic being incredibly isolating, residents here have found community through socially distanced town halls, opportunities to look for jobs, and a budding gardening group.
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Resident Jerome Howard, 57, sits by empty planter boxes that will be filled with soil and seeds in the coming weeks, an apt metaphor for his own future. He wears a lanyard that shows his name, a photo of himself, and his Pier 94 address. He's eager to tout how amazing the residence has been, and how he finally feels like he's had the time and space to catch his breath after living ten years on San Francisco's street, and lay the right foundation to find permanent housing and work again.
"This is not the streets, this is a residence where you can stay, it's a well lived-in, well-built shelter-in-place," Howard says. "It's a place of stability to get yourself together, that's really what it is."
Howard has been living at the RV park for the last three months. When the pandemic hit, he was living at MSC [multi-service center] South, which is one of the three housing centers operated by the non-profit St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco. In April, the shelter had a coronavirus outbreak. Life at the RV park, Howard says, is quieter than the shelter or streets.
"When you're in the shelters, you gotta think about the people around you, people stealing something, someone's getting into a fight," Howard says. "And when you're on the streets, you're just thinking about what you're doing, but when you're outside of that you can learn how to connect, it's different."
An average day for Howard at the RV park is simple, which adds to the appeal. When asked to describe an average day, he said: "Getting up, getting up in the morning and cleaning your place."
There is no official program or schedule for the residents, which makes for a more relaxed and stable environment.
"Keeping things simple, being able to lock your door and come and go, there aren't a lot of storms that come this way or problems that come up," Howard says. "I feel good here," he adds, in part because of this sense of stability. The RV Park, he says, has given him time and space to exercise and keep his mind busy.
Howard grew up in Glen Park in San Francisco and describes his childhood as "good." In his early twenties he left home and got caught up with drugs "for a moment" which sent him down the wrong path. Living on the streets, he says, was a "hustle game" for him; but now, Howard is looking brightly toward the future.
"My long-term goal is to be a businessman one day, to have my own business, being the person I am and the era of the modern world we live in; that's a better adjustment for me," Howard said. Currently, Howard is in school studying literature.
Like Howard, 58-year-old Tina Burrell moved to the RV park on May 12 after living in a tent in the Bayview neighborhood. Sitting on the silver stairs of the entrance of her trailer, listening to TLC's "Creep," Burrells tells me the last time she can recall having stability like this was in 2013, when she lived in Stockton, California. But that's not where she's from. Like Howard, and a majority 70 percent of the city's homeless population, Burrell once called San Francisco home.
"I wanted to come home for so long, but the cost of living made it hard," Burrell says.
At the RV park, Burrell says she feels better "healthwise," than living in a tent and she's been able to accomplish some goals she's set for herself. For example, she's stopped drinking.
"Now I don't even think about it," Burrell says. "The place is the place, it's the place of all the help you can think of... everything you need is here, and I appreciate the taxpayers."
Alexandra Crosswell, an Assistant Professor at the Center for Health and Community within the Department of Psychiatry at University of California-San Francisco, tells me it makes sense that residents at Pier 94 feel better because they have a basic need like shelter being met. Living without a safe place to sleep at night can be harmful to one's physical, mental and emotional health.
[This story was originally published by The Salon].