Over the last couple of years, a political debate has played out in Mountain View over whether to take a tougher stance toward the hundreds of people living in their vehicles. More than any other issue, City Council members say they have heard a surge of complaints from frustrated residents who are fed up with the sight of squalid motor homes and trailers along the streets.
Last spring, a thin majority on the council rejected calls to take stricter measures such as parking restrictions, saying it would only shoo the problem elsewhere. Mountain View needs to hold off a little longer, at least until the homeless population has another viable place to go, they argued.
One potential alternative materialized at the Tuesday, Oct. 9, council meeting. A proposal by the affordable housing nonprofit Palo Alto Housing would temporarily use one of its vacant lots as a safe parking site for people living out of vehicles. The location at 1020 Terra Bella Ave. is intended for affordable housing, but that project is expected to take years to develop. In the meantime, the site reportedly has enough space to host up to 11 vehicles.
In a 5-2 vote, with Mayor Lenny Siegel and Councilwoman Pat Showalter dissenting, the council gave tentative approval for spending an estimated $230,000 to help establish the Terra Bella site as a safe parking location. However, the majority also directed the city to investigate putting parking restrictions on inhabited vehicles around town, widening the dispute over what to do about the larger homeless issue in the city.
It was small step to address the roughly 300 inhabited vehicles on Mountain View's streets, yet still a significant one, said Amber Stime, a coordinator with the Lots of Love nonprofit. Since April, her group has been recruiting local churches to use their lots as safe parking sites for vehicle dwellers. Progress has been slow: Only two churches have signed up, and only nine vehicles could be taken in, she said. Yet, she chalked it up as a success.
"For those floating from parking lot to parking lot, to have one place to stay is a big deal," she said. "What I hear from tenants is this gives them a sense of belonging, even if it's just for a short time."
By taking on the Terra Bella site, Lots of Love would double its capacity, but it is expected to cost about $78,000 to clear the site and install safety equipment, fencing and electrical service. On top of that, the city would also need to provide up to $150,000 per year for garbage, septic dumping and security services. City staff said they would return with clearer cost figures at a future meeting.
Council members said they were willing to stomach those costs, although they suggested that other cities ought to contribute money. The bigger issue, said Councilwoman Lisa Matichak, is Mountain View residents are letting it be known "loud and clear" that something has to be done about the inhabited motor homes and RVs across the city. As part of the motion, she proposed the city look at some kind of parking restrictions to prevent permanent car encampments.
"We want to be compassionate and help people, but this is becoming a public health and safety concern," she said. "Now that some time has passed, it's time to talk about this."
Fewer members of the public turned up to comment on the issue, when compared to past meetings, but some familiar concerns were expressed. While other cities were imposing parking restrictions on people living out of their vehicles, Mountain View seemed to be making it easier, pointed out resident Leslie Murdock.
"If Mountain View does this, it just sucks more RVs into the city." he said. "If (other cities) don't step up, I don't see why Mountain View should."
Councilman John McAlister described parking restrictions as a "tough love" lesson for people living out of their vehicles when they might easily be able to reside elsewhere. In particular, he wanted restrictions to keep car campers away from city parks.
"Is living in this way the best for your family, instead of finding some other place that's affordable where you can get a higher quality of life?" he said.
At a March meeting, the City Council had discussed potential parking restrictions, including forcing people living out of their vehicles to register with the city, but the idea was rejected in a 3-4 vote.
At Tuesday's meeting, most council members who opposed that past attempt were incensed by the new move to put restrictions on people living out of vehicles. Siegel scoffed at the irony of "tough love" lessons for the destitute coming from someone in a privileged position.
"This attitude, that people lack the moral fortitude compared to those of us who were lucky to buy our homes in 1979, is just barking up the wrong tree," he said. "I know some people think that living in a van is a lifestyle choice, but people are doing this for the same reasons as the rest of us: They're working here, they're going to school here."
Councilman Ken Rosenberg said he was delighted to vote for the safe parking program, even going so far as to draw comparisons to the epilogue of "Schindler's List." But he scolded his colleagues for thinking their constituents didn't include the homeless.
"When I hear concerns about 'quality of life,' it's only for the residents who live in a home," he said. "We owe it to our residents to protect them, all of them."
However, five members of the City Council decided it was at least worth investigating some sort of parking restrictions. Despite his protests, Rosenberg voted with the majority.
City staff members said they could return with proposals for parking restrictions at a council meeting sometime in early 2019.