Melissa Frances points to her RV's waste system that was destroyed by rats chewing through hoses and insulation.
Melissa Frances, an RV resident in West Berkeley, shows her vehicle’s waste system, destroyed by rats after chewing through hoses and insulation. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Berkeley allocated about $100,000 for an RV pump-out station, funding a badly-needed resource six months after the city’s safe parking site closed, leaving many in the lurch.

Very few municipal services are available for local RV residents, who say it’s a weekly challenge to find places to get water and empty trash, grey water (from showers and sinks) and black water (sewage). 

RV residents who have working plumbing usually fill up a bucket, bag solid sewage for trash and search for a place to dump liquid sewage about once a week. Others will use storm and sewage outlets and bleach to clean their waste before it goes into a drain. Grey water, or shower and sink water, goes the same route.

Even before offloading sewage, finding a water source to maintain living conditions is a challenge. Like many other RV residents, Melissa Frances has to siphon water from the closest pumps  which often belong to local businesses — out of necessity.

Plastic tub holding an assortment of empty water containers.
Gathering water is a monumental weekly task for Melissa Frances. She collects and stores water in water jugs in a plastic tub outside her RV. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
A portable waste tank is attached to  the back of an RV in Berkeley.
One resident uses a portable waste tank attached to the back of her RV and offloads it manually about once a week. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Both processes are a huge inconvenience, said Frances, who lives in an RV in West Berkeley and previously was at the SPARK lot. “I’m too old to duck and dodge.”

To make things more challenging, her RV isn’t operational. Despite some repairs she made with the city’s stipend, she can’t drive it somewhere to offload wastewater, so she has to transport everything manually.

“It’s such a hassle,” Frances said. “I just started throwing my dishes away (instead of washing them).”

Previously, SPARK residents were given vouchers to empty their waste at a pump-out station in Richmond before the program opened two years ago. Rebuilding Together operated a mobile station at the Grayson Shelter before it closed to RVs on Dec. 31.

The funding allocation of $94,000 for a pump-out station was increased from $15,000 at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. The extra money will allow for a mobile station, as opposed to a single location where residents have to drive their RVs to access services, and a general waste management plan for RVs on Berkeley streets.

The city initiated the program in February 2019, but it was suspended after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Councilmember Kate Harrison, who made the budget referral, said the station won’t be available before January, but it’s a positive step for RV residents.

“It is in the public interest to implement this recommendation expeditiously to prevent effluent from entering watersheds and provide vehicle dwellers urgent and basic human services,” Harrison wrote in a budget referral.

The referral was based on a recommendation from the city’s Homeless Panel of Experts, who urged budgeting for a pump-out station and a sanctioned safe parking site to replace the SPARK center.

The allocation for the pump station accomplishes half of that recommendation, Harrison said, but the safe parking site will need regional collaboration.

A red citation is placed on the front window of an RV in Berkeley.
An RV with a red citation on Thursday, June 8, 2023. RV residents have to move their vehicles every 72 hours or risk citations. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight.
A row of RVs line Grayson Street in Berkeley.
A row of RVs on Grayson Street, next to where the SPARK safe parking site used to be before it closed on Dec. 31. 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight.

In the meantime, RV residents have struggled to live in Berkeley while subject to the same rules as all other vehicles. RV residents have to move their vehicles every 72 hours or be fined. Some don’t have operational vehicles, which means they are racking up city citations and risking further fines from being unable to register their vehicle annually. At worst, a vehicle is towed, and a resident can’t recover it.

Amber Whitson, a mechanic and former SPARK resident, has been working to repair her work truck so she can resume taking jobs. Her boyfriend passed away in January, and it’s been a daily struggle to wake up and face the challenges of RV life in Berkeley, which on Thursday morning included a fresh crop of red citation notices on every vehicle parked along Dwight Way and Seventh Street in West Berkeley.

When her partner was alive, he would help service and move their two vehicles.

Whitson said a mobile pump-out station would be a huge assistance, especially if it comes with a water station to clean the tank after disposal. Then she could avoid the inconvenient and illegal process of finding water on the street.

“It would be nice to have somewhere peaceful and quiet where we can not have to worry about … police harassment, and where we’re out of the way of neighbors and (they) don’t feel like we’re out of pocket for existing — where we don’t get reported for just being,” Whitson said. “It would be much better if there was somewhere for us to be.

“All you can do is hope and pray and receive more citations,” she joked.

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...