An RV park housing the homeless in San Francisco has become a runaway success story

Pier 94 is perhaps the most successful model of how to treat and serve homeless populations

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published September 19, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Homeless people gather on Willow Street in the Tenderloin on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Homeless people gather on Willow Street in the Tenderloin on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

This article was produced as a project for the USC Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 California Fellowship.

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.

* * *

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.

[Listen to the interview with Howard below.]

"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.

"When you don't have a physically safe space to be sheltered so that you are physically, socially and emotionally safe, then your body has actually no time to recover to go into a mode in which you're able to actually put energy at a cellular level towards cellular levels of healing," Crosswell says. "If you don't have a safe place, let's just say, to sleep, then that your body can't drop into deep sleep."

Crosswell adds: "Sleep is a crucial healer, so if you're never getting enough sleep then it builds on decades over decades."

As Salon has previously reported, there have been criticisms of Project Room Key, specifically in San Francisco. For example, the slow pace it took to house the homeless once the coronavirus began to spread and the number of people who are still living on the streets with nowhere to shelter-in-place. Certainly some of these issues still remain. According to San Francisco's data tracker, 1,976 of the 2,484 alternative housing sites for the homeless are occupied as of September 17, including the 120 trailers at Pier 94. There are an estimated 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco.

Anecdotally, there seems to be something about living in trailer housing, and the way this program is run, that has contributed to the success of its residents. When asked about what contributed to the success of the RV Park, both Howard and Burrell cited stability and "the staff." Unlike shelters that often have strict rules, and zero tolerance for specific types of behavior, the staff is from the Bayview community and sees it as an honor to help their former neighbors. There also appears to be a distinct focus on treating the residents with respect and kindness.

"The staff makes it simple, like 'I'm gonna pull you to the side,' or 'I'm not going to scold you, I'm just going to remind you and it might be 17 times, but I'm not going to kick you out unless you do something that's really permitted me to just let you leave,'" Howard explains. "I mean if you have got the right people, that makes it work, they've got a smile on their face, they don't push the issues so much."

Howard says this kind of approach makes for a less pressured environment, one that's ideal for healing and regrouping.

"It makes things better because you're given the chance for them to get to know you and get to know what's going on," Howard says.

Indeed, rules and regulations are often a barrier for homeless people seeking help in a shelter.

"Oftentimes, shelters will have rules around sobriety which automatically excludes anyone who isn't sober," Samantha Batko, a research associate at the Urban Institute, tells Salon. "Some shelters have rules around particular types of behaviors, some may have rules around whether or not you can bring in possessions, many, many, many shelters have rules around pets. . . these are all traditional barriers to shelter that make it difficult for people to be able to access and successfully make use of shelters."

Batko added the "low-barrier" shelters, like the Pier 94 RV park, which are solely focused on giving people "housing first," have better success in ending people's homelessness.

"People do improve on quality of life measures and they remain housed successfully," Batko says.

At the RV park, there are few rules. Pets are allowed, but no kids, which isn't a problem since the population skews older. People who were considered more susceptible to the coronavirus, those over the age of 60 or with underlying conditions, were given priority to a trailer in the park. Currently, there's a waitlist of 200 people.

But despite its success, the future of the Pier 94 RV park is still up in the air. San Francisco has long struggled with homelessness due to a legacy of racial discrimination in housing policies, gentrification, and rising housing costs. While Silicon Valley leans liberal, the widening gap in income inequality has led to a rise in NIMBYism.

"What we find is that everybody wants people to be housed as long as it isn't in their neighborhood," Margot Kushel, MD, who is the director of University of California–San Francisco's Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, tells Salon, adding that she hopes these Project Roomkey programs dispel the myth that homeless people don't want to be housed.

"It's just not true," Kushel said. "If people don't, by the way, want to come into shelters —which has never even been true, but even so — there's a difference between not wanting to go into a room with 100 other people and having your own place."

Kushel said that the pandemic has shown that "a quiet dignified place to stay" is "doable."

But does this mean that the program will carry on after the pandemic? Of the 120 trailers at Pier 94, the city of San Francisco leased 29, and 91 were provided by the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Funding from the federal government would be needed to secure more.

Westbrook says she can't imagine that the current iteration of the RV park would be taken away from them.

"We took 120 off the street, if they closed it down, what would happen to the 120 people who we took off the street?" Westbrook asks.

Kushel said she's optimistic, too.

"I'm hopeful that they will be able to find more permanent resolutions for the people who have been brought inside," Kushel said. "I think a bigger, broader question is, 'How do we create a system where there can be interim housing for all which is, you know, a hotel room for people to go into for a few months as people are getting their paperwork together until we can find them a permanent place to stay?' I would love to see that, I would love to see a vision where we didn't return to congregate shelters where people just languish for years, and certainly I'd love to see a future where we didn't have people living on the street."

For the time being, many residents like Burrell are working hard to find permanent homes and jobs. She knows that there are more people who could benefit from Pier 94, which is part of her motivation to find permanent housing.

"I don't plan on being here long," Burrell says. "Because there's somebody else behind me who needs this space."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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