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SF vehicle triage center exposes the challenge of alternative shelter approaches

A sign marks the entrance to the Bayview Vehicle Triage Center in San Francisco, a temporary refuge for homeless residents from life on the streets. | Joe Dworetzky/Bay City News

In January 2022, when San Francisco announced a new program in the Bayview with the opaque title "vehicle triage center" (VTC), it seemed a rare win-win in the world of big city homelessness strategy.

The Bayview VTC would offer a "safe parking" area where people living in their cars or RVs could access electric service, showers and sanitary facilities, all in a 24/7 secure location supported by the full panoply of city-contracted "wraparound services." Residents would also have access to city workers knowledgeable about the process of securing permanent housing.

The site would be BYOV: Bring your own vehicle. 

The beauty of the approach was that the city would not need to build housing; all it needed was a parking lot where it could deliver services, one preferably out of the way of residential neighborhoods. 

But for all the promise of the approach, things have not turned out as expected. 

Services are not what was promised. The VTC residents have ongoing and, in some cases, serious complaints about the site. The city is facing an environmental lawsuit for violating the Clean Air Act, and the cost has far exceeded what it cost to provide the same services in a pilot program.

As the project celebrates its one-year anniversary, the question is whether the Bayview VTC is just suffering growing pains or is it a complete fiasco? So far, the evidence points to the latter.

A Search for Alternative Ways To Provide Shelter

When the Board of Supervisors considered the Bayview VTC, it noted that "safe parking" programs were an alternative to traditional models for sheltering and housing residents experiencing homelessness. 

Exploring alternatives made a lot of sense in light of the twin challenges of building housing in the country's second-most expensive city, according to a Consumer Reports study (using 2021 data) and trying to site shelters in neighborhoods that do not want the homeless.

Safe parking sites could be particularly useful because, according to research by the city's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), there were people living in 1,088 vehicles citywide in 2021, representing a significant portion of the approximately 8,000 people experiencing homelessness. 

Some of the vehicles were cars or vans. Many were RVs. Some vehicles could move under their own power; others would need a tow to make it to the next block. 

They were scattered all over the city, with a particularly large concentration in the Bayview-Hunters Point area near Candlestick Point State Recreation Area (CPSRA). 

CPSRA is a 270-acre park born in 1977, according to the state website, "through the efforts of San Francisco residents organizing for environmental justice in their community."

A large vehicle encampment had grown up on Hunters Point Expressway near the park entrance. HSH's count said that there were 154 occupied vehicles in that area. 

Vehicles lined the roadway on both sides, sometimes two- and three-deep. The density was so great that at times the entrance to the park was completely blocked. 

Neighbors complained of crime, noise, drugs, discharge of sewage and the negative impact of the encampment on the enjoyment—and value—of their properties. They made repeated complaints on 311 and to their elected representatives.

There was a large parking lot in CPSRA that had once served the park's boat launch. The boat launch had become inoperable, and the parking lot was mostly unused. 

The lot was 312,000 square feet—roughly the size of six football fields—and was owned by the state and available for lease.

Nearly the length of six football fields, the 312,000 square-foot Bayview Vehicle Triage Center in San Francisco accommodates 49 vehicles, many of them RVs. | Joe Dworetzky/Bay City News

The spot was about as remote a location as you could find in San Francisco, sitting across the South Basin from Hunters Point on a beautiful spot at the edge of the bay, bounded by the water, the recreation area, and mostly vacant land.

The closest neighbor was an existing private RV Park—Candlestick RV Park—that had accommodations for 165 RVs and 24 tents.

What if the city leased the CPSRA parking lot and invited inhabited RVs and vehicles from the Bayview to move into what they called the Bayview Vehicle Triage Center?

The proposal would help clear up the problem area on Hunters Point Expressway. Moreover, the facility would be a temporary one, just for two years, so Bayview residents would not feel that their neighborhood was being stuck with another long-term institutional use, a pervasive complaint from the neighborhood. 

The Bayview VTC wouldn't just be a parking lot, the city would provide services that weren't available to a RV out on the street: water, electric, showers, free meals and a way to dispose of "graywater" (water from showering and cooking) and "blackwater" (sewage) in a sanitary fashion. There would be security guards 24/7. There might even be space for a second vehicle for residents who lived in an RV but used a car to get to work or get around.

The city would provide wraparound services: support and counseling for the residents on any of the common problems experienced on the street—drug and alcohol abuse and behavioral health problems, in particular—and also help for residents to move into longer-term solutions like permanent supportive housing.

And the piece de resistance: The city had the money to make it happen. The state would lease the city the space for $1.7 million to be paid, not in cash, but in return for "in-kind" services (increased police services, dumping mitigation by the city Department of Public Works, etc.).

The state would also kick in $5.6 million to get the site up and running.

HSH would tap $4.2 million in funding for homelessness under Proposition C, a ballot proposition from 2018 that imposed a gross receipts tax on businesses to support homelessness solutions.

And with a total of at least $11.5 million available to fund the project, the city was off to the races. It was a bold and exciting idea.

Not the City's First Rodeo

This was not the city's first time to the VTC rodeo.

In 2019, the city piloted a Vehicle Triage Center at 2340 San Jose Ave., south of Balboa Park with spots for 29 vehicles and access to case management and other city services. Operation of the center began in November that year and continued for a year and a half until it closed in March 2021.

The first year of operation was evaluated in a report prepared jointly by the San Francisco Controller's Office and HSH. The controller frequently looks at city programs to see if they are effective and cost-efficient.

The report was released on Feb. 1, 2021, and while the report was not critical of the pilot program, it raised several key points around the cost.

In the first year of operation the cost (including estimated cost of case management services) worked out to be $1,793,003 or $61,828 for each of the 29 parking spots.

The evaluation did not compare that cost to other shelter options, but noted that site setup costs depend on a variety of different factors, including the number and types of parking spaces, the size and layout of the site, and the level of care.

"Site set up costs," the report said, "cannot be uniformly predicted." 

That meant it was unclear how the cost of the pilot would apply to other sites, a caveat that would prove especially meaningful at Bayview VTC.

The Neighbors Weigh In

To prepare Bayview residents for a site in their neighborhood, HSH convened a Zoom meeting with neighborhood leaders on Sept. 10, 2021, to hear their input. 

Emily Cohen, deputy director for communications & legislative affairs for HSH, presented the program. She explained that the pilot near Balboa Park had been "quite successful" and HSH was "very excited to be able to take our learnings from that pilot program to a second iteration of the model."

The Bayview VTC would have space for 155 vehicles, five times as many as the pilot. 

Spots within the VTC would be prioritized for people in Bayview who had been living in their vehicles. Cohen emphasized that "you can't drive up to the site, and you can't knock on the gate and ask to come in, but this will be very much invitation-only."

She emphasized that "this is a temporary proposal; this project is intended to be short term. This is not a permanent project. We are working towards a two-year lease with state parks."

Cohen stated that the VTC was conceived not as an ending place but as "a launching pad for people to access either affordable housing or other social services."

When the meeting opened to community input, HSH got an earful. 

Neighbors complained that they were just learning that the new triage center would be in the CPSRA and that they should have known that long beforehand. (The city disputed the point.)

They said that they were sick and tired of the vehicles parked near their homes, and profoundly frustrated with the lack of city response.

Timothy Simon, who identified himself as a member of the Bayview Hill Neighborhood Association, complained that "Bayview-Hunters Point is the home for every social ill the city and county of San Francisco has."

He called out the city's "ineptitude" and the "horrible job you've done in managing the current situation, which is complete and total lawless disregard for the residents of this community and clearly a public health hazard."

Another neighbor said, "all the emphasis, all the resources, have been on the unfortunate unhoused vehicle dwellers. You have not heard one word, one character, about the well-being of the tax-paying homeowners and residents of this community. That is an insult."

One said he did not understand why "we are allowing ourselves to be the armpit of the city."

Judging by those who spoke, the neighbors were against the project by a healthy margin, but not all speakers opposed the idea.

One resident complained that he suffers from hearing loud profanity and a generator running all night ("It's like a lawnmower running right outside my bedroom window"). He said there was a 20-gallon drum of raw sewage at the existing encampment just across his back fence. He would be happy if the city could use the VTC to move vehicles away from his fence.

Another speaker chided the neighbors for not focusing on how different the VTC would be from the existing situation on the street. She pointed out that there was already an RV park in the area and that didn't cause any concern.

The meeting ended with city officials thanking the residents for their input and saying it was valuable.

The Project Moves Ahead

The city decided to move forward with the project, and in January 2022, Mayor London Breed announced the opening of the site. Two Bay Area nonprofits—Urban Alchemy and Bayview Hunters Point Foundation—were selected to provide security and support services.

A problem arose right off the jump.

When the supervisors approved the lease, they noted, "the property has existing infrastructure, including water, sewer, pavement and electrical poles for lights, that will allow the city to quickly convert the site into a Vehicle Triage Center."

However, it turned out there was a problem with hooking the site to the PG&E grid. The city had to scramble to get temporary power for the parking lot lights, and it opened without "prime power," that is, electric service that could connect to RVs.

Solar panels are used to power parking lot lights tower above the fence line at Bayview Vehicle Triage Center in San Francisco on Feb. 9, 2023. | Joe Dworetzky/Bay City News

Without power for the RVs, there was no power in the vehicles for refrigeration or to charge a phone or a laptop. (The city says there is an external charging station.)

The only lighting at the VTC came from the large overhead parking lot lights powered by 16 loud and foul-smelling diesel generators that the city brought on-site when it turned out that connecting to PG&E's grid was not going to happen quickly.

The decision to use temporary diesel generators had other consequences: On Jan. 6 of this year, the city was sued by a neighborhood group on a variety of environmental counts, including the claim that the city was operating the diesel generators without a permit. The suit also alleged that the city had not disclosed the unpermitted generators to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in its application for three larger generators that were supposed to provide prime power to the site pending the PG&E connection.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the city started to replace the unpermitted generators with solar parking lot lights. (The city says work was underway on this project for several months before the lawsuit.) The lights are on tall poles bolted into concrete pads with a solar panel mounted high in the air.

Like the diesel generators they replaced, the solar panels don't produce power for the vehicles, just enough to light the parking lot lights, and, according to one resident, only dimly at that.

The lack of electric service has been a huge sore spot. At the Balboa Park VTC, there was power for half of the parking spots, but that wasn't enough. The site evaluation noted that both residents and staff thought that power outlets should be arrayed all around the site to support both RVs and passenger vehicles.

The availability of power had been part of HSH's pitch: "We want to and will make sure that the site has amenities like blackwater pumping, restrooms, showers, laundry, electricity, meeting space and 24/7 security and staffing," Cohen said at the September 2021 presentation.

VTC Residents Speak

Damien Furey will be 50 in November. Originally from Boston, he has been living unhoused for close to 20 years. He doesn't stay in shelters—he isn't fond of group living—and he has dogs. He is currently living in a paratransit van and, since before July 4, 2022, he has been living in the Bayview VTC.

He was hesitant to move to the VTC initially, but he was sick of getting tickets for parking illegally on the street and decided to give it a try.

He was told there would be electric service and food and showers. There would be a picnic area and a dog run.

But even though the site has now been operating for 13 months, more than halfway into its two-year term, there is still no electric hookup for the RVs and vehicles. 

And it isn't just the power problem, Furey has many colorful complaints, beginning with the food.

Food service was provided by a nonprofit organization named United Council of Human Services (UCHS) under a subcontract with the Bayview Hunters Point Foundation. UCHS operates Mother Brown's Dining Room and brought food to the site several times a day. 

Furey says he is vegetarian, and it took them months to give him food with no meat, and even after that, he still found things like casseroles with meat mixed in the food even though it was marked "vegan."

He says, "The food is absolutely disgusting, vile. It's so bad. [...]  I've bit into a piece of broccoli, and it tastes like straight mold. I said that was the most disgusting thing." 

The food's presentation was no better. "When it comes to us, after it's been in their vehicles and tossed around, everything's all mixed together. You'll have, you know, slices of peaches and pears mixed in with your spaghetti and tomato sauce and all your eggs. It's like this smorgasbord of crap." 

Asked to comment on those complaints, UCHS did not respond. But a city controller's report on Nov. 17, 2022, identified numerous problems with UCHS's performance and record-keeping on other contracts with HSH.

Among the controller's 24 recommendations was that HSH should "consider the termination of grant agreements with UCHS, particularly those funded through federal funds, and possible transfer of these services to another provider."

According to an HSH spokesperson, UCHS was replaced at the Bayview VTC in late January of this year.

A temporary storage structure at Bayview Vehicle Triage Center in San Francisco is seen on Feb. 9, 2023. | Joe Dworetzky/Bay City News

There are other problems, in Furey's opinion. 

There is no Wi-Fi at the site and no place to do laundry. 

The showers are poorly designed; they are showerheads—he calls them "dog showerheads"—on a hose. He says the water barely trickles and the showerhead must be tied to the shower curtain rod to stay up. You are only able to take a shower Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Cooking is not allowed, even in the RVs that have kitchens. You would need propane, and that isn't permitted. (HSH says the state fire marshal won't allow it, even though propane is used in the trailer park on private land next door.)

Furey says you aren't allowed to have visitors at the VTC, and the promised picnic area and dog run haven't materialized, though the city says there is a "dog circle."

He also says there is a problem with rats.

But Furey's biggest complaint is reserved for a smell that comes twice a day. He didn't know for sure where it comes from, possibly off-site. He says the smell is atrocious, so foul that it "burns your eyes." In a particularly graphic metaphor, he says it is like "wearing s– on your chin."

Furey says that the VTC is not better than being in his vehicle on the street. "I gave this a chance because they talked it up so much," he said. "And the only thing that they're doing here is not letting me get tickets. That's all it is."

Ramona Mayon, 62, also lives at the Bayview VTC.

By her own declaration, Mayon is "litigious." She is also highly articulate. She authors a blog and has put together a book of legal precedents that she says are relevant to the rights of homeless people living in vehicles.

She has serious health issues, but she is not sitting around quietly. 

Like Furey, Mayon has a long list of issues with the VTC. She calls it an "internment camp."

"I feel like my last energy needs to go towards having this conversation about how this is not how this needs to go. This is not the right direction," she said.

She documents her interactions with city officials and the contractors at the camp and posts audio and video recordings to her website. 

Although Mayon dislikes what she sees as a prison atmosphere, with perimeter fencing, security guards and surveillance cameras, her primary concerns are environmental. She wonders how any city official could have imagined the boat launch parking lot was appropriate for people to live for an extended period. 

She has done a lot of homework on the site, and she notes that just across the South Basin there is a federal Superfund site at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. 

She explains that radioactive waste from nuclear testing activity in the Pacific—Operation Crossroads—was brought back to Hunters Point after World War II on scores of Navy vessels to be decommissioned at the naval yard. Disposal of radioactive waste was poorly understood, and the way it was done was appalling by today's standards. And radiation wasn't the only issue; the shipyard also disposed of PCBs and other heavy metals.

While the VTC is not itself within the Superfund site, the body of water between the shipyard and the shoreline where the VTC is located—so-called "Parcel F"—is itself a part of the Superfund site. And the waters of Parcel F lap up to the shoreline of the CPSRA, no more than 50 yards from the boat launch parking lot. 

The 8,400-ton World War II-era gantry crane still stands above the dry dock at the decommissioned Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. | Joe Dworetzky/Bay City News

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires certain new projects to be studied for their environmental impact before breaking ground. In order to get the site in operation, the city's Department of Public Works asked the City Planning Department if a CEQA review of the VTC would be required. The department concluded that no environmental review was necessary because of a statutory provision that allowed a "Low Barrier Navigation Center" as a "use by right."

The city did not do any soil testing, though Cohen says that some form of air quality evaluation is currently being done in connection with the city's pending application for generators to provide prime power. 

Mayon says that because the VTC is in an old parking lot, whatever contamination is in the soils should be covered by the parking lot surface; however, Mayon says that the city has dug large holes in the ground to pour concrete for the towers where the new solar panels and lights are installed. The excavated soil was piled next to the towers.

Moreover, Mayon said that residents have been advised that the city will shortly begin digging a trench or trenches in the parking lot, ostensibly to lay wire to provide electric power to the RVs (apparently on the assumption that it can get the new diesel generators approved or that PG&E will finally bring power to the site.)

And Finally, There Is the Cost

If the Bayview VTC has not been as well-received as the city has hoped, it isn't for lack of spending.

While the city has not yet fully responded to public records requests about its costs, a Bay City News analysis found that in the first year of operation, the city expended at least $10.6 million, or just over $215,000 per spot.  

That amount of spending is more than three and half times the per-spot cost at the Balboa VTC pilot program over the same period. 

One way to put the $215,000-per-spot spending in perspective is to look at the number of people per year it supports. On Feb. 1, there were 49 vehicles and only 54 individuals living in them at Bayview VTC. The number of people changes as vehicles enter and exit, but it rarely has been more than 60 at any one time.

Using 60 people as the constant population means that the cost of accommodating one person in their own vehicle in the first year at the VTC was approximately $175,000.

Another way to put the cost into perspective is to compare it to a private RV park, Candlestick RV Park, the 165-spot RV park that sits on private land across the perimeter fence from the Bayview VTC.

Candlestick RV offers 30- and 50-amp electric service at each spot, along with free Wi-Fi. It has a laundry room and grocery store, and it not only allows, but sells propane. Its website touts its game room and big screen TV, along with "clean restrooms and showers" serviced by a "friendly and courteous staff." 

In response to a phone inquiry, the park said that a four-week stay for an RV, regardless of size, would be $2,000, or $72 per day, including electric service.

Converting the four-week rate to an annual per spot cost equates to $26,071, a small fraction of the $215,000 the city has spent to date for each of its 49 spots.

The numbers are not directly comparable because the private park's per-spot cost does not include food or wraparound services, and the city has not answered public records requests for its costs for food service costs. But for purposes of comparison, if the private park paid $25 a meal for three meals a day for 365 days per year, it would add $27,375 to the per spot cost.

With respect to case management costs, when the city controller and HSH were evaluating the Balboa VTC pilot, they estimated case management services cost $4,500 per spot per year, based on 1:25 case manager-to-bed staffing at a city Navigation Center in 2020. 

Adding estimated food service and case management costs to Candlestick RV's per-spot cost would result in a total cost of $57,946, roughly the cost of the Balboa VTC pilot, or just over a quarter of what the city has spent at Bayview to date.

Candlestick RV Park is a private community in the Bayview section of San Francisco next to the Bayview Vehicle Triage Center. | Joe Dworetzky/Bay City News

On the Site

Journalists are not allowed to walk onto the site unannounced, but if they arrange in advance, they can get a tour. 

On Jan. 18, in response to an inquiry from Bay City News, Cohen gave a tour of the site. She did her best to put a good face on the situation. 

In walking through the parking lot at midday she characterized the scene: "Very peaceful. Very quiet. Million-dollar view."

She said residents generally like being at the VTC. As an example, she said that "when it was really cold in the big rains just very recently, we came through and offered everyone an opportunity to leave and to go to an indoor shelter. And we had six people take us up on that offer. The rest stayed here."

But Cohen acknowledged that "the infrastructure here has been harder than we anticipated."

In the first year of operation, the city has only had 49 vehicles on-site, largely because of the problems with electric service.

Cohen said, "the infrastructure challenges have driven up the cost, and [...] we have been unable to expand to the full capacity, which has made it disproportionately expensive. In that way, it's been a real challenge."

The city has described the current limited use of the site as "phase one" with a second phase coming when the site can support more vehicles, but there are only 11 months left in the lease and the electric power issues haven't yet been resolved.

Extending the lease would seem to make sense, but HSH says it isn't doing that, and recently gave the residents notice that they will need to leave in less than a year.

Even if the power issue is solved and the city can expand, hopes that the site would hold 155 vehicles (as told to the neighbors in September 2021); "up to" 150 vehicles (as contemplated by the authorizing resolution); or 135 (as the mayor announced on Jan. 21, 2022), have now faded. 

Cohen hopes for 120.

Moreover, the expectation that the VTC would serve as "a launching pad for people to access either affordable housing or other social services" appears to be largely unfulfilled. 

According to an internal Feb. 1 HSH report, of the 47 people who have exited the VTC to date and who gave an exit interview, 79% left for a "place not meant for habitation (e.g., a vehicle, an abandoned building, bus/train/subway station/airport or anywhere outside)."

Only four people moved to transitional housing; the others went to different temporary placements (halfway houses, friends' houses, shelters). 

Cohen is not deterred.

She says HSH has learned that vehicle dwellers are "a very unique population to serve and somewhat different than the population we serve in our shelter and supportive housing programs. And we find that people are largely less interested in moving out of their vehicles and into housing than I think we would have hoped."

Going forward she says, "we have a lot of work to do with the community as we design programs for the specific segment of the homeless community in terms of thinking about what they want to get out of this."

With respect to the problems with providing power to the site, Cohen said, "This is the million dollar, multimillion-dollar question. [...] I think everyone's shocked and appalled that it's taken this long."

She blames delays by PG&E and supply chain issues.

Nevertheless, she thinks that the Bayview VTC is enough of a success to duplicate elsewhere. The encampment on Hunters Point Expressway has been largely eliminated.  She says the city is actively looking for another site on the west side of the city, but it is hard to find an appropriate spot.  

And even though Mayon finds the city's operation of the Bayview VTC to be abysmal, she believes that campgrounds with RVs should be a centerpiece in the city's response to homelessness. She thinks the city ought to create a lot of RV parks, which would get people off the streets.

"Tents have to go," she says, "Tents are a ludicrous way for people to house themselves."

In her opinion, the city should contract with private operators who specialize in campground management. 

"People simply need RV parks that are run by people who run RV parks."

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