Linda recalls waking up in the middle of the night last November to the sound of something being dragged across the sidewalk in front of her home. The retired elementary school teacher peered out of her window and was perturbed to see a large recreational vehicle parked on the curb a few yards away from her front door and a person dispensing a large bag of waste into the trash can on her front lawn.
“I had no idea who the person was, why they chose to park here, and if they could potentially put me or my neighbors in danger,” she said. “My bedroom window was literally yards away from the RV and I couldn’t sleep comfortably knowing that it was there.”
In all her 34 years of living on Benvenue Avenue, Linda, who agreed to tell her story on the condition that she was only by her first name, had never before felt unsafe within her home. That night was the first of many that the RV remained parked in front of her home, causing her to fear for her own safety.
Linda isn’t alone. Many other Berkeley citizens have expressed discontent and anxiety over the growing number of RV-dwellers who park on public streets or parking lots in neighborhoods like Linda’s. These people are one face of Berkeley’s ongoing homelessness crisis. According to a staff report produced for the city council, about 2,000 people in Berkeley experience homelessness during the year, a number that has steadily increased by 10 percent every two years since 2006. Escalating rent in Berkeley has only made this situation more severe, playing a big role in the rise of RVs as housing alternatives.
RVs have provoked concern among some residents about safety, trash disposal, noise and disruption, sanitation of public facilities, and the use of public land being as private property. Such issues recently prompted the Berkeley City Council to take action to mitigate the situation. In March of 2019, the council voted on a citywide ban that prohibited RVs from parking from 2-5 a.m. for more than one hour. However, the ban was not enforced because the council majority voted to suspend any action until a so-called three-month “grace period” permit system was established. The permit system allows a specific “priority population” to be exempt from the ban — including RV dwellers with children, Cal students, Berkeley workers, and former Berkeley homeowners — and allows them to park in designated off-street parking locations. Over the past year, the city has had difficulty finding an appropriate 24-hour parking site for permit holders due to legal and financial constraints.
Just last month, more progress was made toward mitigating the issue, even if only in a temporary way. During the Feb. 11 city council meeting, councilmembers voted 8-1 in favor of a resolution for safe RV parking proposed by Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, and Councilmember Kate Harrison. The resolution set up a pilot parking program that allows the city manager to designate six municipal, “safe parking” lots in West and South Berkeley in which up to 25 RVs with “Grace Period” permits could park in overnight during non-business hours — with a potential for renewal. Additionally, RV dwellers parked in “safe parking” lots would receive access to restrooms, trash pickup, and other social services. According to Deputy City Manager Paul Buddenhagen, these six parking lots will serve the “priority population” while the city continues the search for a permanent location for them.
The new resolution modified the original RV ban so that it is only enforced in areas like the Gilman District where there is a high concentration of RVs, Buddenhagen said. RVs parked elsewhere will not be targeted unless they violate the city’s Health and Safety Code, he added. This leaves most RV dwellers alone until a permanent location is designated.
The new resolution eases the anxieties of former RV dwellers such as Dan Mullan. As someone who has lived in an RV due to financial instability, he has remained concerned about the issue and the fate of current RV dwellers.
“You never think that homelessness is something that could happen to you,” Mullan said. “But I’ve realized how quickly your life can turn upside down. People need to put in perspective what it’s like for these RV occupants who have nowhere else to go.”
In 2018, Mullan was an accounting technician living comfortably in a house in Berkeley. His life drastically changed when he received a call from the company he worked for notifying him that they were bankrupt and that he was out of work. Dan was soon forced to sell his house and move into an apartment, only to get into a dispute with the landlord and be evicted within the first month. He eventually used the last of his savings to purchase an RV. In the summer of 2018, he parked his RV at the Berkeley Marina, where he took up temporary residence and met other RV dwellers with experiences similar to his own.
“This RV was my last hope,” he said. “It allowed me to keep afloat while I searched tirelessly for a new job. It was the only sense of stability I had during this extremely difficult part of my life. ”
The RV served as a housing alternative that provided Mullan with the same necessities that any costly Berkeley apartment would. After months of applying to new jobs and working part-time at local shops and restaurants, Dan was eventually able to get back on his feet and move into a new apartment before the overnight RV ban was put in place last year. Although Mullan is no longer an RV dweller, he advocates for the conditions and wellbeing of people who still are.
“These RV-dwellers aren’t crazy homeless people or drug addicts like the general public assumes they are,” he said. “Some of them are just retail workers, delivery drivers, and even Cal students — all driven out of traditional housing because of financial struggles and high Berkeley rents.”
Dan supports the new resolution that doesn’t involve forcibly removing all of the people who are living in RVs without a choice.
“There’s a long way to go with solving this problem,” Mullan said. “But I believe that this new pilot parking program is the first step in the right direction.”
Buddenhagen emphasized that the city’s new pilot parking program is only a temporary, experimental measure and that there is still more work to be done to find a permanent solution. For now, the program only covers a small portion of the RVs on the streets of Berkeley and still fails to provide them with a permanent location to stay. For now, Buddenhagen explains that the city is devoting its effort to setting up the six parking lots. A long-term solution has still not been devised. Buddenhagen said that discussion about possible next steps will only begin after the city finishes aiding the priority population. While the city is taking action to mitigate the situation, Mullan encourages the public to look at the situation with a new perspective.
“Living in an RV was a humbling experience for me,” he said. “Before I got laid off in 2018, I would’ve shared the same sentiments as the Berkeley citizens who stand against RV dwellers today. But now knowing what it’s like to slip into homelessness and financial insecurity, I see things in a different light. I encourage everyone to stop and realize that RV dwellers are not the problem here. They are often just people in need, not simply dangerous criminals looking to terrorize the city.”