People living out of motor homes on the streets of the Mountain View will no longer be provided with a free service for cleaning out their septic tanks, based on Tuesday night's City Council decision.
The free waste disposal service was launched earlier this year as a way to prevent people living in RVs from illegally dumping their sewage down the stormwater drains. The council decided to end the program in a 5-2 vote with council members Ken Rosenberg and Pat Showalter opposing.
Even though it was free, the service was apparently not used by many RV campers. Only about one in seven people who received a voucher for the free waste dumping ended up using it, according to city officials.
This muted response opened a wider debate among the council on whether the city's tolerant approach to the growing homeless population was proving ineffective, if not misguided.
"This is another example of us trying our best and spending money, but there's a population out there that doesn't want or need our help," said Councilman John McAlister. "We need to figure out the best use of our resources."
From the start, the $30,000 waste-dumping service was intended as a test to see if the city should attempt some type of permanent solution. For people living in vehicles with bathrooms, there are no easy options for dumping their septic tanks. The nearest disposal facility is in Redwood City and it charges about $50.
City officials report that since July 2017, they found about a dozen incidents of illegal dumping per quarter. It remains unclear whether the free waste service actually reduced illegal dumping.
When the program was launched in January, about 250 vouchers were handed out to people living in RVs. To redeem those vouchers, they had to drive their motor homes out to a disposal truck parked across town near Shoreline Amphitheatre, which later moved to a city lot off Whisman Road.
Within the first weeks, staff with the Community Services Agency acknowledged the program was having some problems. Some RV residents complained of scheduling problems, saying they couldn't make it out during the limited hours on the two days a week when the free disposal was available. Others who were handed vouchers were living in vehicles that were broken down and unable to drive out to the dump sites.
Some RV owners are operating like landlords, renting out spare vehicles to other individuals, according to city staff. In some cases, city officials say that these RV landlords were hiring their own septic trucks to come out and handle waste dumping.
For council members, the waste dumping discussion was inextricably linked to the larger issue of Mountain View's rising homeless population. Multiple council members pointed out they were getting an increasing number of complaints from residents impatient with having people squatting in front of their homes.
When the council last took up the issue in March, a bare majority of four members voted down the idea of stepping up enforcement and placing new restrictions on where vehicles could park. The disappointing results from the waste dumping program became the latest political football in this debate.
"When I hear comments that we're trying to criminalize homelessness, that's not what we're doing. We're trying to offer help," said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga. "But if they're not willing to take our help, then I don't know what else we could be doing, and then we have to address some of the other issues that are coming up as a result."
In response, Showalter disputed that the low turnout for the city's brief pilot program demonstrated a lack of good faith on the part of the vehicle dwellers. As a health and safety issue, the city should keep the program going, she said.
Like the previous meeting on the homeless issue, the council pinned their hopes on a possible solution to a fledgling safe parking initiative. A nonprofit coalition of faith leaders called Lots of Love is hoping to use their church parking lots as a secure place for people living in vehicles to camp overnight.
The idea has been bogged by challenges since it was first proposed back in 2015. A spokesman for the group, Brian Leong of the Lord's Grace Church, said his group still needs to get their insurance finalized. He hopes the program can begin in July.
While that safe-parking program would be helpful, it was still too little, too late, council members said. Pushing for a more "accelerated" plan, Councilman McAlister suggested the city use its affordable housing funding to buy a parking lot for a car encampment. Other council members suggested the city do more to partner with other cities, Santa Clara County or the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
City Manager Dan Rich said city staff were already doing exactly that.
"We've been talking ad nauseum with other agencies," he said. "I want to be clear, we have been working on a number of fronts at your direction for a number of years."
Until a safe parking program launches, the city should hold off on stepping up enforcement, said Councilman Chris Clark.
"I don't want to kick everyone out to some other city without being able to offer a viable alternative," he said. "When we have some sort of viable alternative ... I will fully support additional enforcement."