Camped among sand dunes and in mobile homes by the streets of San Francisco’s beachfront neighborhood, people experiencing homelessness on the city’s westernmost edge say that they are all but forgotten—until someone complains about them.
In the Sunset neighborhood, bordered by a two-mile stretch of wind, sand and sea called Ocean Beach, the number of homeless people pales in comparison with the rest of the city’s neighborhoods.
The city’s most recent count found only 81 homeless people in the Sunset District out of over 7,000 in the entire city, though the number of homeless people in the neighborhood has roughly doubled since the pandemic.
But for those living in vehicles on the neighborhood's streets, or even in tents between its mounds of sand, the solutions that the city has presented to them seem nearly useless.
Several people living in poverty in the sleepy neighborhood said that the mobile outreach teams, shelters and sanctioned RV sites offered on the east side of town don’t address the causes of their homelessness.
When asked what the city could do to help them, the answer was virtually unanimous: affordable housing.
Crystal Kelley said she grew up in the Sunset neighborhood, recalling that she used to pay $500 per month for a two-bedroom apartment on Judah Street.
Average home prices in the neighborhood have jumped by over $450,000 since 2015, according to Zillow.
Kelley said that she and her husband were effectively priced out of the neighborhood in the early 2000s as she bounced around jobs, at which point they moved into her car and, eventually, into an RV, playing cat-and-mouse with local law enforcement ever since.
“When a cop asked me what I was doing in San Francisco, I wanted to hit him,” Kelley said. “I was born and raised here.”
Kelley and a group of a dozen or so other RV dwellers have effectively taken ownership of a street on the corner of Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway.
They say they trim the grass, feed other people in need and quell disturbances from people in behavioral health crises. A bird feeder hangs on a nearby tree inviting hummingbirds, and one couple named Randy and Mitzie Fata beamed as they talked about their grandchildren coming to stay on a recent weekend.
“They ran us into the ground,” Randy, who said he grew up in the Excelsior neighborhood and whose wife works as a carpenter, said of the kids. “We took them all over. It was a blast.”
But despite the beauty of the area and the pride that the RV dwellers take in their space, living on the neighborhood’s streets presents its own set of challenges.
A complaint from a neighbor can result in their mobile homes, and their entire livelihoods, being towed away while they’re running errands or looking for work.
“They’ve been chasing me around this place for 10 years,” said Tracy Oxsen.
After nearly a decade of living in tents and RVs along the beach, Oxsen moved into an apartment last year but said she’s now out of work again and is facing eviction.
Oxsen said that she’ll likely be moving back into her car within the next week and has had several of her vehicles towed by the city over the years. The city recently introduced a no-cost tow program to help homeless people recover their vehicles, but the hassle can still set her back, Oxsen said.
“We can’t go get jobs if we can’t leave our stuff,” Oxsen said.
The Sunset neighborhood has long proved to be a difficult place to build housing and introduce services for low-income people.
A 2021 report on housing production in the city showed that the Inner and Outer Sunset neighborhoods added just 89 new units over the previous year, compared with 1,307 new units in the Mission neighborhood, 1,186 new units in the downtown area and 1,080 new units in the SoMa neighborhood.
In the last couple of years, city leaders have attempted to change San Francisco’s onerous zoning and planning codes. In October, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation that allows for four-unit homes to be built on any residential lot in the city.
Meanwhile, legislation called Housing for All, introduced by Mayor London Breed and Sunset supervisor Joel Engardio in February, would roll back the local control that has often stymied housing production in the past.
The debate around housing on the west side heated up in recent weeks after one developer presented a proposal for a 50-story apartment just a few blocks from the beach. The structure would tower over the rest of the neighborhood’s two-and three-story homes, and the plan prompted immediate backlash from people who argued that the area isn’t fit for such a tall building.
The building would add 113 affordable units, but would still hardly make a dent in the demand citywide, according to some housing experts.
Corey Smith, executive director for the Housing Action Coalition, said that a lack of housing regionally also contributes to rising prices in the Sunset neighborhood.
“These are 100% legislative fixes and solutions that can be done if the political will existed,” Smith said. “But if Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, San Mateo and Marin don’t build enough housing, we’re not going to solve this problem.”
More temporary solutions are equally hard to come by. In August, Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who oversees the Lake Merced neighborhood next to the Sunset, proposed sanctioning a parking lot for a growing lineup of RV dwellers to reside in.
But that proposal also met immediate pushback from the community. And at a recent hearing, city leaders blamed such neighborhood outrage as a major reason why the city cannot solve homelessness in the foreseeable future.
Though these quarrels aren’t isolated to the west side, a map of homeless shelters in the city shows that well over half of the city’s social services are located in the Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods.
Even if the Lake Merced RV site was approved, those living along the edge of Ocean Beach said that they’d be reluctant to go.
“It’s a death trap over there,” said Randy Fata, referring to the rules and regulations that come along with living in a government-sanctioned site.
Fata and his wife said they’ve been on a waiting list for affordable housing for 15 years and would rather the city leave them alone unless they’re moved into a home of their own.
“It’s really sweet out here; we get owls and birds chirping,” Randy said. “I wouldn’t get involved with those government sites. They just cage you. It’s just nasty.”