No Place Like Curb
So many San Franciscans live in cars, vans, campers, and buses that the city wants to create a "vehicular community" where they could legally park. But if we build it, will the "houseless" come?
By Joel P. Engardio
One after another, the reflections of dilapidated trailers, decommissioned school buses, and late-model RVs roll through the rearview mirror of the unmarked police car. Officer Paul Swiatko squints in the dawn glare as he drives by the hundreds of dented Winnebagos and pickup trucks with duct-taped camper shells that line the streets of Mission Bay and lower Potrero Hill.
On this 7 a.m. patrol, it is Swiatko's job to roust the long rows of offenders living in their illegally parked vehicles. Yet Swiatko cruises past blocks of beat-up Volkswagen vans and sagging Airstreams without bothering to slow down. He not only recognizes all the mobile encampments this morning, he even knows the names of those sleeping behind every dew-covered window. He's seen them many times before, and despite the occasional districtwide sweep, the vehicles keep coming back. They come back for a reason: On most days it's just Swiatko on the beat, and one officer is not enough to ticket and tow all the parking violators. So Swiatko leaves the quiet regulars alone, scanning the streets for newcomers to tag and put in his 3-inch-thick homeless dossier. "It's the ones I don't know about that worry me," he says.
As he turns the corner from Third Street onto 16th, a rusted station wagon catches his eye. Swiatko (who pronounces his name "Swee-at-co," but is widely known on the street as "Swat-co") stops and gets out of his car. The undercover officer is wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, and a green parka that unzips to reveal a police badge hanging around his neck. His shaved head is offset by a bushy mustache, and covered by an Oakland A's baseball cap. The sturdy, nearly 6-foot ex-Marine approaches the old station wagon with deliberate steps. Unsure of who is behind the newspapered windows, and anticipating the dogs that have jumped from under vehicles before, Swiatko unsnaps his holster. He raps on the driver side window with his left hand, keeping his right hand on the butt of his gun.
"Come out, Police Department," he yells.
The white Chevy Impala starts to rock as the occupant stirs inside. Swiatko stands back and crouches, ready to draw, if needed. The driver's door finally opens and a disheveled, frail man spills out of a rat's nest covering the seats and dashboard. On top of the car, a blue tarp is tied to some boxes and broken furniture; it flaps in the wind. A small hibachi grill and more piles of junk litter the curb.
"You got a bit of a trash pit here," Swiatko tells the man, asking for identification.
The man is named Jun; he was born in the Philippines and is 50 years old -- but looks 70. Still waking up, he rubs his eyes and pats his matted hair as Swiatko looms over him.
"Do you know why I'm here?"
"Yes, I sleep in my car," Jun replies, admitting his infraction, but not apologizing for it. He stares up at Swiatko, shiny brown eyes the only sign of life left in a weathered, defeated face, and begins to defend his last vestige of a home.
"I know it is illegal," Jun continues. "But do I have a choice? It's better than outside, and if I sleep in the street, I die."
Taped on a wall inside the former firehouse near the intersection of Third and Fourth streets is a giant piece of drawing paper with a meeting agenda outlined in Magic Marker. Now a soup kitchen, the firehouse hosts a group of people every Thursday evening. The people, who all live in cars, stand and introduce themselves to each other, 12-step style.
"Hi, I'm Joan, and I live in a van."
"I'm Guinea -- vehicularly housed and proud!"
They get together to talk about mobile survival, swapping information about the nooks and crannies of the city: the free water taps, the lowest-priced gas stations, the construction sites that leave their Porta Potties open so they can be discreetly used as RV waste dumps. But the most important topic is where to park. The people at this meeting hope to determine, based on recent ticketing activity, which streets are safest from police patrols. Ticketing activity, after all, can lead to tow trucks. And the greatest fear in the world for the people in this room is getting towed. For them, that would mean losing their homes.
Scribbled on the large meeting outline, under "Announcements" and "Towing Updates," is the section that riles everyone every Thursday: "Swiatko Strategies." Anyone who has ever lived in a car on the streets of San Francisco knows Swiatko; just mention his name and vehicle dwellers bristle. They've all met him at one time or another, and a good part of their existence is devoted to moving their cars around town in an effort to avoid his early morning knock on the window.
"Swiatko has been their nemesis for years," says Ronnie Eagles, a Coalition on Homelessness project worker who helps organize the Thursday night gatherings. "He's given those people nothing but the blues."
The curbside campers have some hope they can be rid of the Swiatko threat sometime before the 48-year-old officer retires. The Thursday night meetings started two years ago with an idea -- a dream, really -- of establishing a vehicular community, a place where members could move their cars from the city streets onto a giant piece of vacant industrial land. A Swiatko-free zone. There, basic facilities such as toilets and showers would be set up, and the mobile residents could come and go as they please without fear of tickets and tow trucks.
Although not all curbside campers live in their vehicles by choice, most consider these living arrangements to be a matter of pride. Those with RVs and converted school buses -- some of them carpeted and furnished with couches, full-size beds, and kitchen appliances -- consider vehicular dwelling the only way to stay in a desirable city and beat paying its astronomical rents. For others, who live in vans or the back seats of cars, residing in a vehicle is one step up from living out of a shopping cart.
"We're not homeless -- we're houseless" is the mantra the vehicle dwellers repeat as a way of explaining why they are at least a few notches above transients who sleep in doorways.
"Unlike the pushcart people, we pay taxes, work jobs, and don't urinate on the street," says Richard Stoffel, who lives in an 18-foot Dodge camper. "The motor home people are generally more civilized."
Officer Swiatko understands the situation of the "houseless," but he also knows the law: There is to be no overnight camping in vehicles on San Francisco's streets, and no parking in one spot more than 72 hours. And it's his job to enforce the law.
"I recognize they call their cars their home," he says. "But at the same time, I have to recognize that city streets are not RV parks."
Many vehicle dwellers realize that Swiatko has to enforce city parking codes. They just don't think he needs to carry out his orders with such zealous glee.
"He goes out of his way to search people out and make their life miserable," says Mara Raider, a Coalition on Homelessness staffer who helps run the vehicular-dweller project. "Police in general are not kind to people in vehicles, but Swiatko's name comes up most often. He is punishing people for no other crime than being poor."
On the other hand, Guinea Apollos, one of the founders of the Thursday night group, cuts the officer some slack.
"He has the worst reputation around, but what he does is go after the thieves, junkies, and people with trash around their cars," Apollos says. "Personally, I don't want to park next to thieves, junkies, or trash, so I don't mind him."
She keeps her vehicle clean and doesn't let it sit in one spot too long. And that, Apollos says, is the key to getting Swiatko to just drive on by. "Although everyone tells me it happens," she says, "I have yet to see him freak out on me."
On 16th Street, Swiatko has listened to Jun's explanations, but the officer holds back on pulling out his ticket book.
"How's your health? You OK?" Swiatko asks the withered man, checking to see if food and blankets are in the car. Swiatko resnaps his holster and pulls out a notepad. He begins taking down Jun's story. First his age, date of birth, and other pertinent facts. Then, Swiatko gets Jun's actual story: how he got here, who his relatives are, why he remains in his car.
"I'm writing this down, so if anything happens to you, we have a record," Swiatko tells him. Jun nods, looking almost pleased that someone -- even a cop -- cared to ask.
Back at the station, Swiatko adds Jun to his growing file of the vehicular dwellers.
"This guy has no record, just a lot of unfortunate circumstances," he says. "What am I going to do, punish him further? He's harmless. I'd rather just keep an eye on him and hope he makes it."
A yellowed copy of the Max Ehrmann poem "The Desiderata" hangs near the driver's seat, across from the kitchen, in Guinea Apollos' school bus. Now a cliched relic, last popularized in the hippie days of the late 1960s, the poem still inspires Apollos.
"Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness," she reads aloud, then pauses for a moment, interrupting her daily recitation of the poem. "God, that part should be highlighted for the people out here," she says, staring out the window. She inhales deeply and begins another verse.
"You are a child of the universe," she continues, her voice beginning to falter. "No less than ..."
She stops again, sighs, then reads on, trying not to choke on her words.
"No less than the trees and the stars."
Now she begins to cry, but defiantly spits out the next line: "You have a right to be here."
Apollos came to San Francisco in 1976 in an old postal truck and has lived in vehicles most of the time since then. The 51-year-old, who has long, gray hair, likes the mobile life. She's worked clerical jobs over the years, saving money and living on the road in Europe for long stretches. Although she always comes back to San Francisco, she considers herself a gypsy. She is a free spirit, beholden to no one, the Pacific Ocean her back yard.
But Apollos doesn't pretend the houseless life is easy. She suffers from severe depression; lately, she's been getting by on Social Security disability checks. She has bursts of manic energy that allow her to spearhead the drive to establish a vehicular community. Then she comes home to her bus and often can barely muster enough willpower to eat.
Her 30-foot-long 1964 Dodge school bus -- the "land yacht," she calls it -- is a cozy haven with well-stocked bookshelves and even a spice rack over the stove. All the carpentry is hers, and now she's planning to install a shower next to the toilet and to cut a sunroof over her "office/art studio" in the very rear of the bus. It is a self-contained world, but Apollos and others also have post office boxes, Safeway cards, beepers, calling cards, and cell phones to function outside their vehicles.
Apollos sits at the breakfast nook in her galley, wearing a bright, Hawaiian-print shirt, blue slacks, and leopard skin slippers. The morning light peeks through her handmade, rainbow-striped curtains. She doesn't, however, describe being parked along the curb as a colorful experience.
"I can't count the number of times I've been in bed, and had to slide out of the covers and sleep on the floor because I was afraid something was out there," she says. "I have to go to extraordinary lengths to do things you take for granted. I can't just flush my toilet and let my worries go away. I have to unhitch my sewage tank every three days and find a place to dump it. I have to ride 45 minutes on two buses across town to take a shower, each way. It takes an incredible amount of energy just to exist."
That's why a vehicular community -- a safe place that validates her chosen way of life and provides basic facilities and support from gypsy neighbors -- is her dream. Her idea was sparked by fliers that the producers of the television show Nash Bridges put on the windshields of vehicle dwellers crowding the China Basin waterfront. Nash Bridges wanted the vehicles to clear out for a day to accommodate a film shoot. The fliers read: "Dear China Basin Bus Community ...."
It was an epiphany for Apollos.
"They recognized us as a community; why can't anyone else? They asked us to move without having to come out swinging their billy clubs. They acknowledged our vehicles as our homes," she says, stretching her arms while standing in the middle of her bus. "Is this not better than a shopping cart? I'm not homeless; I live in a one-bedroom home with a den, for God's sake. I feel like I'm banging my head against the wall trying to explain this to people."
Coalition on Homelessness
Actually, someone is listening -- the City of San Francisco. After the Coalition on Homelessness took up the vehicular community idea as a pet project, it wasn't long before the Mayor's Office was on board, publicly calling it an "innovative" solution. The Coalition was soon working with the Mayor's Office and the city's Department of Public Health to hammer out a project model. Architects were even retained to help find a feasible site.
That was more than a year ago. Not much has happened since, but the proposed vehicular community is in the running to receive up to $350,000 in federal money. When the city submitted grant applications to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this year, it ranked vehicular housing 12th out of 32 projects for which the city hopes to gain federal funding. If San Francisco is awarded a HUD grant this year, vehicle dwellers could be looking at a windfall -- or, at least, a Swiatko-free place to park.
The possibility of federal funding gives vehicle dwellers some reason to be optimistic, but they know a parking lot to call home is still a long shot. After two years of maneuvering, the cat-and-mouse parking game seems nowhere near conclusion: Lack of available land in a booming real estate market and opposition from business and residential neighbors are obstacles that seem unlikely to fade away. The Coalition argues that "Not in my back yard" attitudes and stereotypes associated with the homeless have stalled the project -- even though the troubles generally afflicting the homeless, including drug addiction and an extraordinary incidence of mental illness, probably are not as severe or widespread among the vehicle-dwelling "houseless." There are an estimated 14,000 homeless people on the city streets, but just 500 vehicle dwellers.
"A crazy person is not going to be able to handle the DMV, registering and insuring their vehicle, and dealing with things like battery starters," says James Banks, who lives in a 26-foot Boles camping trailer pulled by a 1974 Chevy van. If a vehicle dweller is a drug user, he or she usually doesn't keep the car for long, Banks says.
The houseless do take special pains with the legalities of vehicle ownership, Officer Swiatko agrees. The cost of registration and insurance is high, but still less than apartment rent in San Francisco, and one or two license-plate citations eat up more money than registration and insurance.
If the cars are usually legal, that doesn't mean the occupants are necessarily squeaky clean. Although violence doesn't appear to be a general problem, Swiatko does have a long list of vehicle dwellers with drug, burglary, and grand theft histories. There are also the half-dozen registered sex offenders he must keep an eye on.
Swiatko believes a vehicular encampment would be a policing nightmare. He is reminded of a similar situation from the early 1990s, when vehicles crowded an open tract of private property with the owner's consent.
"They let anyone come in, and it got out of hand. It became a major trash pit and took years to clean up. We had 40 arrests there, from drugs to shootings," Swiatko remembers. "I don't want another 894 Innes Street."
The Coalition on Homelessness argues that strict guidelines will be used to structure the vehicular community, and with initial plans for just 50 spaces, there will be a competitive and rigorous application process to get in. But that still leaves hundreds of vehicle dwellers out by the curb, which means that even if a vehicular community is funded, Officer Swiatko won't be out of work any time soon.
Linda and J.J.
Linda Syester lives in a 1974 Chevy Explorer RV with her German shepherd, Angel. At 56, she has two grown children and three grandkids. She was a housewife for 30 years in Manteca. After the kids left home, she doted on her husband. But when he died of a massive heart attack four years ago, in her arms, she experienced a complete meltdown. Distraught over her loss and gravely depressed, she withdrew and began to disappear for weeks at a time, driving aimlessly to places like Salt Lake City and Reno. It didn't matter that she had no desire to keep up her home. Widowed without any solid financial backing, she would eventually lose it. Her kids now beg her to stay with them, but she has come to Mission Bay to mourn and recover in her 24-foot cocoon.
"Everybody out here has their story," Syester says. "Something has put us all here. I was a sheltered, spoiled housewife, and now I look around at the homeless and realize I'm one of them. I have to be able to move; to turn that key and be in another world. That's my story."
Another woman in her late 50s parked near Syester one day last year, and eventually they forged a close friendship. That woman, J.J., lives out of her 1993 Nissan pickup with a camper shell. She was also a housewife. Now divorced, she has two grown children in Wisconsin. J.J. survives by clearing out unsuccessful garage sales and selling the items at flea markets. She hasn't seen her children in more than five years, but calls them from a pay phone on holidays and birthdays. They don't know she is homeless. She had an $80,000 nest egg after the divorce, but bought the new Nissan with cash and lived on the rest, without working, until the savings were gone. She doesn't want to tell her kids she threw the money away.
The women support each other with a Thelma-and-Louise spirit. They sit at the table in Syester's RV, talk, play cards, and watch soap operas on J.J.'s color TV, which runs on solar-charged batteries. They indulge in their only luxuries: Syester puffs on Parliament Lights, while J.J. savors the daily cup of gourmet coffee she buys fresh at the Thinker's Cafe on 20th Street.
For dinner, J.J. usually cooks. She'll make hamburgers on the grill, fry some green tomatoes with onions, and whip up a box of Betty Crocker's au gratin potatoes. The smell will attract other vehicle-dwelling neighbors, who look to the women for good food and help when they are in trouble.
"We're like the mothers out here," J.J. says. "Everyone knows we can cook and that we have food and things like jumper cables. We still have some brains left, and we know how to fix stuff and give out advice."
If they look out for each other, they also are careful not to get too attached. They may not both always be around, and survival on the street is determined by self-sufficiency.
"You have to keep an arm's length so we don't hurt ourselves emotionally -- we've both lost too much family already," J.J. says. "We keep enough space so we are friends, but not totally dependent on each other."
Safety is a big issue among the vehicle dwellers, especially women. J.J. dresses down on purpose -- baggy sweat pants and shirts -- and wears no makeup, so she looks less desirable. She covers her shaggy blond hair, which she cuts and bleaches herself, with a wool cap at night, so anyone peering in her truck won't know it is a woman sleeping there. Syester has her dog for protection.
"You have to look hard and tough," J.J. says. "And when you want to cry, you have to do it when no one is around."
Syester, however, tries to retain as much femininity as she can. It makes her feel better. A stack of Better Homes and Gardens magazines sits by her bedside. She decorates her RV with lace curtains and she is knitting her own quilt.
"Just because I lost everything else, doesn't mean I've lost my dignity and pride," she says. "I still have that."
Officer Swiatko heads to his unmarked Chevy pickup truck outside the Bay View police station for another early morning patrol. Before getting in, he notices someone has thrown a water bottle in the cargo bed; he leans in to pick it out. The bottle is filled with urine.
"Another piss bottle," Swiatko says. "See how people like me? I know they look at me as a big, ugly monster, or the devil."
The animosity usually peaks when there are sweeps and Swiatko has to red-tag vehicles that have towing and fine warnings.
"That's when they get mad and don't particularly care for me. But I'm not a bad guy," he says. "I have laws to enforce, but I'm not always breathing down their throats. I'm fair."
Jeannette and Sherry
Jeannette lives in a 1986 GMC school bus. She used to have a home in San Diego and a middle-class income as a meat department manager at Safeway. But a bad investment that socked her with $30,000 in tax penalties from the IRS, and a straying spouse who held the title to their house, constituted the one-two financial/emotional punch that put her on the street. Life in a bus and freelance work through the meat cutters union lets her save enough money to pay off her debts and go back to school.
Jeannette knows a sense of pride can make living by the curb easier to handle. She shares her 40-foot bus with a friend, Sherry, whom she met on the street. They are 40 and 30, respectively, and have no kids. Their bus is immaculate, furnished with a couch, nice carpet, and antique wooden dressers and tables. The bookshelf is filled with volumes that range from Heavy Truck Repair to Heart of Zen Cuisine. The pantry is stocked with balsamic vinegar, tamari sauce, and lemon pepper oil. They eat well. In the living room, there is a TV, CD player stereo, even a Sega game system.
Both take classes at City College and have managed to save money by working for a catering company. Recently, they joined 24 Hour Fitness when the health club offered a special $20-per-month membership rate. Now they have a place to shower every day as well as take yoga classes.
"It's all about quality of life, and this is OK for now," Jeannette says. "But I don't want to get too comfortable in this situation. I will either get my shit together or not. If not, I will go crazy, because you can't live like this forever and not have it get to you."
In the meantime, they try to fight the homeless stereotype. Friends from work or the gym don't realize Jeannette and Sherry are homeless until they visit the bus -- and often remark it's more spacious than their studio apartments. The athletic women don't look homeless. They have a young, fresh appearance, keeping their hair short and wearing Levi's and Nikes.
"People need to realize we got here because of our circumstance," Jeannette says. "And we should be judged not by circumstance, but by what we make of it."
One morning in November, Swiatko pages Jeannette and Sherry from his office. When they call back, he tells them someone has complained: They have been parked in the same spot more than three days, and it's time to move. Swiatko says he will leave clean, quiet campers alone, unless he gets a complaint from a neighboring resident or business that forces him to act. And as long as the vehicles move every three days or so, he won't write tickets. Swiatko has a Rolodex filled with pager numbers, with promises to call first and tow later. All he asks in return, he says, is cooperation. Cooperation has developed, in many cases, into close ties. Fellow officers joke of Swiatko's "tribe" because everyone they run into, it seems, claims him as a friend.
"I probably know intimate things about all 350 transients I've documented so far," he says. "Some I know very well. They're very nice people with problems in their lives that I wouldn't want to go through. It's amazing to see their ability to adapt to extremely stressful conditions while trying to get back on their feet -- and I give them credit for that."
Swiatko's probably most fond of Jeannette and Sherry, checking up on them regularly, making sure they are safe and progressing in their efforts to put their lives back together.
"Paul, if anything, has been a mentor to me," Jeannette says. "He's kicked me in the ass a few times, but in a caring way. He never looked down on my situation, but said I deserve better than this ... to quit making excuses and to pull myself up."
Despite the friendship, Jeannette understands there is no special treatment. When it's time to move the bus, they move.
"He's not a malicious, rogue cop; he just has a job to do," she says. "We never sweat him, and he doesn't sweat us."
Some of Swiatko's friends aren't doing as well as Jeannette and Sherry. Later in the day, Swiatko pulls his truck off the road, onto an abandoned stretch of railroad tracks in the industrial wasteland near the intersection of Illinois and Cesar Chavez streets. Slowly maneuvering over the ties and through the deep weeds, Swiatko comes to a clearing, where a homeless encampment in the back of an old warehouse looks like Calcutta. Discarded needles and trash cover the gravel around open fire pits and makeshift cardboard and tarp shelters. A pack of emaciated dogs scrounges around the stopped truck. Swiatko rolls down the window and calls for Tiger. A woman with rotted teeth and welts on her face appears. Her eyes are sunken and her skin wrinkled. She is 30 years old.
Tiger is addicted to heroin. She had lived in a tiny, unregistered camper, but it was towed, and she's been spiraling downward ever since. Swiatko is checking to see if she has gotten into the new methadone treatment program he told her about. She says she is planning to go. He asks if she's been back with the boyfriend who was beating her. She hasn't. Good, he tells her. She says she needs $5, and Swiatko gives it to her.
"Swiatko is a motherfucker, straight up. But I respect him," Tiger says. "He can be one hard-ass cop, but he's fair. He's had that talk with me more than a few times -- what am I doing with my life. He does care. Just don't get on his bad side."
Swiatko is worried about Tiger. He worries about a lot of his homeless friends. In his 13 years on the beat, he's lost seven of those friends. His attention is now on two elderly gentlemen in their late 70s who share a trailer. He doesn't expect them to survive the winter. He's trying to work with the Department of Social Services to get them into better housing.
"You can't not think of these people, when you see them every day. They become part of you," Swiatko says. "I'm out here working, but I'm in their world. I'm living with them."
And the ongoing cycle of homelessness wears him down.
"It's disheartening. It's overwhelming," he says. "I can't do it all; sometimes I don't feel like doing anything. I have a wife and two kids to go home to. I don't have all the answers."
What Swiatko does know is that the vehicular encampment idea is a bad one. His gut tells him that concentrating the problem in one spot will only cause more trouble. At the same time, he realizes -- better, perhaps, than anybody -- that the vehicle dwellers are here to stay, and there's nothing he can do but continue to chase them, futilely, around town.
"They are nomads by heart," Swiatko says. "Rent is expensive here. They'd rather live in a vehicle than a 12-by-12 room in a roach-infested hotel, and I don't blame them."
As he turns his patrol car around another corner, to face another row of trailers and vans lining the street, Swiatko shakes his head, more out of amazement than frustration. Some things are just bigger than guns and badges and the law he's trying to enforce.
"Everyone creates their own normal," he says. "They're people, like anyone else, using their right to choose how they want to live. And how can you fight that?