A push for a long-term RV community in Richmond
on November 2, 2020
There is no bathroom in Amanda Jenkins’s bright pink home.
She charges her cell phone with the cigarette lighter in her truck because she doesn’t have electricity.
And she’d give anything to have a toilet and a hot shower in her RV, parked in an encampment on North Castro Street nestled between train tracks and Richmond Parkway.
“It sucks,” Jenkins said. “But it’s still like Disneyland compared to the tents.”
As the cost of housing continues to climb, Jenkins is one of the people creating homes in cars and RVs. But it’s illegal to park RVs and trailers on residential streets in the city, according to Richmond’s municipal code, so to avoid being fined or forced out, unsupported encampments are quickly emerging in non-residential neighborhoods, near parks and industrial areas.
For many of its residents, it’s a step above tent city. Still, Jenkins and several others living in the encampment say they have to contend with a lack of resources and crime. Advocates in Richmond are working to establish a city-sanctioned parking location with electricity, water and sewage access – a model that has already been adopted in cities such as San Francisco and Oakland.
Still, issues at existing encampments are growing as more and more people move in.
Last year, more than 1,500 people were unsheltered across Contra Costa County, according to Contra Costa Health Services’ annual Point in Time count, which tallies the number of people sleeping outside on one night of the year. Nearly 500 people lived in a camper or a vehicle, representing about 30% of the county’s unhoused population. In neighboring Alameda County, where roughly 6,300 people are unsheltered, about 35% of them were living in an RV or a vehicle.
In January 2020, Contra Costa County’s RV and vehicle population rose to about 580 people, which is roughly 37% of the county’s homeless population. Although that number is up, the county has been counting the number of people specifically living in campers and cars for just two years.
Jaime Jenett, planning and policy manager for Contra Costa Health Services’ Continuum of Care, said the data does not yet show a definitive trend. She said it’s also unclear how COVID-19 will impact that number in the future.
“We’ve talked about this internally and I don’t think that we’ll really be able to see the impact for at least a year,” Jenett said. “We are looking at diminished capacity for shelters once things start to reopen and there’s just there’s a lot of questions about what the impact is going to be in terms of people becoming newly homeless, as well as for people that are already experiencing homelessness.”
What is clear is that the pandemic has exacerbated a scarcity of resources for Richmond’s unhoused, said Michelle Milam, crime prevention manager with the Richmond Police Department.
“These are already fragile systems anyway, that are under resourced on a good day,” said Milam, who is also a member of Richmond’s Homelessness Task Force and is helping develop the plan for the city’s supported parking community.
A formalized RV community would require residents to apply for permits and promise to follow community rules, said Daniel Barth, operational leader of Safe Organized Spaces (SOS!) Richmond and a member of the task force. He also said the program would be in place for at least a year, with the option to extend the model “if it’s been running in accordance with expectations.”
“Safety and order comes down to building an organization of what we would call a transitional village,” he said. “And that organization has people in roles, has understood standards … and has flat-out rules.”
Members of the task force are currently working to gain feedback from the community, Milam said, and they are hoping to get the project off the ground as soon as possible.
“We’ve been working on this for the past two years, so it’s really the culmination of work that began before the pandemic,” Milam said. “But the pandemic kind of brings out the need for us to really have this now.”
In Richmond’s largest encampments, residents are anxiously waiting to hear the verdict. Everybody knows a city-sanctioned parking area will have a maximum capacity. Almost all are scared they could lose their space – including Brandi Navarro and her husband, Hector, who have parked their gold Honda Odyssey at an encampment on Rydin Road every night for the past six months.
Still, Navarro supports the effort to create a formal, regulated encampment. She and her unhoused neighbors are currently making do with two overflowing portable toilets and no reliable access to water or electricity. She said they need the resources and support that the program would provide.
“Here in Richmond, we don’t have nothing,” she said. “There is no community that’s willing to step up and say ‘Hey ok, you know what, we’re going to help these homeless people.’”
Ron, who lives at Rydin Road, is also supportive of city efforts to help the encampment. Still, he said the “mixed messages” from city officials have been disorienting.
“That’s where the insecurity comes in – it’s like, are we staying, are we going,” said Ron, who requested that his last name be withheld. “We started putting a little garden in over here, but if we’re going to be bounced out, then there’s no sense in maintaining or adding to it.”
His concerns echo criticisms of similar communities in other cities.
Needa Bee, an unhoused activist who lives in a camper in Oakland, said temporary encampments that only exist for a limited period of time often don’t provide stable pathways into permanent housing and fail to fix the core issue of homelessness.
“It’s a temporary bandage that just kind of shuffles people around, puts people in these areas,” she said. “When their time is up, they’re right back out on the street.”
Instead, Bee advocates for permanent encampments with ample resources. But Milam says the task force has to do what it can with the funding it has. She and other task force members believe the program will prove successful. She is hoping other collaborators, including private entities, will eventually help the city pay for the project.
“Ideally, we’d like to have a program that can be stable for four or five years,” she said. “We also have to deal with the reality of the budget that is available. And so you have to make a decision, are you going to do something, even if it’s shorter term, or are you going to do nothing, and each one has a significant consequence.”
Meanwhile, RV encampments continue to grow. The Rydin Road encampment, where roughly 40 campers have been parked for months, was significantly downsized on Friday when the city established new “no parking” zones, painting parts of the street’s curbs bright red.
The North Castro Street encampment, where Jenkins lives, has more than doubled in size since September. She said that theft is up and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep the encampment clean and safe – but she isn’t tackling her concerns alone. A sense of community exists among her and her neighbors.
A few weeks ago, a neighbor approached Jenkins and asked if she could watch her groceries. The woman had locked herself out of her camper and needed to go get a spare key from a friend, but was concerned her food might get stolen. Jenkins stayed near the bags of food for an hour.
In another recent incident, as Jenkins headed off to deliver lunches to a different encampment, a man stopped by her camper to ask if he could use her portable battery. She allowed him to charge what he needed.
She’s still waiting to hear whether the city will establish a parking site.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Jenkins said. “That’s what we’re waiting on.”
(Lead photo: Amanda Jenkins watches her dogs play in an RV encampment on North Castro Street in Richmond, Calif. Photo by Sasha Hupka for Richmond Confidential.)
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