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What Happened to the 1,300 RVs Gov. Newsom Sent to Address Homelessness Back in 2020?

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A white man wearing a business suit keeps his hands together facing a man behind a television camera with trailers in the background.
Gov. Gavin Newsom stands next to FEMA trailers after speaking at a press conference on homelessness in Oakland on Jan. 16, 2020. The city received 15 unused FEMA trailers to use as temporary housing for unhoused people. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom made a splashy announcement: The state had procured around 1,300 trailers to house people experiencing homelessness who were especially vulnerable to the virus.

But in the more than three years since the trailers were delivered throughout the state, the results have been mixed. In some areas, the trailers continue to fill a crucial need, like in Napa County, where they are used to quarantine sick farmworkers, and in San Francisco, where they’ve become part of the city’s network of non-congregate homeless shelters. But in some other counties that requested them, like Monterey, the trailers are now gathering dust.

State housing advocates and fiscal watchdogs say the patchwork success of the trailer program raises questions about whether Newsom’s most recently announced homelessness plan — to erect 1,200 tiny homes across the state — could have a similarly uneven, largely inadequate impact.

“The tiny home plan is welcome, and it’s going to be amazing, but it’s a drop in the ocean,” said Farrah McDaid Ting, director of public affairs for the California State Association of Counties. “And like the COVID trailers, they may get lost because there is no accountability or expectation of outcomes.”

An emergency response to COVID

In January 2020, the Newsom administration began delivering temporary housing trailers to California cities, including more than a dozen to a parking lot in East Oakland. When the COVID emergency orders went into effect in March, that effort ramped up so both counties and cities could request the trailers.

Through the program, the state purchased a total of 1,305 trailers — of which about 105 were used and 1,200 were new — and started leasing hotels in California’s largest population centers to provide isolated lodging to unhoused people. The trailers slept anywhere from two to 10 people. Some had microwaves, bunk beds, sofas, TV mounts and full bathrooms, while others were smaller with fewer amenities.

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Each trailer cost anywhere from roughly $12,000 to $30,000, totaling nearly $29 million including delivery fees, according to data from the California Department of General Services, which procured them.

But once the trailers arrived, it was up to each city or county to figure out how to fund and manage them. Some did; others didn’t.

San Francisco set up its 116 trailers — 91 gifted by the state and 21 paid for by the city — at Pier 94 near the Bayview neighborhood. The city paid for electricity, bathrooms and showers for residents, daily meals, transportation services and on-site health services.

“We were able to get power and resources out to the site relatively quickly and open it up to people who were the most vulnerable to COVID living on the streets of the Bayview,” said Emily Cohen, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. “It’s not just a trailer.”

A total of 303 people have so far participated in San Francisco’s program. Of those, 37 have moved to permanent housing, according to Cohen. All but two of the trailers are still in use, and 118 people are still living at the site.

But at a site just across the bay, near Oakland International Airport, the trailer program had a much rockier start.

“They were in pretty sad shape and rehabbing them was extremely expensive,” said Derek Soo, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, who in spring 2020 helped move some residents from nearby encampments into the trailers at the site on Hegenberger Road, which became known as Operation HomeBase. “They were falling apart after the first year.”

Soo, who was unhoused himself, reported some of the dangerous conditions at the trailer site in its early days, including a lack of stable electricity. The city of Oakland eventually installed a transformer, which cost about $250,000, according to Soo.

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Site infrastructure improvements, like physical accessibility and trailer maintenance, and ongoing services, like meals and sanitation, are expensive but necessary to effectively operate temporary housing, he said.

Kym Wilson lived in a trailer at HomeBase from May 2020 to November 2021 with her husband and their two cats and a dog, until the couple was finally approved for an emergency housing voucher. The voucher allowed them to move from the trailer into an apartment in San Leandro, where they continue to live today.

“The trailer was smaller than our tent and we didn’t like that, but we knew we had an opportunity for housing, so we stayed,” said Wilson, who grew up in the East Bay, but was forced into homelessness after being evicted from her apartment in 2017. “Overall, the [trailer] experience was good. It was like a big trailer park right next to the Coliseum.”

But some other cities that received trailers in 2020 couldn’t follow through on providing the services necessary to make the temporary alternative housing programs successful. And some cities that requested the trailers didn’t receive any at all, according to a state data dashboard.

In San José, for instance, only 90 of the 104 trailers sent were deemed habitable upon arrival, the Mercury News reported at the start of the program, as some were missing sinks and had damaged vents.

The city spent nearly $1.3 million to repair damaged trailers and set up services and infrastructure, like water and electricity. But several months later, San José officials decided to return all 105 of its trailers and ditch the idea altogether.

“We used the trailers for a couple months, but we found the expense and operational challenges of maintaining such a large fleet of trailers were not a good fit for our city,” said Jeff Scott, spokesperson for the city’s housing department. “We transitioned our residents into other accommodations and returned the trailers to the state.”

In Monterey County, 15 trailers were set up at a county-owned park with RV hookups for water and electricity already available. But in the fall of 2022, as the COVID emergency became less dire, the trailers were decommissioned, according to Karen Smith, spokesperson with the Monterey County Public Health Department.

And even though the county continues to grapple with an acute housing shortage, the trailers are now sitting unused, in storage, she said.

Empty trailers in a housing crisis

A lineup of trailers outside.
Trailers that were brought to Oakland to be used by unhoused people remain empty on Day 30 of the coronavirus shelter-in-place order in Oakland on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Some of the trailers had been there since a joint press conference was held with Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Mayor Libby Schaaf on Jan. 16, 2020. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

To avoid that same fate with tiny homes and other emergency housing initiatives, housing advocates say local municipalities need to receive more guidance and sustained funding from the state.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, said Newsom’s tiny home plan feels very similar to the trailer program. “Newsom is doing these one-time investments, then asking municipalities to take it on,” she said. “The local government still has to pay for all the infrastructure costs, like pouring cement, staffing, food costs and other services. That was expensive at Pier 94 [in San Francisco].”

The wide disparity in outcomes for these short-term solutions has much to do with a lack of coordination and accountability when they are rolled out, notes McDaid Ting, of the California State Association of Counties.

“It’s so hodgepodge,” she said of the way broad homelessness initiatives, like the trailer program, have been implemented in California.

McDaid Ting’s group is calling on the governor to create a master plan to address homelessness that clarifies which state, county and local agencies are responsible for managing different parts of the state’s response — from running shelters and building ample housing and safety-net programs to expanding data collection.

Newsom has so far allocated around $2.5 billion in this year’s budget to address homelessness, and has directed more than $20 billion toward the issue since taking office in 2018 — far more than any of his predecessors — according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

But many advocates say that still falls far short of what is needed to provide long-term solutions to the state’s more than 171,000 unhoused people (PDF).

“The state’s homelessness crisis is so severe that the governor has called in the National Guard, and several city leaders have declared emergencies in their jurisdictions,” Cal Cities executive director and CEO Carolyn Coleman said in a statement in response to a recent survey showing that 90% of California cities don’t know how they’ll pay for homelessness services in the years ahead. “Lasting progress will be out of reach without an ongoing source of state investment in local communities.”

Tiny homes, big promises

For Newsom’s newest housing initiative, the state is planning to deliver 350 tiny homes to Sacramento, 500 to Los Angeles, 200 to San José and 150 to San Diego. The cities will own the homes and be on the hook for funding ongoing services.

In various studies, a majority of unhoused people say they prefer tiny homes and trailers to congregate shelters because they offer more privacy and security, helping residents to reestablish a greater degree of stability and confidence.

“Everyone wants their own place, the opportunity to move forward from the sidewalk to the trailer or tiny homes and into their own apartment or house. That’s the end result, that’s what we are looking for,” said Wilson, a former resident of Oakland’s Operation HomeBase program. “We came from homes. We haven’t always been homeless.”

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