Amber Whitson and others who live in RVs parked at the Berkeley Marina were told to move out or get towed. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Update, Thurs., 11:30 a.m.: The enforcement of parking rules at the Marina is part of ongoing efforts to address increasing reports of criminal activity and health and safety issues in the area, Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko said Thursday.

“We’ve had break-ins of cars. Visitors and staff have been physically assaulted and verbally threatened. Those who have berths at the Marina reported multiple and increasing numbers of altercations and threats — particularly from people living in these vehicles,” Chakko said. “Restaurants and hotels there reported an increasing number of customer complaints in respect to vehicles there overnight. We’ve had mothers complaining that their small children are dodging between needles” in the parking lots, he said.

The city has fielded these complaints over the past 18 months despite increasing safety staff and private security, hiring waterfront managers, increasing garage pickup and resetting keys, Chakko said.

The parking enforcement is occurring along Marina Boulevard and in the lot for people who have boats, where together there have sometimes been 70 unauthorized vehicles a night, Chakko said.

Original story, Weds. April 4: Berkeley police have warned the dwellers of RVs lining Marina Boulevard that they’re breaking city law and have to clear out.

At least 20 trailers and large vehicles have been parked on the gravel, just south of the DoubleTree Hotel across the street, in some cases for months. BPD officers came Sunday evening to distribute red warning notices, telling the vehicle residents they’ve been reported to be in violation of a law prohibiting street parking for more than 72 hours.

“If your vehicle is determined to be in violation of this ordinance, a citation will be issued and the vehicle will be towed and stored at your expense,” the notices say.

The notices “definitely sent everybody into a panic,” said Amber Whitson, who lives in one of the RVs. “It’s been a scramble to get everybody ready.”

Whitson provides pay-what-you-can car repair services, and said she helped some other residents get their vehicles in shape to move. About seven campers have left already, said Whitson, who calls herself “Berkeley’s nearly-free mechanic.”

As for Whitson, she plans to stick around until she is forced to leave. She has been parked at the site for a few months and said she’s had minimal interaction with the police before last week.

“We all pretty much keep to ourselves here. It’s really mellow,” she said.

The city of Berkeley has not responded to questions about the impetus for the violation notices or plans for future enforcement.

In February, the Berkeley Parks and Waterfront commission voted unanimously to urge the city to enforce rules against overnight camping and longterm parking at the Marina.

Extended parking and camping is “occurring without oversight or sanitation support and is deleterious to public health and safety and interferes with marina and park use,” wrote chair Susan McKay in a commission memo. Residents of the RV row said they use the public restrooms near Cesar Chavez Park.

At the City Council meeting March 27, the general manager of the DoubleTree urged the council to act on the commission’s recommendation.

About 20 RVs and other large vehicles remain on the side of Marina Boulevard. Residents say about seven left after receiving warnings. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“I’m asking that you request that the Berkeley Police Department enforce these ordinances and do your best to get the encampments removed as soon as possible,” said Hal Leonard. “It’s having a fairly significant effect on our business. As a businessperson, I have to do everything I can to support the needs of our guests. At this time we’re receiving a significant amount of complaints” about overnight parking and camping. He told the council that DoubleTree pays the city more than $4.5 million in taxes each year.

Leonard, who wasn’t immediately available to comment further Wednesday, said the hotel has encountered issues with the encampments over the past four months.

Osha Neumann, a lawyer with the East Bay Community Law Center and an advocate for homeless people, said he found the response to the circumstances at the Marina “very troubling.”

Neumann has long urged Berkeley to come up with a policy that is more lenient toward people sleeping in cars, sanctioning overnight parking unless there’s a serious concern.

“Towing people’s vehicles essentially means that’s it, they’re losing their home,” Neumann said. “The fees mount up. Why do that to people who actually have a home, who have figured out a way to not be under a tent or under a tarp?”

The city also has a law against parking commercial vehicles, which includes large residential vehicles, between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. The people living in their RVs on Marina Boulevard said police told them the city plans to begin enforcing that law throughout town, which would prevent them from relocating elsewhere in Berkeley.

Neumann said he rejects the city’s policy of enforcing laws against encampments or parking when complaints are received, as “somebody will always be complaining.”

Neumann has spent some time with the RV-dwellers and said, “There are all kinds of people that have respectfully been living there. People keep their vehicles kept and orderly.”

There was no trash on the ground around the trailers Wednesday. Residents said they use the dumpsters in the parking lot across the street.

Whitson said she would prefer living in her camper than in permanent housing. She was one of the final residents at the Albany Bulb and vocal in the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to maintain the large homeless community there.

“I don’t desire housing, to say the least,” she said.

Some of her neighbors feel quite differently.

Leah Naomi Gonzales has lived in an RV by the Marina with her partner and 5-year-old son, who attends King Child Development Center in South Berkeley, since last summer. The city has given her short-term hotel vouchers in the past, she said, and she has lived in shelters in Berkeley but hasn’t found a long-term solution.

“This is a nightmare. We don’t want to be homeless,” Gonzales said. “We look like the scum of the earth, living on the street with a kid. But I don’t want us to be hidden anymore, that’s part of the reason I came here. There needs to be a record of us being homeless. There are lots of reasons society doesn’t like this situation. But I see it from a different perspective — it’s created,” by housing prices and systemic injustice, she said.

Gonzales said she and her son both have serious health issues that have been exacerbated by their living circumstances. Paul Schrager, her partner, said it was scary to receive the violation notices last week.

“If I had to get out, I don’t know what I’d do,” he said, since their RV is not running. There is another family with kids living at the site too, he said.

The residents at the Marina are part of a growing homeless population in the area and throughout Berkeley and the broader Bay Area. At last count, there were an estimated 972 people without permanent shelter in Berkeley.

There have been large homeless encampments around the Seabreeze market by the Marina. A massive row of tents also lines Second Street, near where the city is preparing to open the Pathways shelter, an ambitious and expensive new project supporters hope will get many more people off the streets and transitioned into permanent housing. The facility, which will house 50 people for a few months at a time, could be up and running in May or June.

On April 15, the city’s winter shelter, which has been at capacity almost every night since it opened, is set to close.

Correction: Amber Whitson clarified that she does not provide her pay-what-you-can repair services out of the pop-up trailer next to her RV, as previously reported. Whitson said that shop is purely recreational and for storage.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...