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Bernal Heights RV dwellers face uncertain future as overnight parking ban looms

Man holds dog while sitting in front of white RV parked along street
Armando Martinez, 59, sits in front of his RV on Bernal Heights Boulevard with his dog on Saturday. Martinez is one of almost a dozen RV dwellers living along the street. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

After months of searching for a place to set up his RV, Armando Martinez finally found a spot on Bernal Heights Boulevard in October.

Martinez, 59, who has lived in San Francisco and the East Bay on and off for the last two decades, bought the vehicle from a friend after losing his job in 2022. It wasn’t the life he had imagined, but now he says he feels at home on the winding street in the shadow of Bernal Hill, where almost a dozen other RVs have set up camp.

“I sit out here in the morning, have my coffee and talk to people walking by,” Martinez said, adding that most RV owners rely on each other for a sense of community. “That’s what I like about this place, and I would say I’m the newest guy on the block here.”

But Martinez’s community’s days may be numbered. City officials and police are planning to enforce a decades-old overnight parking ban for the area, the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week.

A line of RVs parked along a street
There are almost a dozen RVs parked along Bernal Heights Boulevard, where the city plans to start enforcing an old law banning overnight parking. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

Representatives for Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the area, did not respond to The Standard’s requests for comment on the reported plans. But Martinez said police have come by to tell him and other RV owners that they’ll have to move soon.

Residents who spoke to The Standard on Saturday were split on their feelings about the stretch of RVs parked along the boulevard.

Audrey Chavez, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2006, said the motor homes and camper vans began to sprout up in the area around the start of the pandemic, but there were typically only two or three parked there at a time.

“Sometimes those who own dogs will let their dogs roam around and poop all over the place while not cleaning it,” Chavez said. “It’s annoying, but not enough for me to call and complain about it.”

Chavez said in the last six months, neighbors have been complaining more frequently on Nextdoor about the presence of the RVs. Still, she said the posters tend to exaggerate the situation.

“One post said one of the guys had like six dogs when he only has like two,” she said. “I feel for the people there, but I see how it can be a nuisance for those of us who walk this area every day. Sometimes they’ll be working on their cars or the RVs, which will move items onto the sidewalk and street.”

Several RVs parked along a roadside with grass and trees under a clear blue sky.
RVs that are parked along Bernal Heights Boulevard may need to relocate soon after the city announced plans to enforce a decades-old law that bans overnight parking in the area. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

Jackie Dawley, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1989, said the decision to enforce the overnight parking ban will make it even more difficult for people who are already living with limitations to continue to exist in the city.

“It is not right,” Dawley said. “Put some more garbage bins out here or some portable toilets out here and clean them regularly. Develop other reasonable camping sites.”

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for Breed’s office, told the Chronicle that city crews will put up signs to inform people of the restrictions. He claimed that many of the RV owners don’t consider themselves homeless and have rejected the city’s offers to help.

“A lot of them aren’t interested,” Cretan said in the report while admitting that the city can’t force anyone to accept assistance.

As of Saturday afternoon, no signs had been posted on the street. Once the parking enforcement signs do go up, RV owners will be allowed an unspecified grace period before they are cited or their vehicles are towed, Cretan said. Outreach workers will be offering RV dwellers services and parking opportunities at the Candlestick Point area, according to the Chronicle.

Martinez said he has never been offered any services from the city, although others in the area have told him they have been approached about housing options.

“In general, I don’t think the Mayor’s Office is interested in talking with us,” he said. “I don’t know who they are talking about when they speak about folks who refused.”

Martinez said if he is offered supportive housing options, he may consider it due to his health and age. But he is not interested in moving to Candlestick, he said.

“It’s disgusting down there,” Martinez said.

Martinez and other RV dwellers said parking enforcement officials do occasionally come by but only ask them to move their vehicles at least 20 feet from where they are parked to ensure they are not ticketed for failure to move. He also said he doesn’t feel that most neighbors detest their presence in the area.

A smiling person sits beside an RV, holding a small dog, with a car and green hill in the background.
Armando Martinez says he'd consider supportive housing options if the city were to offer it, but he's not interested in moving his RV to Candlestick Point. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

“It’s too bad that there are a few voices here that are loud and have an influence on what is happening,” Martinez said.

Laura Watson, who has spent the last two years living in an RV along Bernal Heights, said residents in the neighborhood often help her translate city notices from English to Spanish and keep an eye on her belongings while she goes to her nannying job.

“For the most part, the neighbors are respectful, and we are respectful back,” she said in Spanish. “Everyone who lives in these RVs for the most part are working people. If you come here during the week around 10 a.m., most of these RVs are empty.”

One neighbor, Armand Crabe, scoffed at the report of the city’s attempt to clear out the RVs.

“They suddenly discovered a [27-year-old] law. They just found it now, and we have an election in two weeks,” Crabe said laughing. “They want to remove a handful of RVs. Meanwhile, there are pounds of fentanyl being sold every day.” 

Crabe, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2017, said he isn’t convinced that the city will completely solve the housing situation for those living in RVs along Bernal Heights.

“I’m not saying this should be an RV park since that isn’t a long-term solution, but these people have no water. They have no electricity,” he said. “Everything this city does either has tons of red tape, or if it does happen, it turns to shit.”