An estimated 900 people live in RVs in Oakland, and another 1,000 in cars. Credit: Pete Rosos

Facing crushing rents and home prices, more Oakland residents are now living in cars, trucks, and RVs. 

Newly released data from the 2022 point-in-time homeless count corroborated what’s visible along many major streets and freeway underpasses throughout the city—that hundreds more people have sought shelter in vehicles in recent years. As of February, an estimated 1,031 people were living in cars and vans in the city, and another 907 were sleeping in RVs, altogether representing more than half of Oakland’s unsheltered population.

Vehicle dwellers now represent 58% of Oakland’s unsheltered homeless population, up from 45% in 2019.

“I did everything I possibly could to not end up in a tent,” said Needa Bee, an activist who’s among the hundreds living in RVs in Oakland. “It’s a whole other ballpark, the level of safety and security.”

Inside a vehicle, you’re more protected from the elements and from people who might try to steal your belongings or harm you, said Bee, who founded the unhoused community The Village

“Because the city hasn’t been able to properly solve the housing and homelessness crisis, and provide adequate accommodations, this is people asserting that they need housing and taking it upon themselves,” she said.

Over the past few years, city officials have enacted or floated a range of policies recognizing the reality that a growing portion of the unhoused population is living in vehicles. Some of those policies create sites for RV dwellers to park permanently, some allow them to set up on private property, and others force them off the streets

Some RVs can park at city sites, private property

In 2019, Oakland opened its first “safe parking site” for RVs, where residents could live for several months with access to on-site sanitation facilities, security, and housing services. More locations have opened since then, with about 150 parking spaces in total.

Last summer, City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan and Alameda County Supervisor David Haubert wrote a letter calling for a joint program between the county and its cities to open 10 additional RV lots where residents would pay a sliding-scale fee and have access to some basic services.

“Increasing numbers of such vehicle dwellings often do not have access to proper sanitation, plumbing, or sewage removal. Therefore, our communities are struggling with sewage in the streets, and growing threats to public health from this situation,” Kaplan and Haubert wrote. 

Credit: EveryOne Home

But it would likely take more space and money than Oakland has to house all of the city’s nearly 2,000 vehicle residents at safe parking lots, and many people don’t want to live in such settings. Recognizing this, policymakers have begun to make it easier for RV occupants to park permanently on individual, private lots.

Until recently, all dwellings in Oakland were required to be built on a permanent foundation, meaning homes could not have wheels. In the summer of 2020, the City Council approved a pilot program allowing owners of vacant, undeveloped property to host one RV dwelling on their site, whether they lived in it or someone else did. The owner and tenant had to pay small permit fees, reapplying for authorization each year. 

The program was a bust, with only three properties applying to participate.

In the fall of 2021, the council passed a much more expansive policy legalizing several nontraditional types of housing on private property, including RVs, and mobile and manufactured homes. Now, property owners can rent to people living in one or more RVs, which can park in the yard or driveway of a building, for example. The RV residents are treated similarly to conventional tenants, and are eligible for Oakland’s rent control protections

Proposed policy could restrict RV parking in Oakland

It is not yet clear how many people have taken advantage of the new rules, but hundreds of RVs still line many streets throughout Oakland.

City Councilmember Noel Gallo told The Oaklandside he gets calls from families in his Fruitvale district who feel unsafe walking by RV camps on the way to school, and from businesses that say they’re losing customers because of the vehicle encampments outside. In response, he recently proposed a policy that would make it illegal for RVs to park on a majority of streets in the city. Neighboring jurisdictions like Berkeley already have similar laws.

“You can’t just come from out of town and park wherever you want to, whenever you want to,” said Gallo, who said his main goal is getting the city to enforce the existing Encampment Management Policy, which already strictly limits where people can live outside. “I can’t just come and park in front of your house and leave my waste where I want to,” he said. 

Gallo said he’d be in favor of creating more parking sites where RVs could relocate.

At a March committee meeting, Gallo’s colleagues said they weren’t prepared to pursue the policy without more information, asking him to flesh out the proposal and come back with it on May 24. The proposal is not yet on that meeting’s agenda, and Gallo said he wasn’t sure whether it would be heard then or not.

But several advocacy groups took note of his original proposal, criticizing what they saw as the criminalization of homelessness.

The Homeless Advocacy Working Group, a grassroots coalition in Oakland, shot back with their own “safe and humane curbside parking” proposal. They call on the city to establish more safe parking sites, assist RV owners in relocating instead of towing them, connect residents with services and housing—and rescind the Encampment Management Policy.

More people are living in shelters; fewer in tents

Alex Miggins is one of the hundreds of Oakland residents living in RVs. In October she said she was intrigued by a new city policy allowing RV owners to rent space on private property. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The uptick in vehicle residents is just part of an overall increase in unhoused residents in Oakland, the point-in-time count found. Since 2019, the city has gained about 1,000 people who lack permanent housing, bringing the estimated total population to 5,055.

However, these staggering numbers actually reflect a slowdown in the growth rate. From just 2017 to 2019, the homeless population in Oakland had doubled, and now it’s increasing at a slower pace.

Far more unhoused people in Oakland have gained access to shelter in recent years as well, the count found. Using COVID-19 emergency funds from the state and federal government, the city and county have been able to open numerous hotel shelters and supportive housing facilities, and hundreds of the residents in those programs have been placed in permanent housing. Local governments passed new homelessness prevention policies like eviction moratoriums, during the pandemic, too.

“I feel COVID had a lot to do with the decrease in the homeless growth rate,” said Sabrina Fuentes, a community health promoter with the HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County. “The numbers reflect what we’ve done as far as housing—some of the most at-risk individuals were able to get in.”

Fuentes was unhoused herself a decade ago, and previously served as a guide during the biannual homeless count, directing volunteers to unexpected places where they might find people sleeping. This year, she helped distribute surveys to RV residents. 

She, like many people, believes the point-in-time count is an undercount, in part because much of it was conducted by car this year, instead of on foot. The count, which the federal government requires all counties to conduct every two years in order to receive homelessness funding, is held on one night in the winter. It’s widely considered the most accurate measure of homelessness in the Bay Area despite its shortcomings. (The 2021 count was delayed one year because of the pandemic.)

Likely as a result of the increase in vehicle dwellings and shelter beds, about 400 fewer people are living in tents or on the streets in Oakland than in 2019.

Bee said the city should dig deeper into the data, trying to understand why more people are living in cars and who that population includes, in order to pass more “common-sense and humane” policies.

“This is working-class folks—folks who have an income and can buy an RV—who are getting pushed out” by RV bans and encampment closures, she said.  

More data from the point-in-time count and associated surveys will be released this summer. EveryOne Home, the nonprofit that oversees the count, said the next release will include more demographic data as well as an analysis of the increase in vehicle residents.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.