Melodie sat hunched over in the front row of the Mission District meeting with papers in her lap, intently writing notes.
The 40 bicyclists and government officials in front of her testified as to why they wanted Melodie and the cohort of homeless residents out from under the tangle of freeway exchanges between Highway 101 and Cesar Chavez St. collectively known as the Hairball.
“I’m not sure which way to face,” she said with a shy smile, as photographers clicked away at one of the few — if not the only — homeless person in the room.
In a measured voice, she listed her objections to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority’s new overnight parking restrictions near the Hairball.
“There is nowhere for us to go!” she finally cried.
“No one wants to live under a freeway,” she continued. “We’re just trying to get out of your way so you can go about your lives … They have swept the Mission, day after day after day.”
The audience clapped for the first and last time during the meeting. The graying senior citizen with the voice of a mouse and the face of a grandmother from nursery rhymes had single-handedly changed the tenor of those who arrived to speak out against the homeless.
A portly older man in a suit and black cap, who had expressed concern about the encampment problems minutes earlier, walked past her and put his hand on her shoulder as he returned to his seat.
There’s no question that the city is in the process of clearing out the encampments at the Hairball, and that Melodie will have to move on. But her life as a homeless resident of San Francisco over the last decade offers a demonstration of what it is like to be on the other side of the city’s sweeps.
Homelessness in San Francisco, she said, is a “cascading experience of eviction.”
For 20 years, the California native lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the Haight. An early brain injury meant that school and holding down a job were both difficult, and obsessive-compulsive disorder and hoarding became issues that eventually left her Haight Street apartment to avoid eviction.
One wouldn’t immediately recognize her challenges. She’s easy to talk to — playful, with a happy-go-lucky attitude and an overly considerate nature to those around her — all the while, dishing out puns and jokes.
Upon closer inspection, however, one begins to notice the multiple bags slung around her shoulders and neck. Alligator clips fastened along the straps of each bag, keep in place dozens of keys, keyrings, and carabiners.
A headlamp hangs around her neck — her living space has no electricity, she explains — and her various pockets safeguard a collection that includes a pen, a foldable sunhat, a tire pressure gauge, a Swiss-army knife and pepper spray.
Such hoarding tendencies continue to haunt her, disabling her from living in navigation shelters or single-residency-occupancy rooms, which are typically the first steps off the street.
So living in a vehicle made sense.
This occurred to her in 2008 when she was living on the corner of Newhall and Mendell streets in the Bayview neighborhood. “Out of a sack,” as she put it — she didn’t even have a tent.
She befriended Frosty, who lived nearby, out of his three vehicles. They became a couple and lived together for the next five years. But eviction again began to haunt her. This time, it wasn’t a landlord, but the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the referee of 900 miles of curb in San Francisco.
While Melodie saw living in a vehicle as less intrusive than living on the street, it remains equally illegal. The penal code for sleeping in a vehicle is a misdemeanor that carries a $1,000 fine. So between 2009 and 2014, the cascade of evictions began.
Every time Melodie and her partner moved their RV to a new location in the southeast part of the city, the transportation agency would eventually post one of two signs: “No parking from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” or “No parking for vehicles over 22 feet long.”
At first, they could maintain some anonymity by being the only RV on the block, but soon others would join them, creating a “caravan of blight to residents and businesses,” according to complaints received by Andy Thornley of the SFMTA.
Eight times they moved, eight times new signs went up: No parking from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The first signs were taped to telephone poles wrapped in cellophane. Then came the three-day eviction signs placed on their windshields.
The longest they could call a curb home was a year. The shortest, six months. But Melodie was no pushover. In 2009, she became a regular at the transportation agency’s meetings.
Thornley could not help but notice, as Melodie would make a point to sit next to him in public meetings. She even dropped by his office spontaneously one day and noted that he “was nice enough to spend 45 minutes talking to me.”
And she was effective. In 2013, after the pushback from the homeless community and activists, the SFMTA stopped putting up new signs that affected people like Melodie. But there are still 47 miles of curb with overnight restrictions. With the city’s growing population, “there is not enough curb to go around,” Thornley noted.
Frosty died in 2013, and that created new problems for Melodie. But with the help of a police captain and the aid of her pastor, she resolved the issue of ownership — for several years now, Melodie has been living off Evans street in the Bayview neighborhood.
All was as well as it could be until this month, when a new black-and-white sign went up on her street.
“No vehicle habituation,” it reads, citing the penal code.
The SFMTA and the Department of Public Works say it is not their sign, but it still had Melodie worried.
“We’re already at the outskirts,” Melodie said. “There’s just nowhere else to go.”
Thornley agrees that she has a point. “That is the question that Melodie keeps raising, and I take it to heart,” Thornley said. “If not here, then where? And it’s not enough not to just push the problem around.”