Up until recently, Jane Williams' home has been the parking lot of an office complex off Old Middlefield Road. After a day of running packages for a delivery startup, the Mountain View native would park her minivan in the back of the lot to settle down for the night. She'd been living this way ever since losing her apartment in a bad breakup.
It wasn't a great lifestyle, but there were some benefits, she said. As a 55-year-old woman, Williams felt much safer staying in an enclosed parking lot than on the street. Plus, she became caretaker for some feral cats, and feeding them every day gave her a renewed sense of purpose.
"I can handle roughing it, but it's really getting old. I know I would do much better in an apartment," she said. "I always wanted a home in this area, but it's become an unrealistic goal."
Naturally, her decision to camp out at the office lot has miffed some of the neighbors. One business tenant has repeatedly called the police on her, particularly when she used the office's restroom. After the latest encounter, a policeman suggested Williams look into a new city program designed to help get homeless people off the streets. She signed up, participated in an interview and was told she would be a perfect fit for the program.
For one week now, Williams has been among of a small number of homeless residents who bring their vehicles each night to the rear parking lot of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church on Grant Road. This sanctuary for the homeless is the first testing grounds for larger plans to create "safe parking" locations throughout Mountain View, providing a viable alternative for people living on the streets. For participants like Williams, it offers many of the amenities that she had sought: open restrooms, garbage service and a sense of security.
The idea has been a long time coming. The safe parking program was first proposed in 2015, when Mountain View's rising homeless population was becoming a growing concern. Since then, the number of homeless people living out of cars in the city has more than doubled, and pressure has mounted on local leaders to do something about it.
A safe parking program was always viewed as a short-term answer, but getting it off the ground was much more complicated than expected, said Brian Leong, a pastor at Lord's Grace Church who helped spearhead the plan. Launching a nonprofit, getting insurance and figuring out parameters all ended up taking longer than anticipated, he said.
After months of delays, the new nonprofit Lots of Love officially started on June 15, but the program had zero participants for its first couple of weeks. Organizers couldn't immediately find homeless individuals who wanted to relocate, and the lot at St. Timothy's remained empty despite the congregation's willingness to help.
In part, that was due to the screening criteria laid out by Lots of Love. Priority is given to women, families and seniors, and the program explicitly bans drugs, alcohol or weapons. Participants must also have a working vehicle with valid registration, insurance and a driver's license. Any applicant also has to be signed up with the Community Services Agency to eventually get permanent housing.
As of this week, the safe parking program has taken in just three families, including a couple and a mother and child. A second church, Lord's Grace Christian Church on San Antonio Road, has opened to participate in the program, but no clients have reportedly been placed there yet.
Lots of Love leaders had initially hoped several churches would be ready to pitch in, with each taking in a few cars. But while many churches were initially eager to help, they expressed doubts as the program was ready to launch.
In particular, Lots of Love organizers received a harsh lesson in how resistant nearby residents could be when they tried to introduce safe parking at the Highway Community Church on Miramonte Avenue. At a June community discussion at the church, about 50 neighbors fiercely protested the idea, some warning they would fight the church tooth and nail if they took in the homeless.
The neighbors were "spitting mad," alleging the city's homeless problem was linked to recent crimes in the area, said Dave Arnone, a Lots of Love board member who attended the meeting.
"It was a lot of ugly accusations toward the pastor and the church," he said. "The poor pastor had to swallow this all for an hour and a half. He was extended no grace: they were threatening to sue the church out of existence."
By the end of the meeting, Highway Community pastor John Riemenschnitter relented, telling the crowd that his church would no longer participate in the program.
This episode demonstrated that the safe parking program has its work cut out, and that it needs to counter the worst kinds of perceptions of the homeless, said Amber Stime, Lots of Love program coordinator. So far, every client who has signed up for Mountain View's safe parking program is employed, despite living out of their vehicles, she said. Stime emphasized that each individual in the safe parking program is screened before being placed. She also pointed out that for any issues that arise, Lots of Love has a 24-hour-a day hotline, and staff members who monitor the parking areas.
Mountain View residents need to understand that many of the homeless aren't destitute drug addicts, but rather workers who still can't afford housing, she said.
"The contrast here is overwhelming for me. Here, you have people living out of a church parking lot and next door you have several million-dollar homes with four to five cars," she said. "There's something so surreal about the poverty here, because this is such an affluent area."
Lots of Love is trying to model itself after a similar program in Santa Barbara that has operated since 2004. In that program, the homeless clients living in church parking lots eventually acted like custodians for the property, Arnone said. Because it was their home, they took initiative to monitor the community and report any problems.
"They become the eyes and ears in the neighborhood," Arnone said. "Would you rather have people you know in your parking lot, or people you don't know on the curb?"
A pilot of the safe parking program is expected to finish in October. After that, Lots of Love has enough funding to continue for at least two years, thanks to grants from the city of Mountain View and Santa Clara County.
While progress on the safe parking program has been slow in Mountain View, the idea is being implemented in other areas. Last month, East Palo Alto officials started a similar pilot program using city land to allow up to 20 vehicles to temporarily park.
Arriving back at the church, Williams was hanging out near her minivan, exhausted after a day of work. Earlier, she had spilled a soda on the floor of her car, and she fussed over how to best remove the sticky residue.
Despite being a chatty person, she still hadn't gotten a chance to meet the other individuals sleeping out of their vehicles at the parking lot. They worked late-night shifts and didn't return until past midnight, she said. It felt a little creepy being in the unfamiliar parking lot all alone at night, she said. The next evening, St. Timothy's Church was holding a potluck, and she hoped to use the opportunity to meet some of the congregation.
Williams complained about a new ache in her side, and she suspected she had injured herself by hoisting a package the wrong way. She had fashioned a makeshift weight belt that she wore around her waist to help alleviate the pain, but she wondered if she should visit the hospital. Getting into a home would be good for her health, she said.
Earlier in the day, Williams had met with staff at MidPen Housing, and they finished her application to get into some kind of affordable housing. It felt like her life was coming back together, but it wouldn't be easy, she said. Williams said that she will need to repay back taxes, student loans and other debts.
"You know that saying, 'you make plans and then life happens'? This time, I want to sit down and do it right," she said. "I'm getting too old to keep doing this."