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Home Is Where the Car Is 

Tales of the wheeled homeless

Wednesday, Sep 27 1995
As Third Street stretches past its SOMA roots and toward China Basin you see the cars and station wagons and RVs of the wheeled nomads all over the place. They park in alleys, on sidewalks, in parking lots, and right on the curb.

Just north of Illinois and 24th Street is the Emperor Arcadia's home, an old '63 Dodge hippie bus that looks like a cross between the Partridge Family truckster and the Tijuana cross-town local. It's parked on the sidewalk of an old warehouse, surrounded by an insurmountable junk moat of chairs, signs, posters, plants, and rope.

Another China Basin nomad, heading up the street to his own '70s-era Winnebago, laughs as I approach the Emperor's pad.

"Just call for him, he'll come out," he says.
I do as told and sure enough, about five minutes later, a grizzled and stooped figure about 65 years old emerges from the fortress, waving a document in his hand. Beaming from ear to ear, the old man shows me the way to a makeshift picnic table surrounded by streamers and lawn chairs.

The Emperor is convinced he's the reincarnation of Christ, and the paper he waves is a 10-page manifesto that details how he realized his true identity on July 4, 1963, and which he sent to the Supreme Court last year. After three decades of trying to get the world to acknowledge his theories on medicine, electromagnetic forces, and the hereafter, he's about had it.

"Fuck these people," he says. "They're so damn stupid, they can't even comprehend what I've got to say."

The Emperor says he's been around San Francisco forever, and talks of partying with the beatniks, the hippies after them, and the punkers still later. Old City Hall hands remember his rambling discourses before the Board of Supervisors back in the early '80s (he called himself a crow prince then and wore a crown). Currently, the Emperor is pissed about having no access to a shower. He wishes Fleishacker Pool were still around.

About five years ago he lived in a Tenderloin hotel at 250 Taylor, but the tenants got the boot when the building was condemned, thereby turning the Emperor loose again. The landlord was forced to pay former tenants damages, of which the Emperor got $2,000. He bought his home from some hippie friends at the old Church of Nazareth, and ever since, like Papa with a brand-new beater, wherever he parks his car is his home.

He makes his living recycling paper, cardboard, bottles, and glass and reaps a little welfare, but only to the extent of going to local soup kitchens.

The majority of his money comes in the form of a monthly $700 social security check.

"We should encourage private property owners to take in the homeless as caretakers of abandoned land," he says. "What I'm doing here is a solution to the homeless problem. In return for maintaining the premises, I get to park my vehicle on private property."

When I tell the Emperor that I'm interested in meeting more of the wheeled homeless, he directs me toward the Mission Rock Resort, a restaurant on China Basin Boulevard. Within spitting distance of the Mission Rock I find a surprisingly well-kept, 30-foot RV with curtains and a side door. As I knock on the door, I see a man lying on his couch. I knock again, and he barks an answer. Two minutes later, we're sitting inside.

"I've just had a real bad string of luck," says Orr, a 45-year-old ex-Marine who still only uses his military-issue nickname. "After taking a leave of absence to go to Chicago and bury my father, I came back and I didn't have a job. I was doing real well, and then you wake up one day and you're homeless."

He packed up his belongings when he could no longer pay rent on his apartment and moved into his RV on Aug. 1. Like many of his compadres in the world of the mobile homeless, he drove down to China Basin.

Orr is a thin-faced, working-class kinda guy. His tattoos and bloodshot eyes put me on guard, at first, but we settle into a groove after realizing that years ago in New York we lived a block away from each other.

Unlike most of the nomads, Orr has a car, too. He lives off his savings and the military disability he draws from having broken his back 20 years ago.

He's hoping for another job in the commercial driving trade, but he has too many points on his license. A point comes off every month, so he's waiting it out.

He says the cops come around every now and then to ticket the van people, and that leads to a conversation about how there's nowhere for people like him to go, which eventually ends with a familiar diatribe on how Jordan is an asshole and Matrix isn't worth shit. As we finish, he asks that I make sure my article doesn't bring the cops down on the nomad community. Although the van people of China Basin are ubiquitous, Deborah Marshall, manager and co-owner of the Mission Rock Resort, cites a decline in their numbers over the last month.

"There used to be about 95 trailers out here a few months ago," Marshall says. "Now, I'd put that number around 20."

The police invited them to leave, says Tom, an artist who has been living out of his '69 Chevy van for six months just down the street from Orr. The van is actually a makeshift studio on wheels, with paintings scattered all around it and a roof that's been chopped and raised to create headroom for the painter.

"I was down here on the fifth of July when they did a sweep," says Tom. "They did the same thing on the day after Labor Day. It seems like they do that after every holiday. ... You have to stay moving. People who have trailers down here, all set up, they're going to get caught. In a lot of ways, the city's pretty cool about it. The police know us, and some of them even look out for us sometimes."

"I, by choice, live in my van," continues Tom, who works around the corner at the San Francisco Food Bank, at 333 Illinois. "If I had a real job, I'd still live in my van."

SFPD Officer Paul Swiatko, who's worked the nomad beat for the six years he's been assigned to Potrero Station, keeps a list of everyone who's lived in a vehicle in China Basin. The list is 250 names long. His basic motto is, if someone has a problem with you parking there, you gotta go. It's that simple.

"I know where everybody is, I know who they are, and if there's a problem, I deal with them," says Swiatko. "I enforce the mayor's program, but all we really do is move them from one place to another."

He continues: "We've done periodic sweeps where we cite people for 37.A," referring to the city ordinance that prohibits a parked car from remaining in one place for over 72 hours. "I've been out there at least three or four times now, where we've towed 10 to 15 cars per day. The bottom line is, living out of a trailer is illegal: It's camping out overnight and illegal lodging."

Ray Masterson, veterans' affairs coordinator for San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness, sheds personal insight on the topic. Having lived in his car as a "rubber tramp" years ago, he sees little difference between the so-called street homeless and the vehicle dwellers.

"Homeless is homeless, and a lot of times it's the diversity of the population that scares people," says Masterson about the colleagues to whom he's devoted his life. "We're nothing special. We have our share of assholes, too.

"Our stance on towing cars is this: If the people are living in a vehicle and trying to survive, why tow them [when] you put them right back on the streets of the Tenderloin? Why take away what little home that they do have? The bottom line is, shit runs downhill, and we all know who's at the bottom of that hill."

Police brass say there have been no special efforts this summer to roust the mobile homeless.

"It is one of our target offenses," says Commander Dennis Martel of the SFPD. "Our city ordinance prohibits sleeping on the street in your vehicle between 10 at night and 6 in the morning. I certainly wouldn't use the term 'sweep,' but we had a few operations down there this summer where, at the end of the 72-hour warning period, the cars were towed. That's part of the normal maintenance-type work we would do in any of our districts."

Homeless advocate Masterson believes the police are doing the best that they can, given their orders.

"Traditionally, the only agency of government that has to deal with poor and homeless people on a 24-hour, seven-day basis is the police," says Masterson. "The social workers, the mayors, the supervisors, and the lawyers only deal with it from nine to five."

Swiatko, living proof of Masterson's sentiment, says none of the mobile homeless he's approached will take advantage of Matrix services, adding that most of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Nonetheless, China Basin locals still delineate between their carbound neighbors and that population's counterparts living in the city's parks and on the streets.

"I would say the basic population down here are pretty good people, although a lot of them are what I call clueless," says Mission Rock's Marshall. "The people down here are functional. Downtown, they're scary. The basic problem is that they use our bathroom.

"They practically take a bath in our sink; I mean, all they have to do is clean up a little before they leave."

Marshall may complain about her toilet paper costs, but she does reach out to this elusive community, offering some of the regulars on her street odd jobs at her marina and restaurant.

"The only thing I do know is that these people are incredibly independent," says Officer Swiatko. "They have their self-pride.

"It's not the same kind of pride you and I have, but it works for them."
That pride borders on the maniacal when it comes to the Emperor, who says he's found a cure for AIDS and wants to build a pyramid over Candlestick Park to house the city's homeless.

We laugh and jest throughout the never-ending dialogue until I broach the subject of homeless policy, which once again leads us to Frank Jordan.

"He's a fuckin' dummy," says the Emperor. "I used to speak to Frank Jordan when he was a sergeant in the Community Relations Department. He was no more interested in community relations then than he is now. I've known him for 20 years, and he's on my shit list."

The Emperor is laughing, but it's no joke. In fact, questioning city policy is essential to his survival. As I rise to leave, he offers one last nugget of truth obtained from years of playing cat and mouse with the police.

"How can you say to someone, 'Can you please get out of your vehicle so we can tow it because it's abandoned?' " he says. "If you're in it, how can it be abandoned?

About The Author

Alan Saracevic


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