Safe Parking Program and vehicle dwellers in Berkeley

TO: Councilmember ________, City of Berkeley
FROM: Matthew Ebert, Policy Analyst
RE: Safe Parking Program and vehicle dwellers in Berkeley

Executive Summary

The City of Berkeley should continue to pursue opportunities with other regional and private partners to implement a Safe Parking Program (SPP), and also to identify properties that could be made available for temporary use by vehicle dwellers. There are not enough City-owned properties to accommodate the number of vehicle dwellers present, and the number of vehicle dwellers continues to grow. For this reason, the implementation of a SPP by the City of Berkeley on City-owned properties alone will not be sufficient to alleviate the problem of people living in their vehicles in public places. SPPs in the West are often managed by a non-profit partner. They are most often an emergency intervention for people who have become homeless within the past year and are still potentially effective for some vulnerable people as part of a larger homelessness intervention strategy.

Defining the Problem

There are too many vehicle dwellers in Berkeley without a suitable place to park. A group of vehicle dwellers were made to leave various parking areas at the Berkeley Marina in 2018 following complaints from nearby business owners and live-aboard inhabitants, and many subsequently moved into the Gilman district. The City was contacted with complaints about extended RV parking more than 1,500 times in 2018 through the Berkeley Police Department, emails to staff, and other means.[i] In 2019, the City Council voted to include RVs in an ordinance prohibiting overnight parking of commercial vehicles in Berkeley but agreed to suspend enforcement until a temporary permit process and SPP could be implemented.

The number of people living in vehicles in Berkeley has been estimated by at least three different methods: the Point In Time (PIT) count used to collect general data for use in managing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs, security at the Berkeley Marina, and by the Berkeley Police Department. The PIT count for Berkeleyexposes an escalating problem:

PIT Count Year# people homeless#  –  % people unshelteredof unsheltered,
#  –  % in vehicle
% vehicle dwellers in RV
2009680371  –  54%  
2015834568  –  68%  
2017972664  –  68%192  –  20%31%
20191,108813  –  73%318  –  39%51%

As the table above shows, not only has the number of people experiencing homelessness increased, the percentage of those people considered “unsheltered”—the category which includes people living in a vehicle—has also increased. Of those unsheltered people, the proportion of vehicle dwellers has increased, and the proportion of those living in an RV as opposed to a smaller vehicle has also increased. PIT counts are generally considered to undercount the number of people experiencing homelessness.[ii]

In a July 2018 report to the Berkeley City Council, the city manager stated that “overnight vehicles in the Waterfront are up to 400-450 per night and we are estimating that 200 of these vehicles are associated with overnight camping.” [iii] A citywide count conducted by Berkeley Police staff in December 2018, after the vehicle dwellers were told to move from the Marina, documented 193 “RVs, campers, converted busses, and vehicles” used as dwellings parked within the City, with over 100 in the Gilman district west of San Pablo Avenue.[iv] These separate counts help to corroborate the findings of each other, since they provide a similar estimate of the number of vehicles used as dwellings, and also show how a ban on overnight parking in one area precipitated a move to another.
Possible Solutions:

  • Develop Safe Parking Program in Berkeley
  • Develop RV Park at Berkeley Marina
  • Enforce Existing Laws

1. Develop Safe Parking Program in Berkeley

  • SPPs usually partner with private, nonprofit, and faith-based groups to provide lots
  • SPPs vary from a single navigation point to multiple points of entry
  • Some SPPs have seen a decline in use

Safe Parking Programs (SPPs) have increased in California as a way to address the growing number of people experiencing homelessness who rely on their vehicles for shelter, and to mitigate the challenges and conflicts for them and the communities where they live. The City of Berkeley would likely develop a single point of entry for a SPP through the existing STAIR Center facility. Case management and data collection would be managed by a nonprofit contractor such as Bay Area Community Services (BACS). A program director would seek out partnerships with private property owners with lots suitable to accommodate the vehicle dweller population in Berkeley, and network with other regional resources and SPPs to accommodate demand for services. Other services provided at Berkeley SPP lots would be determined by the demand of a particular population and the capacity of organizations to provide them.

In 2019, the City of Berkeley began to explore whether there were suitable City-owned properties to use for a SPP as a way to address the unsatisfactory outcomes for vehicle dwellers and their neighbors in the Gilman district. There were six properties identified, all of which are parking lots for City departments that could be used for overnight parking only. Some lots were determined to be unsuitable for larger vehicles but could possibly be used for smaller vehicles. A City-owned lot at 1281 University Avenue was identified as being suitable for full-time occupation by RVs, but the property is now being used as temporary shelter for other people experiencing homelessness, with seven medium-sized travel trailers connected to electricity and several portable toilets at the site. Progress on development of any SPP has been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has also reduced the amount of activity for people who might have otherwise been adversely impacted by vehicle dwellers.

A review of the experiences of other California SPPs can help the City of Berkeley consider strategies for developing a program of their own.

cityyears# lots# spacesRVs?24/7?
Los Angeles3195198 of 19yes
Santa Barbara1726152day onlyno
East Palo Alto2116yesno
Mountain View2599yesyes
San Jose*2217yesno
San Francisco2133yesno
San Diego34200yesno
Union City4435nono
*some lots have recently closed

The New Beginnings Counseling Center SPP in Santa Barbara is the oldest, most established vehicular homelessness program in the country. The organization is primarily focused on providing psychological counseling and supportive services, but their SPP has grown to meet demand since its launch in 2003. Over the course of their history, New Beginnings has helped to transition nearly 1,000 program participants into permanent housing. They have provided rapid rehousing case management and housing retention services since 2012 and began to accept referrals from the HUD Coordinated Entry System in 2018. New Beginnings has developed and offers for sale a how-to guide to help organizations seeking to start their own similar programs, with major topics including start-up, funding, parking lot acquisition and management, operations and services, and community support. Their SPP provides shelter to more than 150 individuals and families each night in 26 monitored lots provided by local churches, businesses, and city and county offices, and they will soon be expanding to become the first county-wide program in the United States.

In the New Beginnings SPP, half of the locations are churches.[v] This is true in many of the smaller SPPs elsewhere in California. People enter the program directly through New Beginnings and learn of the program from community fliers and word of mouth. A one month membership, renewable with review by a case manager, ensures that people in the program stay engaged. The locations of the lots are kept confidential to protect people who may be fleeing an abusive situation, and community input is kept to a minimum. Some lots are used for families only, others for women only. In most cases, only a fraction of a parking lot is used. The participants in the program clean up existing trash around the parking lots because they want to demonstrate community pride and personal responsibility. The program started small with one lot for only RVs but has expanded to employ twelve staff members including two full-time case managers and two full-time navigators. There are as many people on the waiting list as there are spaces in the program. Funding comes from a combination of public and private sources.  HUD funding supports rapid rehousing and street outreach efforts, but since the vehicles are not considered a shelter, operating costs are not compensated. The SPP is considered a temporary intervention with a goal of moving people into permanent housing, and more than 90 percent of those placed in permanent housing remain there.

In Los Angeles County, there are nearly as many lots in the SPP as in Santa Barbara, but those lots have the capacity to serve more people. There are more than 15,700 persons living in 9100 vehicles (cars, vans, campers, and R.V.s) each night, representing over 25% of people experiencing homelessness in LA County, according to the 2018 L.A. County PIT count.[vi] The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) provides HUD-compliant Coordinated Entry System assessments and case management at a variety of locations, both publicly and privately owned. Intake occurs at each individual lot, or by referral from LAHSA, and site amenities vary. Fewer than half of the lots accommodate RVs, and there are not many RVs in the program. In the past year the program has seen a decline in use, possibly because vehicle dwellers are able to find places to park elsewhere that do not require daily entry and exit.[vii] A lack of people entering the program was cited as the main reason for the closure of one lot in San Jose.[viii]

2. Develop RV Park at Berkeley Marina

The City of Berkeley could pursue development of various parking areas at the Berkeley Marina for intermediate and long-term RV use. A letter from the Mayor and Councilmembers Kesarwani and Harrison pointed out: “With the exception of property located at the Berkeley Waterfront, there is no one parcel that is large enough to accommodate the anticipated number of identified priority/highly vulnerable RVs that are parking within City of Berkeley boundaries.”[ix] In a letter to the City Attorney, the Chief Counsel for the State Lands Commission asserted that a “homeless encampment” would be considered “purely a municipal use” and therefore inappropriate under the terms of the land grant.[x] One Berkeley councilmember said that the Council had “no choice” in deciding whether to accept this assessment, but other parties have challenged this.[xi] The letter from the State Lands Commission itself cites a requirement that uses be in the “general statewide interest” and that uses over time may evolve to “address changing public needs.” This suggests that some RV park use type may not be in violation of the terms of the land grant. In a draft letter provided to State Senator Nancy Skinner, the East Bay Community Law Center cites allowances for “parking facilities” in the language of the original grant.[xii] It could also be argued that development of an RV park with a fee for use would satisfy a tourism use of the land while still providing a lower cost alternative for RV dwellers. Many of the vehicle dwellers expressed a willingness to pay some regular fees to stay at the HS Lordships parking lot at the Marina.[xiii] The consideration of any such long-term parking for RVs could also be deemed to be in the interests of the region and the state and not solely the City of Berkeley. Although a fee-for-use site would not be appropriate for all vehicle dwellers, it would provide a well-managed use that would be complementary to the existing uses at the Marina. The main drawback from this approach is that it would likely be very controversial and politically untenable.

3. Enforce Existing Laws

One possible way to address the proliferating use of vehicles as dwellings and the complaints that accompany such activity is to simply enforce the existing ordinances. The City Council decided to ban RV parking on public streets in March 2019 pending development of a 3-month temporary permitting program. Enforcement has also been suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which may be resolved by the Fall of 2021.[xiv] There are several problems with this approach. First, any permit program would still not address the issues faced by Berkeley citizens who are living in a vehicle as a primary residence. The terms of the 3-month Grace Period Permit require off-street parking, but there has been little success in locating enough suitable parking spaces in the City of Berkeley.[xv] Some of the vehicles are over thirty feet long, and the towing and storage of such vehicles would be expensive. Even for smaller vehicles, it would be unlikely that towing costs could be retrieved from an indigent vehicle owner. One Councilmember suggested that there is “no appetite” for enforcement of the RV parking ban without suitable options.[xvi] Not only would such enforcement action be politically damaging, it could open the City to legal liability. The recent Ninth Circuit Court decision, Martin v. Boise, ruled that people experiencing homelessness cannot be criminally punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no available alternatives, noting that the Eighth Amendment prohibits punishing a person “for lacking the means to live out the ‘universal and unavoidable consequences of being human.’”.[xvii] Confiscation of a vehicular home from a person could be interpreted as violating the spirit, if not the letter, of this decision. It also would leave people in a worse situation, creating a more onerous burden on the community. Putting pressure on people who are struggling with few resources is not likely to result in an effective resolution of the situation for those impacted.


In the words of one person in the Mayor’s office, homelessness is “an intractable problem.” SPPs are just one means to provide aid to vulnerable people who have sought shelter in vehicles as a last resort. Vehicle dwellers generally are more resourceful and not as chronically needy as other people experiencing homelessness, and SPPs in Berkeley as an early intervention can provide resources to prevent a deterioration of their condition. For those who consider their vehicles to be their home, the problem is more difficult. Vehicles are not considered suitable for human habitation by HUD or by any local ordinance, and so providing space for dwellings of this type will always be considered a transient solution. Although more substantive interventions and broader policy solutions are required, a Safe Parking Program in Berkeley would benefit many of the people who find themselves with few other shelter options.

[i] Dee Williams-Ridley, City Manager, Letter to Mayor and Members of the City Council, February 28, 2019.

[ii] Boone, Alastair. “Is There a Better Way to Count the Homeless?” Bloomberg City Lab. March 4, 2019.

[iii] “General Information on Waterfront, and Update on Hs. Lordships, Vehicle Encampment in the Waterfront and the Marina Fund.”

[iv] Ibid, Dee Williams-Ridley.

[v] Cassie Roach interview, New Beginnings, January 8, 2021

[vi] Safe Parking LA.

[vii] Chris Weare interview, Center for Homeless Inquiries, December 7, 2020.


[ix]  Mayor Arreguin and Councilmembers Kesarwani and Harrison Letter To: Honorable Members of the City Council, July 23, 2019.

[x] Meier, Mark A, Chief Counsel, California State Lands Commission. Letter to Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan. April 14, 2017

[xi] Councilmember Harrison interview, January 28, 2021.

[xii] Letter from Osha Neumann, East Bay Community Law Center, February 3, 2021.

[xiii] Amber Whitson interview, December 11, 2020.

[xiv] Bai, Nina and Robin Marks, University of California, San Francisco News. Thursday, January 21, 2021.


[xvi] Councilmember Kesarwani interview, December 14, 2020.

[xvii] Martin v. Boise, Harvard Law Review, 9133 Harv. L. Rev. 699. December 10, 2019.