Berkeley’s new “safe parking site,” called Safe Parking and Respite Kickstart (SPARK) adjacent to the Horizon Transitional Grayson shelter at 742 Grayson St. in West Berkeley, Sept. 28, 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

A large community of Berkeley residents who have lived in recreational vehicles in Northwest Berkeley for over three years will begin moving to the city’s new safe parking site on Grayson Street this week, but many are concerned that the location will offer fewer accommodations than their longtime neighborhood.

The city confirmed it would be introducing a new safe parking site when it opened the Horizon Transitional Shelter in July, and slowly expanded the program from a few curb spots to the current, fenced-off parking lot adjacent to the main shelter building. Berkeley has a $410,000 lease to operate the safe parking site in conjunction with the Dorothy Day House shelter until September 2022.

Peter Radu, assistant to the city manager, said on Monday that every RV west of San Pablo Avenue and north of Gilman Street as of late last week has a space reserved at the program beginning Wednesday. Residents will have one week to complete the move, and the city plans to tow the vehicles after Oct. 6.

“The focus of this enforcement will be on mitigating the health and safety impacts that many of the vehicles that are being used as shelter in Berkeley are having on our community,” Radu said.

The 40-RV site will allow pets, offer water and portable toilets and won’t have a nighttime curfew. RV residents can apply for a voucher system to dump wastewater and they’ll be allowed to operate personal generators, but there won’t be electrical hookups at the site.

Children are not allowed at the site because families with young kids are prioritized for housing, according to the city. There will not be meals for RV residents (as there are for shelter residents) but they can access showers inside the building.

RV residents say the move is rushed, and will cause instability

Clarence Galtney said the city has always given him “breathing room” at 8th and Harrison as long as he kept his space clean, but the latest move will prevent him from seeing his family and friends. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The city’s largest RV encampment is located in West Berkeley near the Albany border at 8th and Harrison streets, and its residents began receiving initial notices to apply for a spot last week.

Many of the residents who live there now (and organize under the name “Friends on Wheels”) used to park their RVs at the Berkeley Marina, the site of a contentious back-and-forth between campers and the city in 2018. Others have lived in the industrial Northwest Berkeley neighborhood for over seven years.

Clarence Galtney, who has been living in his RV for over three years, said he appreciates that the safe parking site doesn’t have a curfew, but it will still prevent him from seeing his loved ones. He also has an enormous amount of belongings he would have to transport to the site, and shifting to a program that may close after a year feels unnecessary.

“I don’t know who is going there, but I know one thing — it’s not stable,” Galtney said Monday, explaining that he will likely resist the move to the safe parking site and instead move his RV around the city. “I have kids, grandkids who want to come see me. If I’m in that lot, they can’t come visit, and that don’t sit right with me.”

He added that the barbed-wire fence, designed for safety at the site, actually creates a daunting environment.

Yesica Prado in her RV at 8th and Harrison in Northwest Berkeley. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Journalist Yesica Prado, who has documented her RV life for SF Public Press, has also been living at the site for about three years. She has thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and isn’t ready to return to the renters market because she hardly has any financial cushion or savings.

In the meantime, she has found safety and stability in the neighborhood at 8th and Harrison, and said the city’s parking site is a temporary alternative that uproots RV residents from an existing, organized community. She said it already has proximity to resources, and workers know where to find people and offer them services.

She spent the last week documenting the city’s notices, answering questions for confused neighbors and trying to facilitate an organized move to the safe parking site, which included tasks like helping people find their keys and find money for gas. Prado and others may organize to push back against the move, and ask the city for more time.

“I don’t want to be able to live for free. If I can — I want to be able to contribute,” Prado said, offering alternatives like a paid RV lot. But the safe parking site seems like a rushed, half-baked option to her right now. “We want to be able to do this legally.”

The city will once again begin enforcing parking restrictions

Continuing its approach to enforcement as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Berkeley will ramp up parking rules and ticketing in tandem with offering alternate services for RV parkers. The city did the same when it opened the Grayson shelter and started enforcing the sidewalk ordinance for homeless residents.

Deputy City Manager Paul Buddenhagen said the current census of RVs in Berkeley stands at around 120 to 140 vehicles, and the city is currently doing outreach to the entire group (with priority given to the residents in Northwest Berkeley.)

There won’t be space for everyone at the safe parking site, so the remaining residents will have to abide by city laws and move their vehicles. The city will still offer them services, Buddenhagen said, if the residents are interested.

“People generally want to not be bothered and to be able to stick in a place for a while, so to the extent that they’re complying with the laws, that’s fine,” Buddenhagen said, referring to the 72-hour and other parking restrictions in different parts of the city. “But when they’re not, we will be stepping up enforcement in those areas.”

Some residents were also concerned this week that an item on the City Council agenda barring vehicles by weight on residential streets would impact RVs, but that item only applies to commercial vehicles. Berkeley’s regular parking restrictions have not been amended.

“The primary thing is creating a safe space for people to be, with a sense of certainty about being able to be there — creating a space where there’s some community,” Buddenhagen said of the new safe parking site. “We’ll see what we learn and adjust throughout the life of the program.”

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...