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San Francisco RV community eyes more permanent home but faces tough road ahead

Robson Silva sits and works on his phone in his camper van on Winston Drive in San Francisco Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. Dozens of camper vans and R.V.’s line the road and are used as homes for their residents. Silva, originally from Brazil works as a Lyft driver and lives in his camper to save money. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

When Robson Silva separated from his wife last year, it was time for him to get out of Foster City. He moved to San Francisco’s westside and bought an RV on Winston Drive. The Lyft driver, originally from Brazil, is among the newest residents living in roadside RVs between Stonestown mall and Lake Merced. 

The city has been exploring a more permanent or long-term temporary location for the Winston Drive RV community, mostly made up of people who can’t afford rent in the city or Bay Area, but it has made little progress so far. 

However, an early stage plan from Supervisor Myrna Melgar could change that—but only if it gets city support and authorization from the California State University Board of Trustees. Melgar's proposal would turn Lot 25, a nearby parking lot owned by San Francisco State University, into a permanent or long-term temporary site for the RV community that includes water, sewer and power hookups. 

SF State’s spokesperson Kent Bravo wrote in an email to The Standard that the university is discussing the idea and its concerns with the city, but that “it is premature to determine whether Lot 25 might be used in this manner.”

Lot 25 is right off Winston Drive near a football field and is partly leased by a construction company.

Silva would like to stay in San Francisco, close to family and the Brazilian community he is a part of, but has applied for housing elsewhere. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Melgar says there is already $3 million allocated from the city’s budget from business taxes to pay for water, sewage and electricity hookups for an eventual site for the RV community. She and her staff have been working to find the best space nearby for them. 

According to Melgar, Lot 25 could provide the hookups needed, but its use would require approval from the California State University Board of Trustees and action from the city, which says it has yet to find a suitable site. Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, did not say whether the city has looked into Lot 25 or if it has plans to.

She did outline what a “suitable” site would look like, however. The ideal size would be 50,000 to 150,000 square feet, big enough for 50 to 150 RVs and in the western part of the city, paved, flat, relatively empty and ideally close to public transportation. The city is looking for a site that is available as soon as possible, accessible 24/7 and can be used for two to three years or longer, Cohen wrote. It would ideally be equipped with power, water and sewer onsite or nearby.

Previously, complaints surfaced on social media about possible plans for an RV site near the zoo, but Melgar says that that site doesn’t have the necessary RV hookups anyway and is now off the table.

“I’m frustrated by the situation,” Melgar said. “It’s not my job to identify a spot. There are people who get paid to do this, and yet my staff and I are the ones who have been doing this.”

Dozens of camper vans and R.V.’s used as homes for residents line Winston Drive. Many of the individuals choose to live in their camper vans or R.V.’s to avoid high Bay Area rent prices. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Like most of Winston Drive’s RV residents, Silva uses a generator for electricity and a nearby gas station to fill up on water and dispose of his trash. He said there’s one neighbor who comes by each week to clean out everyone’s sewage tanks.

Most residents want to get into permanent housing eventually—if given the opportunity, Silva said he would welcome moving his RV to a more contained lot with guaranteed amenities. His neighbors said they have participated in meetings with SF State and city officials about finding a more enclosed site.

Carolina Merchan has lived on Winston with her son and two dogs for four years, and said her RV home feels safe. Originally from Colombia, she and her son both work at a local restaurant and love the beauty and the quiet of their neighborhood. 

But some residents have dealt with break-ins, and say there’s one pesky black Cadillac that always lays on the horn when driving through the area. And, every Tuesday morning, residents have to pull their RVs off the street for street cleaning.

“That’s why we’re trying to do this, because we have to deal with security,” said Fabian Sua, who moved to the city from San Bruno to get more work with Doordash.

Silva applied for housing in San Diego but said he’s not excited about the idea of being away from family in the Bay Area and the community of Brazilians and other South American immigrants he’s found near Lake Merced.

“I want to stay here,” Silva said.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Supervisor Melgar's plan envisions a "temporary safe parking site" with a later goal of more permanent housing for the community.