S.F. Proposes First Safe Parking Lot for Homeless Living in Vehicles

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Two city supervisors proposed a plan to create a safe parking lot near the Balboa Park BART Station in San Francisco, where people living in their vehicles could park legally and access services. It would be the city's first safe parking lot. (Kate Wolffe/KQED)

In the midst of a heated debate over a homeless navigation center on the Embarcadero, San Francisco leaders are moving forward with a plan to create a safe parking lot where people living in their vehicles can park legally and access services.

 Supervisors Vallie Brown and Ahsha Safaí on Monday announced that a spot opposite the Balboa Park BART Station, at Geneva and San Jose avenues, could work as a site for their proposal. The space has the capacity for 30 vehicles, bathrooms and a resource center. It would also have 24-hour security.

Currently, it is illegal to sleep overnight in your car in San Francisco. The city prohibits people from inhabiting cars from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.. and offenders can face a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.

Safaí, who represents the district, said the yearlong pilot program would aim to help people move out of their cars and into long-term housing. He said people would need to be referred by the Homeless Outreach Team to get a spot.

“We can screen residents. We can see people who are living in their cars and divert them to a safe place for a temporary period of time, and then transition them to a more stable housing situation,” he said.

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The city’s homeless point-in-time count, conducted in May of this year, found that 35% of unsheltered homeless people lived in vehicles, compared to 28% in 2017 and 13% in 2015.

“Although the City has significantly reduced large, long-term tent encampments, the 2019 Point-in-Time Count shows an increase in the number of people sleeping unsheltered, with two-thirds of this growth attributable to people sleeping in vehicles,” the report said.

An RV is parked in Balboa Park up the street from San Francisco's first proposed safe parking lot where people living in their vehicles will be able to park legally and access services. A sign on the RV warns its occupant that they need to move the vehicle. July 16, 2019.
An RV is parked in Balboa Park up the street from San Francisco's first proposed safe parking lot, where people living in their vehicles would be able to park legally and access services. A sign on the RV warns its occupant that they need to move the vehicle. July 16, 2019. (Kate Wolffe/KQED)

To fund the project, Mayor London Breed allocated $1 million for it, and the supervisors contributed $200,000, too. It will cost the city an estimated $500,000 to get the site ready for use by year's end, and monthly operating fees will run up to $50,000, Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Coverage of Homelessness in the Bay Area

The parking lot would be a key first step to addressing the worsening homeless problem, said Kelley Cutler, human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness.

For people experiencing homelessness, their “first need is a place where they can park and not have to worry about being targeted by police, or harassed when they’re just trying to rest,” she added.

Communities around the state are experimenting with safe parking lots, City Lab reported in February.

The plan comes as a bitter dispute has unfolded over the past few months between the city and residents living near the proposed site of a 200-bed facility — the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center — that would provide a range of round-the-clock supportive housing and rehabilitative services to the homeless. Opponents have sued the city over the project and have asked a judge for a temporary restraining order to halt construction until the case has been resolved.

A sign posted on the inside of a parking lot near the Balboa Park BART in San Francisco. Two city supervisors have proposed using this site for a safe parking lot where people living in their vehicles can park legally and access services. It would be the city's first safe parking lot. July 16, 2019.
A sign posted on the inside of a parking lot near the Balboa Park BART Station in San Francisco. Two city supervisors have proposed using the site for a safe parking lot where people living in their vehicles can park legally and access services. It would be the city's first safe parking lot. (Kate Wolffe/KQED)

Safai said people in the Balboa Park neighborhood have been willing, even eager, to work with the city on the parking lot plan.

But residents still have questions about how the plan would be implemented, said David Hooper, president of the New Mission Terrace Improvement Association.

"I am supportive of the concept, but I have questions. And I would say I would have conditions," he said, referencing security concerns.

Sydney Waters, who has lived in the neighborhood for about five years, said she regularly sees RVs on the street by her house and thinks the lot is a good solution.

“Many of my friends are struggling to find housing so ... that would be really helpful,” she said.

Public comment for the plan will be heard on Saturday, July 20, at Balboa Park High School.