Amber Whitson and Pamela Benfante stand on the dirt lot next to Marina Boulevard on Memorial Day, waiting for Berkeley police to evict the vehicle community. Before 6 a.m. on that morning, a group of activists came to support the RV encampment and used their own vehicles to block the eight RVs still parked on the dirt lot. (Christian Torres/KQED)
After a fire burned down her home, Dorothy Nolan began living in an RV. One of the biggest challenges she has found as an RV dweller? Being told to move — constantly — by law enforcement.
“We just could not park,” Nolan said. “We’d park to even just cook or take our dogs out for a walk. And, ‘What are you doing here? How long are you gonna be here? There’s no camping. Move it; you’ve got an hour.’ ”
Nolan recently found a parking lot at the edge of the Berkeley Marina where, so far, no one has ticketed or towed her RV.
“We’ve been sleeping for two days," she said. "After not sleeping for six months, we were dead tired."
By the latest count, the city of Berkeley has nearly 1,000 homeless people, many living in tented encampments along roads and underpasses. But in the past year, a group of people living in their vehicles — mostly RVs — have been living at the Berkeley Marina. Now the city is considering whether to create a sanctioned area for them.
Parked near Nolan is Berkeley native Paul Schrager, who grew up just off of University Avenue, right up the road from the Berkeley Marina. He’s on disability and can’t work right now. Schrager left the Bay Area for a year, and then moved back to his hometown, closer to a support network of relatives and friends. But rents were so high, he was unable to find a place his family could afford. When he bought the RV for $300, he thought of it as a temporary home while he searched for housing. It’s been three years.
“I didn’t think we’d be in this thing this long,” Schrager said.
Schrager's 5-year-old attends a public school in Berkeley and often plays outdoors near the bay. Schrager doesn’t want to leave his friends and family in the area.
“It’s been hard raising a child here in this environment,” he said.
Schrager’s RV has electricity now, so his son can watch TV, but it lacks proper facilities. Some of his neighbors pay for gym memberships in order to shower — much easier to afford than local rent. Schrager and his son are able to bathe at his dad’s house nearby.
“We have a bathroom, but we have no shower or bathtub or running water right now,” he said.
Schrager and Nolan are part of a fluctuating group of RV dwellers who have formed a community here over the past year. There are retired seniors, several people on disability, and many working adults: a barista, a security guard and a delivery driver for Amazon, to name a few. One woman earned her master’s degree at UC Berkeley while living here.
On a recent weekday, there were about 16 live-in vehicles mostly in a row. They are in the parking lot of a marina restaurant that leases the land from the city. The restaurant is shutting down in a few days, and the city does not yet have a plan for what will happen to the land.
Technically, Berkeley doesn’t allow vehicular camping, though the city sometimes looks the other way. The core RV dwellers here have become a tight-knit group. Last April, when the city made everyone leave an area near a local hotel, they voted to all move to a new part of the marina — together.
Amber Whitson lived for seven years at an encampment on nearby Albany Bulb park, before it was forcibly disbanded. Now living in a RV in the marina, Whitson still worries that she and her neighbors could be towed or forced to move at any moment.
“We’re still in an unsure place here as far as the legality of our being here. It isn’t technically sanctioned for us to be here,” said Whitson.
So Whitson has been pushing her neighbors to organize and advocate on their own behalf, including bringing their concerns to people who have the political power to make changes.
They've started showing up at City Council meetings. And they're asking for a longer-term fix — a sanctioned area, like an RV park, with running water and septic tank disposal.
“All that we ask for in order to ensure that we have the most basic human amenities is a parking lot with a single shower and a porta-potty,” Whitson said at a recent City Council meeting.
And they are willing to pay for it.
Some in the marina have been supportive, but there has also been some pushback. There have been complaints about sanitation and safety.
That's part of why Whitson and others have also been working to establish rules for those seeking to live here, to help maintain order and safety and avoid negative attention.
Standing in between a row of RVs, Whitson reads from a draft of their proposed community rules of conduct.
“No street drugs and/or alcohol. No rowdy behavior. 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. noise curfew. All holding tanks must be proper and legal working order,” she said.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin and City Council members Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison are trying to find an answer. They are introducing a proposal for the city manager to develop a local vehicle-dweller park. It would have toilets, garbage service, showers and potable water. There would also be access to social services. The city would issue permits, and collect a fee of somewhere between $60 to $150 per month, far less than most RV parks. The local RV-dwelling community could live there without fear of harassment or citation, if they abide by some rules.
If it's approved, Arreguin said there would have to be limits to how many people could stay there.
“There’s also going to be people that are going to want to come, that are going to want to live there, that either won’t be able to live there because of space or are not going to be able to conform to those rules,” said Arreguin.
Whitson is hopeful the city’s proposal could lead to a longer-term solution for the community, even if it’s not in the marina. For now, she’s helping the community organize so they can stay in the minds — and good graces — of the city.