Saundra Hughes is one of the first people to take advantage of services offered at San Francisco’s first Vehicle Triage Center, which just opened Wednesday.

Thirty vehicle-dwellers will be able to safely park inside an empty parking lot and have access to showers, restroom facilities and city services near the BART Balboa Park station.

Hughes, a San Francisco native living out of her vehicle in the Bayview District, said she struggles finding communities where she can park.

Hughes said:

“They treat me as less than human. I wish they could understand I don’t want to live in my RV or have to park there either.”

Hughes’ vehicle has been broken into more than five times and said she feels unsafe at trying to sleep at night.

Ching Wong/SFBay Saundra Hughes, a client of the Vehicle Triage Center, speaks during the opening of the Vehicle Triage Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, December 11, 2019. (Ching Wong/SFBay)

Her ultimate goal is to find a place to call her own.

Hughes said:

“I want a key to my own apartment. I want to reconnect with my family. I want safety. Moving into the VTC would be a first step and the feeling of safety might allow me a chance to start to heal and rebuild my life.”

Supervisor Vallie Brown’s own experience inspired her to put forth the legislation that passed earlier this year.

Brown, who lived in a van with her mother at the age of 13, said it was tough living in a vehicle as a child.

She would bathe in public restrooms, struggle to complete homework before sunset and wonder where she would find her next meal.

Brown said:

“You have to plan your life so carefully when you live in a vehicle.”

Supervisor Ahsha Safai, who worked with Brown to pass the bill, suggested the parking lot in his own district. He said said sometimes the initial reaction is to just rid neighborhoods of the vehicles.

Safai said:

“The knee jerk reaction often in these situations is to think about vehicles, but not think about the individuals that are occupying these vehicles. These are folks who are just human beings like you and me. They’re working. Often times they’re students, veterans.”

Both he and Brown spoke with Mayor London Breed about the the triage center idea and Breed eventually allocated $1 million toward the pilot program.

Breed said:

“This is a way to bring people inside to provide showers, to provide restroom facilities, to make sure we’re doing it in a way that meets people where they are (and) treats people with respect and dignity.”

Ching Wong/SFBay San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team joins the opening of the Vehicle Triage Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, December 11, 2019. (Ching Wong/SFBay)

The mayor added:

“This Vehicle Triage Center is something I think that can be potentially duplicated throughout San Francisco. Ultimately, the goal is to get people into safe, affordable housing.”

The triage center will maintain round-the-clock security and will be managed by Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit organization.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Services Vehicle Encampment Resolution Team is working to identify potential triage center participants. People will be allowed to stay for up to 90 days, with options for renewal.

Lena Miller, the nonprofit’s founder and chief executive, said:

“We are not in a position where we can say we don’t want to deal with it.”

The lot housing the triage center near the Balboa Park station will soon become a construction site for affordable housing.

City officials said they are looking for other potential triage sites. 

Jerold Chinn
Jerold Chinn is the San Francisco Bureau Chief of SFBay. A San Francisco native, he has spent a decade covering transportation in San Francisco. Send tips to jerold@sfbay.ca or at Twitter @Jerold_Chinn.

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