ONE CITY INITIATIVE at the Bayview Vehicle Triage Center has offered some hope to the residents, though its rollout has not been free from hiccups.

Many of the residents agreed to have their vehicles towed to the VTC because they were promised that they would be able to get repairs there. (After all, it was called a “vehicle triage center;” presumably some vehicle triage would be done.)

Over the first two years there was much discussion of repairs, but not much happened.

However, a pilot program approved in the city’s 2023-24 budget called for the creation of a “Vehicle Repair Fund” that was at least conceptually earmarked for essential repairs to inhabited vehicles that had become inoperable. The fund was also to help with unpaid fees for registration and licenses.

The program was spearheaded by a former city employee named Anne Stuhldreher who worked in the city’s Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector as head of the Financial Justice Project. The FJP had set up a successful program that helped thousands of low-income residents get abatement on parking tickets and/or recover cars impounded for unpaid tickets.

Recreational vehicles are seen parked along the Great Highway in San Francisco's Ocean Beach neighborhood in an April 2022 Google Street View image. Many such vehicles become permanent housing for their owners, who often have unpaid registrations and lapsed licenses and risk becoming homeless when those vehicles become inoperable and ultimately get towed away by the city. The city's Vehicle Repair Fund is meant to help prevent that from happening. (Google image)

From FJP’s work on that project, Stuhldreher and her colleagues found that vehicle dwellers were at particular risk when their vehicles broke down or when their registration or drivers’ license expired.

In an October 2023 interview with Pagransen, Stuhldreher said, “If someone loses their car, sometimes they’re losing their home. They might end up kind of on the streets or in our overburdened shelter system. It’s a bigger kind of challenge to help that person. It can become a more expensive challenge as well.”

As a so-called “harm reduction” effort, she proposed a fund that would provide repair money and help with fees for vehicle registration and driver’s license fees. The animating idea was that if vehicle dwellers lost their cars to impoundment or couldn’t stay in them safely, they would swell the population sleeping in tents on the city streets and the city would ultimately have to help them with shelter.

She wanted to test whether paying a modest amount for repairs could get a vehicle dweller up and running and into an RV park outside of the city or reunited with family elsewhere. Her hypothesis was that a few thousand dollars would save the city shelter costs of $60,000 or $70,000 a year.

Taking the program for a test drive

The program was set up as a pilot to test the idea. A philanthropic source provided $100,000 which the city transferred to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Services (HSH) and in turn to Bayview Hunters Point Foundation (BHPF) to manage the expenditures.

According to Stuhldreher, “we’re trying to really learn how to use this philanthropic money to test this out. And if it works consider having a more permanent, larger, publicly funded program.”

Starting up a new program like this was a complicated task. For months, representatives of FJP met biweekly with Urban Alchemy, BHPF and HSH to thrash out program eligibility and the rules of the road.

The parties decided that the pilot would focus on the vehicles at the VTC. In many ways, it was a perfect cohort for a controlled experiment. The vehicles were all in one place, and residents were already receiving city services. Moreover, the city was spending a lot of money on the site; if repairs could help a resident leave the VTC in a working vehicle with a proper registration and license, another person could be served. With more than 1,000 inhabited vehicles in the city, according to the July 2023 count, there was plenty of demand.

According to Stuhldreher, because the program was a pilot, they did not initially have fixed standards for how to spend the $100,000 or how to measure the success of the program, though she said, “we are going to have very detailed records of how we spend this money and what the return and what the outcomes are.”

They did surveys of the residents to determine how much repairs would cost. In October 2023, Stuhldreher said, “Honest, I was kind of pleasantly surprised about the estimates for repairs that that we’ve been getting.”

Stuhldreher wanted to judge the success of the program by answering the question of whether “this money helps someone get to, you know, a safe place, whether it’s with family, whether that’s another RV park, etc.? You know, does this help people eventually ... not get tickets.”

Vehicle repairs begin

At the VTC, a caseworker from BHPF created a queue for repairs. First up was Paul R., a long-term VTC resident who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retaliation.

Paul believes he was an attractive candidate because his 1995 32-foot RV was generally in good shape and he said that he was willing to relocate to New Mexico where he had family. He needed help with registration and relatively modest repairs.

According to Paul, the mobile mechanic who came “was not an actual mechanic. He works on motor homes but the interior, you know, the lighting, the fixtures, the gas, the furnace, the microwave, whatever in the motor home. But he’s not a mechanic, so he don’t touch engines.”

A big issue for Paul was the tires on his RV. He says they are 20 years old, have gashes on them and are unfit for a 1,100-mile drive to New Mexico. He said he told his caseworker that he needed better tires to be safe to drive. At first it was a no, and then looked like a yes, but then his caseworker said that “my request for tires was denied because tires are not on the list of approved items to be fixed.” Paul has appealed to the head of BHPF.

He thinks he has a good case because he signed an agreement about the arrangement and it said “each vehicle/RV Funding Plan is tailored to the individual.” But in conversations with his caseworker, he has been told that the money in the fund is tight because of all the weatherization and rodent-proofing, and has to be limited.

He doesn’t understand why the rodent work is charged to the fund for vehicle repairs. He believes that the shelter operator should have kept the site free of rodents and precious repair dollars shouldn’t have to bear that expense.

The city’s perspective

Amanda Fried is chief of policy and communications in the Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector and worked closely with Stuhldreher on the Vehicle Repair Fund project. In a Jan. 24, 2024, interview, she said that from her vantage point, the program is going well.

She said that of the 30 vehicles at the site, 26 have been weatherized and 16 “rodent-proofed.” A number of others have had repairs, but that is more complicated. She says that $62,250 of the $100,000 has been spent to date.

She said she was not aware that some residents were concerned that the fund was being used on rodent proofing. However, after looking into the issue, she reported that “the funds from this pilot are only going to semi-permanent improvements of the RV’s — things like using sheet metal to block entryways for rodents. These are made to improve quality of life regardless of the location of the RV.”

Fried said the pilot money has been spent as follows: $22,000 on weatherization, $30,000 on rodent proofing, $3,750 on a fee to BHPF. The remainder — $6,500 — has been spent on “vehicle assessments and repairs by mechanic.”

“We have a limited amount of mechanics that are interested in working with this population. You know, this isn’t like you drop your BMW off at the dealership. ...”

Amanda Fried, on the Vehicle Repair Fund project

She said she “absolutely” feels that the remaining funds will be sufficient to finish the work needed for the vehicles at the VTC. She reports that the project working group “collectively set a guideline of $3,000 per person for repairs to vehicles to get them road ready — anything exceeding $3,000 is subject to additional review.”

She said the vehicle repair fund was still very much a pilot program and they had learned some things along the way that they had not expected, key among them was how challenging it was to identify mechanics who would work on the vehicles.

“We have a limited amount of mechanics that are interested in working with this population. You know, this isn’t like you drop your BMW off at the dealership ... I do think that we underestimated the complexity and the mission alignment that we need with mechanics to be willing to go to the site.”

She added, “They have to work with people that are facing a tremendous amount of challenges and stress. And for whom these vehicles are their home. It’s just a really difficult thing. [It’s] not like a typical car mechanic.”

She doesn’t think anything has gone wrong with the pilot program, but says it has taken “some twists and turns.”

Ramona Mayon’s repair story

Mayon’s RV was in line for repair after Paul. The saga of her attempt to get help with repairs for her vehicle began long before she came to the VTC. Her RV had broken down in an RV park in the Delta during the COVID-19 pandemic and was towed to Ocean Beach in San Francisco where she was living in her SUV.

The RV was her home, and she spent more than a year trying to get it running while facing increasing pressure from neighbors and the city to move the vehicle. There were continually threats that it would be towed if she didn’t move it.

Ramona Mayon stands beside her inoperable RV on Aug. 9, 2022, the day it was towed from Ocean Beach in San Francisco across town to the Bayview Vehicle Triage Center. Nearly a year and a half later, Mayon's RV is receiving repairs as part of the city's Vehicle Repair Fund. (Courtesy Ramona Mayon)

She had serious health issues and was mourning the death of her husband, but was determined not to let the RV be impounded. She had numerous interactions with the city’s representatives about the possibility of getting a few thousands of dollars of assistance to fix the vehicle so she could exit the city to an RV park. The extended story of this unsuccessful endeavor is laid out in her self-published book “No Services? No Peace.

Ultimately, she accepted the city’s proposal to tow the vehicle to the VTC, where she says she was told that she would get repairs.

She arrived at the VTC on Aug. 9, 2022, and immediately began to advocate for the promised repairs.

Long before the Vehicle Repair Fund, Mayon was telling the city and social workers that for a few thousand dollars they could avoid the cost of providing services for her as a homeless person. She had a cancer diagnosis and told them that she just wanted to get to a clean, safe and quiet RV park far from the city where she could live her remaining days in peace.

When the city mechanic began working on her RV, Mahon felt that finally there was progress, and on Jan. 24 when her vehicle started and ran for 20 minutes in the parking lot, she had a moment of joy.

She savored the moment, and then turned back to drafting the documents she would file with the court in the hope that the residents at the VTC would be recognized as a tenants’ union, so they could continue to evaluate the implementation of the Vehicle Repair Fund and negotiate with HSH over the many other things she believes need to happen at the site.

Joe Dworetzky is a second career journalist. He practiced law in Philadelphia for more than 35 years, representing private and governmental clients in commercial litigation and insolvency proceedings. Joe served as City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia under Mayor Ed Rendell and from 2009 to 2013 was one of five members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission with responsibility for managing the city’s 250 public schools. He moved to San Francisco in 2011 and began writing fiction and pursuing a lifelong interest in editorial cartooning. Joe earned a Master’s in Journalism from Stanford University in 2020. He covers Legal Affairs and writes long form Investigative stories. His occasional cartooning can be seen in Bay Area Sketchbook. Joe encourages readers to email him story ideas and leads at [email protected].