Two cities on the West Coast have taken different approaches to homeless solutions. They’ve certainly had mixed results, showing that there are no quick fixes, and certainly no “one size fits all” for the problem of people who’ve lost their homes. We’ll focus on how these have affected disadvantaged RVers in this month’s report, “Disadvantaged RVers on ‘the street.'”
Portland’s “safe lot” off to a bumpy start
Portland, Oregon, has played the unwilling host to plenty of homeless people. Multnomah County, where Portland sits, declared there were “5,228 people experiencing homelessness” last April. Of them, 20% were disadvantaged RVers living on the street—more than 1,000 people.
One homeless solution bandied about by Portland officials was setting aside a “safe lot” where those living in RVs could park off the street in relative safety. From the idea’s seed to the actual finding and opening a safe lot took nearly six months. Located near Portland’s international airport, the Sunderland RV Safe Park opened last July. With so many folks living on the streets in RVs, one would expect such a safe haven to fill up instantly.
The siren call of drug use—or something else?
A month after opening, the 55-site lot held just nine RVs. Not far from the official park, an unofficial lineup of RVs was parked curbside. What was the problem? One media outlet suggests the problem is associated with Oregon’s laws regarding the use of drugs. Oregon voters earlier passed laws eliminating criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. At the same time, those using the Safe Park aren’t allowed to possess or use such drugs on site. That, summed up the paper, was the issue. These folks would rather smoke crack than come in off the street.
Digging a little deeper, another media outlet suggests seeming lack of interest in staying on at Sunderland may have other roots. To move into the Portland safe lot, disadvantaged RVers must be able to show proof they own the RV they live in. Some who want to take advantage of Portland’s offer find themselves ineligible. For many, some of whom have moved into abandoned rigs, or perhaps gotten them through a “van lord,” showing such proof is impossible.
Olympia: From sewage plant to reflecting lake
A couple of hours north of Portland, in Washington’s capitol city, Olympia, disadvantaged RVers living on the streets have been an issue for years. For some time a homeless encampment was parked across the street from the area’s giant sewage treatment plant. Not exactly a pleasant-smelling location. Another group parked along a roadway directly in sight of the state’s capitol dome. Legislators and tourism promoters found that undesirable. The state took an official position on the matter and rows of RVs were chased out.
Other RV “encampments” appeared around the city. One group parked along the curbs near Olympia’s major hospital. At times rigs and their denizens blocked the hospital’s ambulance entrance, creating patient arrival issues. Another encampment popped up on an Interstate 5 right-of-way. When local residents complained to the city, officials said they had no authority over the matter, and they should complain to state officials.
Tiny homes and converted motel rooms
City officials looked for homeless solutions and hit on a multifold approach. A city-owned paved lot was equipped with tiny houses: wood constructs with a window, a lockable door, and electric heating. The tiny houses had room enough for up to two, and on-site bathrooms and shower facilities were provided. Also included, counseling to help transition folks away from these temporary measures and into permanent housing solutions.
The tiny home homeless solution has since expanded; there are now a total of three similar facilities in the area. And with the infusion of federal funds to help with homelessness, a large building, formerly a motel, has been converted into apartments for folks in need. Unlike Portland’s drug-free safe-lot ruling, the Maple Court complex allows tenants to use drugs, albeit they can be used only in the privacy of their apartments.
We recently drove through the areas that had been filled with disadvantaged RVers. Where the street near the hospital had once been lined with RVs, now huge concrete blocks discourage anyone from curbside parking. The site near the sewage treatment plant still has a somewhat unwelcome odor, but no RVs. The state’s capitol building looks down on a lake, and the sidewalks are filled not with boxes, tents, and overflow, but with bikers and pedestrians. At the site near Interstate 5, we encountered a handful of RVs—none of them occupied—while work crews removed what was left of the former encampment.
So far, Olympia’s homeless solution appears to have had some success. It’s possible that some disadvantaged RVers simply moved on to other towns and cities, but at least some are hopefully on the way to a more stable existence.
Here’s a roundup of other news related to disadvantaged RVers on “the street.”
A disadvantaged RVer living in Idaho’s Payette National Forest got an unwelcome visit from undercover U.S. Forest Service police. Brooks Roberts and his family had been forced out of their permanent home by circumstances. After allegedly overstaying their time limit, undercover agents showed up at the Roberts’ site and in the process, ended up shooting Brooks Roberts eleven times. Read more about this traumatic situation in this report by RVtravel.com writer Randall Brink.
Like many other Bay Area cities, San Jose, California, is struggling with how to deal with the plight of disadvantaged RVers. By a recent estimate, there were about 800 of these folks living on the streets in the rigs. Last month the city said they’d ban RV-dwelling near schools. Now officials are talking about outright bans of rigs on certain streets, and beefing up street parking time-limit enforcement. One other possibility being considered is this novel approach: Issue permits to RV dwellers based on their agreement to a code of conduct including that of keeping personal possessions off sidewalks.
“Let’s organize a honk-a-thon”
Kenneth Houser and his two kids had an apartment and reasonable living until the COVID crisis messed up their lives. They were evicted and ended up living in a motorhome on a Bend, Oregon, street. Kenneth’s job working in a Laundromat doesn’t pay enough for sticks-and-bricks housing. Adding insult to injury, now an area truck driver has taken to making the family’s life a bit harder. Quite regularly, the big rig driver shuttles through the area where the Houser family is parked, repeatedly blasting his air horn at 6:00 in the morning. When the story was picked up by The Sun media, readers were mixed in their reactions. “I’d take an RV parked on my street, if they’re not trashy, over speeding honking entitled drivers going down my street any day,” commented one. Contrast it with this one: “Let’s organize a honk-a-thon.”
A non-profit group in Bradford, Maine, has purchased rural property with plans to build a place for “those without a permanent residence.” Bangor Friends of Affordable Housing got a price reduction from the seller when he heard how the group planned to use its 35 acres of land. Initially, the group plans on a six-site RV park. Some locals have expressed worries, but Michael Tuller, the group’s president, says they should have nothing to fear. Tuller told local media, “We are definitely not going to have an encampment. This is going to be housing for people who just got put out and haven’t had a problem being homeless up until now. Here, we’re taking clientele that can self-sustain.”
Officials mystified about removal of rigs
The city manager and the police chief in Vallejo, California, are mystified. Last weekend police and tow trucks showed up at a homeless encampment there and began towing away disadvantaged RVers’ rigs without any notice. Rig owners said the police first walked the street, looking at license plates for expiration dates, several tow trucks arrived, and rigs were towed out. The city manager said the action was “outside of our protocol.” The police chief said he knew nothing about the action. When told at least eight uniformed officers were involved, the city manager was baffled, saying that at the time of the action, there were only three officers on shift.
Los Angeles, California, officials say 2022 saw a 40% jump in RV street dwellers when compared to 2018. That translated to 4,000 RVs on the streets. Adding to the numbers is the work of so-called “van lords” who rent out RVs to people who can’t afford traditional housing. To counter van lords, a newly proposed ordinance would tighten a loophole in existing LA law. The proposal would specifically include RVs in an ordinance that prohibits the parking of rental vehicles in streets or alleys “during the conduct of such business.” If the proposal is passed into law, just what will happen to existing customers of van lords—estimated to be about 85% of all LA RV street-dwellers—is unclear.
Home Depot “blasts” disadvantaged RVers out
A big-box home improvement store in Oakland, California, has set area residents on edge in an apparent attempt to discourage disadvantaged RVers and others. Management at the Home Depot store recently mounted bullhorns on top of tall masts, playing classical music 24/7. The apparent target of the company concerto is an encampment on the outfit’s borders. However, the music is so loud, it reaches a gas station nearly two blocks away.
Local residents say their own sleep has been disturbed by the musical warfare. Home Depot wouldn’t comment to local media on their concerts. However, last fall a Home Depot corporate official asked Oakland municipal officials to clear the camp. “Out of our 2,200 stores throughout the country, Oakland is our biggest pressure when it comes to malicious thefts, along with other incidents as well,” declared Adriana Martins-Gregus. Interestingly, last April, Home Depot pushed a media release touting the corporation’s support for “veterans facing homelessness” by putting out over $10 million in grants to non-profit groups to build and renovate housing for at-risk veterans.
Have a housing-insecure RVer story? Read an interesting story on the subject? We’d like to hear from you. Please contact us using the form below, and enter “Insecure” on the subject line.