The faded, creased photograph shows 13-year-old Vallie Brown smiling shyly as she pulls back her hair in the back of a large van. She is wearing a white one-piece swimsuit and at first glance, she looks like she is coming back from a sun-soaked day at the beach.
Looking at the picture of Brown, few people would suspect that the girl in the snapshot was living out of that van with her mother.
That each night after it grew dark, she curled up on the back seats to sleep. That she wore that swimsuit under her clothes, because she had to bathe in gas station bathrooms.
More than four decades later, and long before US government data would ultimately confirm her suspicion, her experiences helped Brown to recognize that California’s housing crisis had taken another complicated turn — that the tenuous existence of her family in her youth had become a reality for far too many in the present.
“I recognized the signs,” said Brown, now a San Francisco lawmaker. “When you see a van or a car with curtains up, or a towel rolled up in the window for privacy. People with their doors open, and you see a bunch of stuff in their car, or they’re airing out clothing.”
“They don’t consider themselves homeless,” she said, adding that the line between living in a vehicle and being homeless is sometimes blurry.
All around the Bay Area, they hide in plain sight, the vehicles doubling as shelters.
Some, as Brown described, are easily recognizable — an overstuffed RV with so many items strapped to the sides that the wheels appear sunken down, a van with a taped-up window, a camper so antiquated that it does not seem operational.
Others can pass as your neighbor’s car: a 2006 Lexus sedan in great condition, a late-model vehicle kept neat for Uber and Lyft rides.
San Francisco counted 1,794 people living out of their vehicles this year, a 45 percent increase from the last homeless count in 2017.
Across the bay in Alameda County, home of Oakland, officials counted 2,817 individuals living out of vehicles — more than double the 1,259 they counted in 2017.
The uptick in vehicle living comes as no surprise to housing advocates, who have long warned of the consequences of an untenable housing crisis in the region.
For the past 10 years, California has constructed less than half the new homes needed to keep up with population growth, creating a scarcity that has driven up rents and home prices.
In San Francisco, the median price of homes was US$1.7 million this year and the median rent was US$3,700 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Amid the crisis, homelessness in general has surged. San Francisco saw a 17 percent rise in numbers, while Alameda County had a 43 percent uptick. Oakland alone constituted more than half of the county’s entire homeless count.
Other parts of California have seen similar increases.
Los Angeles County had a 12 percent increase in the homeless population over the past year, with the numbers surging to nearly 59,000 across the county. Officials tallied 9,981 cars, vans, RVs and campers acting as shelters for a staggering 16,525 people this year — 28 percent of the county’s entire unhoused population.
Officials have had to balance helping this population in a compassionate manner, while also addressing constituent complaints about them.
Some cities like San Francisco and Berkeley have enforced oversized vehicle bans on certain streets, leading to the ticketing and towing of what are essentially people’s homes.