By Tyler Breisacher
An RV was towed away on the morning of September 3 by SFPD after it had been parked on Judson Avenue next to Ocean Campus. The towing was likely driven by ongoing complaints from nearby residents, as well as some from City College itself.
Prior to the towing, SFMTA reduced the available parking on Judson Avenue, often used by people with RVs and trucks, by adding red no-parking curbs, earlier this year. An SFMTA spokesperson said the red zones were added only at the intersections with Gennessee Street and Foerster Street, to improve traffic safety by increasing the visibility of pedestrians and stop signs.
Professor Steven Brown, chair of the department of environmental horticulture and floristry, has his office just a few feet from the RV’s former location. He said the occupant of the RV had been a frustrating presence for faculty in that building. He described the person’s behavior as “horrible” and said it included harassing people and leaving garbage in the surrounding area.
The public information officer for the City College campus police department, Sgt. Tiffany Green, said he had a “contentious relationship” with both City College, and residents living in the neighborhood near where he was parked. She added that he had been a student at some point in the past, but was not anymore because of student code of conduct violations.
Campus police weren’t directly involved in this particular vehicle being towed, because it was on city streets, not the City College campus. However, at least one student reported having an RV and a car towed away, earlier this year, after receiving a three-day warning.
Of the approximately 150 students who take advantage of the HARTS (Homeless At-Risk
Transitional Students) program, the administration estimates that 15 to 20 of them are living in some kind of vehicle.
One of these students, Kyle Murphy, is sympathetic to the neighbors who complained about the RV on Judson Avenue: “If I was paying a minimum of a million dollars for a house, I probably wouldn’t want to look out my window and see people in RVs walking their trash to the trash cans and whatever else it is that homeless people are doing in their RVs.”
Murphy started an informal self-regulating community among students living in RVs or vans. That community tends to stay along Frida Kahlo Way. It’s not a perfect spot—passing cars and buses create a lot of noise until late into the night—but it helps to avoid complaints, as they’re less immediately visible to housed neighbors near Judson Avenue.
San Francisco’s relatively temperate weather and the educational opportunities available at City College brought Murphy here from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania about two years ago. At first, he was staying in a van, but usually parked it away from campus at night, trying to stay hidden, in places like Daly City or Pacifica.
“I mean, I was all over the map trying to find different places to sleep, and to not be in one place too often,” he said. After about three months, he realized he needed a change. “I had a hardcore panic attack. I just freaked out—the hiding, the loneliness, the trying to disappear from the rest of the world, it started to actually affect my mental health.”
Knowing that he needed to be less isolated, he approached another van he’d often seen near campus, with New York license plates. From this simple action, a new community of RV dwellers was created.
By the time Murphy came back from a year of travel and moved into a different RV with a roommate, the group had grown to about 16 people. Some of his friends still think of him as the “mayor” of the group he started.
In addition to being strategic about their location, the community has taken other measures to avoid complaints and to make their living situation more pleasant. They have formed a good rapport with the campus police.
The RV community has even begun to pick up trash in the student parking lot next to the Multi-Use Building. When asked why, Murphy said, “I understand that my neighborhood is also a school parking lot. But I still live here. I don’t want to walk outside into my neighborhood and see trash littered all over the place.”
That parking lot would have been a likely candidate for a designated place for students to park overnight, if a bill from State Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) had passed. The bill, AB 302, would have required community colleges in California to provide overnight parking for students living in RVs.
Berman withdrew the bill for this year’s legislative session, but said he is “deeply committed to alleviating the homelessness crisis that community college students are facing throughout California” and plans to put out a new version of the bill next year.
Chancellor Mark Rocha said in a statement that he met with Berman and expressed “concerns about the bill related to costs, custodial, safety and security for students who would sleep overnight in parking lots.”
Murphy has been in discussion with his community, most of whom are City College students and veterans, developing a plan that could address those concerns. Since the community is already pretty well-organized, what they’re asking for is essentially “as simple as literally shifting people a few feet off of the street into a parking lot,” he said.
“City College would be a great place to start some kind of pilot program that could then take off more at the state level.” He suggested some students might be willing to pay a monthly fee for a parking spot they could use overnight, to offset some of the additional costs, such as an overnight police presence.
Whether the safe parking program were established only here at City College, or at the state level, that difference of a few feet would make a huge difference in terms of safety, according to Murphy.
“I’ve had people pulling on the door handles right here on the side of the city streets in front of City College,” he said. When vehicles are in a parking lot that’s designated for overnight parking, “the awareness in and of itself increases the level of safety because now it’s not potentially just some random vehicle sitting on the street.”
Murphy suggested that the increased safety, and the quieter environment, would improve sleep conditions for the students: “You need sleep to be able to think clearly and accurately, and I think in doing so, you would help speed up some of the process of getting these students out of vehicles in the first place.”
Vehicular homelessness doesn’t just affect City College students: A count conducted by the City of San Francisco in April identified 578 vehicles that appeared to be inhabited. In response to this, the city is setting up safe organized parking lots where people living in RVs can park for up to 90 days.
The first one is set to open in November, about five blocks from Ocean Campus, but it will only have 30 parking spaces. According to Supervisor Vallie Brown, priority will be given to “the most vulnerable first: families, seniors, people with disabilities,” so City College students may not qualify for those spots.
Brown said that City College should open its land for students. Murphy expressed a similar sentiment about the Balboa Park lot: “Let that be a city thing and let the school take care of its students.” He plans to pitch his ideas at a future Board of Trustees meeting, and “put a face to this proposal, as opposed to it being just some bill.”