The Morning Report
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Monday, July 11, 2005 | There is a bed at the back of Sharon Burke’s 30-foot recreational vehicle. It is neatly made, in contrast to the rather chaotic scene that surrounds it. On the bed lies a pile of personal possessions, covered by a fine layer of dust.
The bed is a precious level surface in a cramped vehicle that struggles to hold Burke, her daughter, Melody Czech, Melody’s husband, a cat, propane tanks, water containers and all the family’s other possessions.
But the bed is not to be touched. It cannot be sat on or slept on. They don’t even want photos taken of it.
Until March this year, the thin mattress was the sleeping place for Robert Burke, who shared the motor home with his wife for 15 years, traveling around San Diego from campground to city park in an endless search for solace and rest. When Robert died this spring, his bed became sacred ground, a narrow patch of calm in the midst of an environment that is constantly changing.
The Burkes are a small part of a legion of families, couples and singles making up a strata of the city’s population that is hard to define. Driven from apartments and homes by financial hardship or led to a life on wheels by a desire to travel and spend quality time with the city around them, there are a thousand reasons why a portion of the local population chooses to make RVs their home.
Whatever their explanation, the life these quasi-transients have chosen is often not the rent-free utopia they might have hoped for. Their illegal lifestyle – living in a vehicle is prohibited by city and state laws – keeps them constantly moving. They are rousted from their dreams most nights. Sometimes they have to move three or four times a day to keep one step ahead of the police. Gas prices are killing them. The Fourth of July was a nightmare. And, to top it all, a proposed city ordinance could spell the end of their way of life in San Diego forever.
“In a way, we’re homeless, if you think about it,” said Steve Hansen, who has lived in his RV for two years. “We do have some shelter, but it’s mobile … We’re not supposed to be doing this.”
Fifty-year-old Hansen has lived in San Diego his whole life. He said he remembers standing in the San Diego canyon and looking east at nothing but marshland and scrub. He’s seen the city change drastically, and as it has changed, he said people like him – low-income earners without savings or family to help them out – have been gradually pushed to the sidelines. The tough-looking landscape gardener and father of two boys said moving into his RV was a last resort.
“I couldn’t have afforded to live here anymore,” he said. “I would have had to basically leave town. I’ve been here so long, it’s my home. It’s where my family is, where my friends were – most of them, the ones that haven’t left.”
Hansen calls his time in an RV “adventures in camping.” But there’s a finality in his voice, so that one can tell that he’s not doing this for fun. He tries to keep a brave face, and to describe his lifestyle as at least partly self-imposed, but it’s obvious that he’s frustrated.
“You miss out on a lot of things,” he said. “The oven size is so small that you really can’t cook a turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas. You really can’t have space for a Christmas tree. Just all the niceties that most people tend to have that they take for granted.”
However, not everyone in this demographic laments the loss of the finer – read: material – things in life. Paul, who asked that his last name not be used, has lived in his RV for 17 years. In an interview conducted a short stroll from his vehicle, he perched on a bench overlooking Mission Bay at Crown Point and waxed lyrical about his lifestyle.
“I’m on a mid-life sabbatical,” said the tanned, healthy-looking ex-teacher. “I decided I wanted to take some time off. I like to read and I like to spend quality time. It’s important to me to watch the sunset and to have some time to walk on the beach, to reflect and to just get out of the rat race.”
Paul is something of an RV fanatic. He has attended RV maintenance courses and has a wealth of knowledge about the vehicles that is impressive, if a tad boring. He said the toughest thing about living in an RV is the constant maintenance needed to keep the vehicle moving and habitable. While he admits that his choice to live in an RV was largely economical at first, he loves the fact that he can up and leave at any time, and said the constant hassle by the police was just something you get used to.
But that hassle could get a lot worse.
A proposed ordinance, sponsored by City Councilmen Michael Zucchet and Scott Peters, was turned away by the city’s Land Use and Housing Committee in April. The ordinance would have banned RV owners from parking their vehicles on city streets for longer than four hours.
Though it failed to pass on its first run, city staff working on the re-drafting of the ordinance said the law was not yet dead and buried. Julio Fuentes, a senior traffic engineer with the city who has been working on the ordinance, said he thought it doubtful that the ordinance would remain as stringent as the original draft. However, his comments made it clear that the future remains uncertain for people like Paul.
“It’s not something that anyone finds acceptable, it’s not even under discussion,” said Fuentes. “Living in RVs is unlawful right now, and it will be unlawful after the ordinance has passed. It will affect people that live in RVs because the ordinance will implement new restrictions on the operation and parking of RVs on streets.”
Hansen said if that happens, he will have no choice but to move on, out of the city of his birth towards lower rents or more accommodating laws. Paul doesn’t know where he will end up, but said he would be unlikely to leave his beloved RV. Asked what he would say to an offer of a free apartment in San Diego, paid for by a philanthropist, his answer was illuminating.
“I would say that there are families that are really struggling at St. Vincent de Paul, people that don’t have a dime to their name, people that have health problems that are so overwhelmed with the problems of life. I would say, ‘If you want to do something nice, you go down and you give them that apartment. I’m doing fine.”
Please contact Will Carless directly at