The Homeless Quandary

Map of Homelessness in Berkeley


During November  2017 a team of us began to undertake a research project to attempt to document all the homeless camps and sites, as well as people living in vehicles, throughout the city of Berkeley, as well as in adjacent areas in North Oakland and Emeryville. (Eventually, we plan to cover the whole city of Oakland as well…but this will take some time…and if we are very ambitious…maybe we’ll expand to San Francisco! )|

See our map here:

In order to do this research, we set out to drive, walk or bicycle  every single street in Berkeley and adjacent areas. In addition, we expect that there are some homeless people setting up camps in Tilden Park and other regional parks in the hills.  We will try to explore the parks to see if we can find any such, but they may be well hidden and not easy to find.  Some of us have found such camps in the past,  in Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve and in the area just above the Cal Stadium.

Bus at 5th Street and Camelia


Bus with Utah License plate, Grayson Avenue


A homeless camp/site is here defined any place that one or more homeless people has set up a tent or belongings which involves regular appropriation of public space for purposes of residence/shelter. Simply bedding down at a diffferent random place on the sidewalk each day does not count as a “site” under this definition since it is not a fixed location.

In contrast to homeless research projects which are more needs-based, focusing on the numbers of individuals or their specific needs,  this approach is more geographical and visually based, focusing on the impact of homeless camps/cars on neighborhoods and communities.

Man working on RV with pile of bikes beside, near Berkeley Transfer Station


Hence, rather than documenting individual persons, we are attempting to document fixed locations and/or actual physical vehicles which are used as residences in public places.

Some may point out that people living in RVs in the city, may not be “homeless”, but might simply be travelers or retirees, here temporarily.  As we see it, the issue of which vehicle dwellers are homeless and which are not, is not a black and white issue but one with shades of grey.  As well, regardless their own view of their vehicle and whether they feel homeless or housed in the vehicle,  the fact is that anyone living in a vehicle on public streets ( as opposed to in a public campground or state park or other area where camping is permitted) is in essence creating the same problem for neighborhoods and the city.  They are appropriating public spaces for private use, and putting a residence in a place where, according to city planning everywhere in developed nations, a residence was never intended to be.

Bus on 9th near Dwight


To support the visual story, photos of all camps/sites and vehicles are included. Since vehicles can change location, license plate numbers are included to prevent duplication.

Some observers have objected to a research project such as this, arguing that it puts a spotlight on vulnerable people, by publicizing locations of camps and/or vehicle dwellers.  We understand the sensitivity of this issue, but we disagree that having less information, or less publicly available information, is preferable.  We believe that many of the problems related to homelessness, are related to lack of information, lack of research, inadequate study of multiple facets of this complex problem.  So we believe that as regards the quandary of homelessness,  it’s always better to have more rather than less information.

Some observers argue that homeless are made more vulnerable by having their campsites mapped or vehicle license plates shown.  However, we believe it is rather disingenuous to suggest that homeless camps/vehicle dwellers are not a problem for cities or neighborhoods if such information is not available.  The fact is that homeless camps and vehicle dwellers (some more than others) result in an absolutely enormous number of complaints to police and public works agencies, in cities all across the US, and the East Bay is no exception.  City leaders in the East Bay and San Francisco have shown themselves exceptionally tolerant to homeless persons, in spite of  multiple homeless camp situations involving ongoing problems with garbage, blight, nuisance,  impeded sidewalks or roadways, criminal behavior (eg assaults, theft), stolen property, fires, vermin, hazardous materials, public safety hazards, and more.

As well, the unfortunate facts are that very few municipalities have adequate designated places for the homeless to stay, which are accepted both by the homeless and the community, so the result is a constant tension between housed residents and the homeless as homeless people set up camps or seek parking spots in cities.

Finally, a point we’ll make throughout our work on this issue is that we believe the problem of homelessness is not only a problem for the homeless themselves, but is also a problem for neighborhoods and cities.  Therefore it’s an important part of the work to keep highlighting the ways that homelessness effects communities and cities, particularly the more negative effects.

Without doing extensive work and/or interviews which our team did not have time for, it is very difficult to verify that any of the mapped are definitely being used as habitations. Hence, just because a vehicle is included in our map, should not be taken to imply it’s being used as a habitation/dwelling.

However, we have come up with 18 indicators which suggest the use of vehicles as residences. The more indicators are present, the more likely the vehicle is a residence. Likelihood of mapped vehicles being used as homes ranges from merely possible in a few cases to virtually certain in many.

Eighteen Indicators that a Vehicle may be being used to live in

By contrast, these are some indications that the vehicle (van or RV) is not being used as a residence:

Bus with trash around it, Acton near Parker


This is the Google Map showing our results thus far in the research:  Map of Homelessness in Berkeley

Some of the conclusions and observations that can be drawn from the study:

(1) There are certain areas with heavy concentrations of homeless camps and/or people living in vehicles.  For the purposes of the study, I will divide the city into sectors.  When the study is finished, I will calculate the percentage of homeless camps/cars in each sector of the city.

(2) There are a large number of people living in vehicles at the Berkeley Marina in particular.  We counted 43 vehicles that appear to be being used as dwellings parked in and nearby the Berkeley Marina, including in areas that clearly indicate that overnight parking is not allowed. In fact there was virtually no part of the Berkeley Marina without vehicle dwellers.  We found them in every parking lot — over 6 parking lots– as well as in a huge encampment of 13 large RVs all lined up directly across from the Double Tree Hotel and one of the Marina access areas.  We found 6 to 8 vehicles that appear to be used as residences parked in the small parking lot (space for 15 vehicles total ) on Frontage Rd near the Ashby St exit.  This in spite of the fact that signage there clearly indicates that the area is a tow-away zone from 9pm to 6am.  So it would seem that in this small beach and shoreline area created for recreation, just adjacent to this small parking lot on Frontage Rd near Ashby, half the available parking spaces are being used by homeless people living in their cars.

Several people living in cars at beach at Frontage Rd in spite of this signage: Berkeley Police officer has been unable to explain why this continues in spite of numerous requests to police to enforce parking restrictions.


(3) There are apparently a number of homeless people coming here from out of state.   As of November 23 2017, of a total of about 120 “homeless” vehicles recorded so far, these had out of state license plates:
— Colorado Lic plate 020 RZQ Marina Blvd near DoubleTree hotel

–Wyoming lic plate 6 9784 parking lot at Berkeley Marina

— Missouri lic plate SK4 J7L  Harrison St between San Pablo and 10th

— Arizona lic plate 1440 AP 5th St at Camelia

— Arizona lic plate 378S5 Camelia at 4th

— Michigan lic plate BGV 4647 5th at Bancroft

–Iowa lic plate EFP 819 5th at Addison

–Utah Lic plate 43U 403 Grayson at 7th

— Oregon lic plate 556 HJZ 8th at Grayson

— Oregon lic plate 406 HCE 8th at Heinz

— Montana lic plate 479277B McGee at Stuart

— Washington Lic plate BFW8747 Telegraph at Ashby

–FLorida lic plate 4GR 047  on Curtis at Allston

— Montana lic plate BTD070 Curtis at Addison

Massachusetts lic plate 7616 D McGee at Channing

–Colorado lic plate 802 2GQ Regent near Dwight

–New Mexico lic plate 09165C Haste at Bowditch

— Texas lic plate FHL 4985 California at Ashby

–Texas Lic plate FNV 6598 Ellis at Adeline

— Alabama lic plate 4C 44601 Lowell at Grace

–Wisconsin lic plate H8670 62nd at Hollis

–Washington Lic plate B45223G 62nd at Doyle

–Nevada lic plate A821 Frontage rd near Ashby exit

–Massachusetts lic plate 3DY 129 on Marina Rd near Double Tree hotel

–Illinois lic plate 393 867 Marina Parking lot near Cesar Chavez Park

–Idaho lic plate 2C A783M Marina Parking lot near Cesar Chavez Park

–Florida Lic plate AGR 047 Bonar at Addison

–MIchigan lic plate PRM RTS 9th St at Virginia

— Arizona Lic plate AWD1131 36th at Webster (in Oakland)

— Oregon lic plate 480 JPA 56th at Telegraph (in Oakland)

— Ohio lic plate HFY 1286 55th at Telegraph (in Oakland)

By the way…
I discovered that it’s illegal for people to keep out of state license plates when they reside in a new state. They are required to get new registration in the state where they are living (or squatting, as the case may be).

One can report so called “cheaters” who dont’ get the in state registration as required, here:

I dont’ think the CHP walks on eggshells around the “homeless” as do Berkeley Police, so this may be a better way to go with problematic vehicle dwellers with out of state plates.

RV and homeless camp at 2nd and Page streets, Berkeley

After working to map homeless camps and vehicle dwelling in Berkeley, we’d like to do the same for the city of Oakland.  Actually we are doing these maps at the same time since we have team members who live in both cities working on the project.

For Oakland, there has already been some mapping of homeless camps that was done in early 2017, perhaps by the city.  This map (which is given in this San Francisco Chronicle Article) shows the results they found, as well as indicating three sites where Oakland intends to build sanctioned homeless encampments. More on Oakland’s approach in another article.