Car camping in Outer Sunset presents many problems but few solutions
Cammy Blackstone, an aide to Supervisor Carmen Chu, called it a “prickly, complex issue.” John Zwolinski, the block captain for La Playa / Great Highway Neighborhood Watch, described the situation as “very stressful to those of us who live in the neighborhood.” Meanwhile, Bob Offer-Westort of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness characterized it as a symptom of the “nationwide increase in homelessness.”
Whatever you want to call it, it’s easy to see what people are talking about: On any given day, parked along the Lower Great Highway, primarily between Lincoln Way and Lawton Street, are habitation vehicles — RVs and campers, often as many as 15 or 20 of them.
On June 5, Zwolinski posted pictures on a Yahoo! group with a simple message: “Had a few minutes this afternoon so I posted pics of issues — and a couple people — down here that may be worthy of your concern.”
What followed was an extensive photo album of car campers and RVs, trash and people.
Zwolinski’s photos highlighted what has been a concern of Great Highway residents for years. The Bulletin reported in December 2010 that concerned citizen action had prompted police response to this issue, but according to Zwolinski the problem now seems worse, not better.
“In the last six to eight months, the campers seem to have really dug into the neighborhood and don’t seem to want to circulate,” Zwolinski said.
“The problem isn’t the guys themselves who live in the RV’s. But there are no hookups for campers down here. So these guys tend to use the woods for the bathroom,” Zwolinski said. “Also, garbage gets typically thrown out, right on the road. There is a lot of drug use, and people end up coming and going for drug sales.”
“When you have a heavy concentration of 20 campers along a small stretch of road, it’s a pretty big problem.”
The campers mostly center around Lincoln Boulevard along the Lower Great Highway. A nearby motel has free WiFi and a coffee shop has a bathroom, which makes the area attractive for overnight sleeping.
There are posted regulations prohibiting long-term parking along the Great Highway. If residents have concerns about a parked car, they can call 311 to report the issue.
But as Blackstone pointed out, that approach doesn’t necessarily address the issue. At least not in a timely manner.
“If there’s an RV, a resident can call 311. But that will take a day or two for 311 to process,” she said. “Then, 311 needs to send out [the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency] in order to post a 72-hour warning notice on the RV. That often takes another day or two. So by the time the 72 warning expires, it’s been more like a week and a half.”
“The whole process can be very frustrating for residents, with a lot of red tape.”
Overnight car habitation along the Great Highway is explicitly prohibited by a 2007 restriction implemented by then-supervisor Ed Jew. That law makes it illegal to sleep in a car parked on the Great Highway between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Sgt. Kevin Mannix of the Taraval Police Station explained that even such a clear-cut ordinance is difficult to enforce.
“We approach overnight vehicles and knock on the door. But if they don’t answer, we can’t enter without a search warrant,” Mannix said.
“We try to coax the inhabitant out, and usually they open the door when they see a uniform. But there are people who don’t open, and there’s not much we can do in those situations.”
The result is a lot of frustrated hand-wringing, and questions over how to address a problem that has resurfaced countless times over the last decade.
Chu’s office is hosting periodic meetings, which include police and resident groups, to discuss solutions.
One of the ideas is to turn the area into a permit-parking area, like much of the rest of the city. Street parking would be limited to two hours, except for those who have neighborhood-resident permits.
Blackstone anticipated possible resistance to such a plan.
“If we implement resident parking, does that mean everyone who lives here is ready to pay $100 per year to park their car on the street? You don’t want to make the residents have to pay in order to remove the blight.”
Another possibility is to ban any campers and similar vehicles from parking on the Lower Great Highway.
But as Mannix noted, “There are people who live in the neighborhood who might own a camper as well.”
Bob Offer-Westort of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness was skeptical of any proposals that would eliminate RVs and campers from the Lower Great Highway.
“The notion that we can just ‘make this problem go away’ isn’t a very realistic one. I’m sympathetic to people’s frustrations, but they are not rooted in reality,” he said.
“The reality is that we have poverty in our country, and we need to address it in a more serious way. We can’t run away from it, or make it run away from us,” Offer-Westort said.
Meanwhile, the search for a solution goes on.
“It seems to be coming to a head because the problem tends to get worse in the summer,” Blackstone said.
“We’re being very careful that whatever we pursue, it minimizes the impact on the residents but also addresses the difficulties of enforcement, having somewhere for the people to go, and not simply trying to push the problem somewhere else.”
All photos in this story were provided by John Zwolinski.
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