As Mountain View prepares new restrictions on people living in vehicles parked on the street, one question keeps coming up: Where are they supposed to go?
In an ideal world, anyone who lacks housing would be funneled into a program such as permanent supportive housing or rapid rehousing. But the reality is these programs can't meet the demand. Over recent years, only about one out of three individuals who qualify as homeless have been placed in housing, according to the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing.
The city of Mountain View's efforts have also lagged at providing some alternative for the rows of RVs and trailers parked along city streets. For months, Mountain View has been able to provide safe parking spaces for only eight cars and no RVs, which has barely made a dent in the needs of its vehicle-dwelling homeless -- there were over 200 inhabited vehicles at last count.
At its June 11 meeting, the City Council brainstormed ways to rejuvenate the safe parking program and encourage more property owners to participate. City staff members were directed to speed up the entitlement process to launch new safe parking lots, especially if the sites are removed from residential neighborhoods.
Under the new plan that won City Council support, safe parking sites could receive "by-right" approval without any review process. This automatic approval would be exclusive to church property and private lots not near residential neighborhoods. Safe parking sites near homes could still be approved, but the city would notify all nearby residents and the decision could go before the city zoning administrator.
At the meeting, representatives of several organizations publicly stated they wanted to help expand the city's safe parking supply. The biggest surprise of the night was the Mountain View Whisman School District, which could support about 20 large vehicles at an unspecified campus in the near future. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph pointed to the district's 103 families who qualify as homeless under federal definitions. The district's school board is aware of the housing struggles of its student body, and trustees wanted to explore their options for assistance, he said.
"These kids are not choosing to live in these RVs. They're victims, and they're trying to make the best out of what they have," Rudolph said.
If the idea went forward, a school parking lot would be open for overnight parking for students and their families who are living in vehicles. Unlike the other safe parking sites, the Mountain View Whisman parking lot would reserved for only students enrolled in the district.
The Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos (CSA) also signaled it could open up a limited safe parking lot at its Sterlin Road headquarters. It would be a new initiative for CSA, which has focused its outreach on providing case management, food and housing aid for homeless families.
"We'd be happy to investigate that," CSA's executive director, Tom Myers, said to the City Council. "We'd be more than happy to open our parking lot and make that part of the solution."
Meanwhile, members of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church have said they would like to expand their safe parking program, but they are blocked by city regulations. For nearly a year, the congregation has hosted four vehicles in the parking lot, half of the city's currently available spots. The church would need a new temporary use permit from the city to accommodate any more cars, said Rev. Lisa McIndoo.
The Move MV nonprofit that runs the safe parking program reports that the city of Palo Alto is swiftly moving to launch its own safe parking program. Three Palo Alto churches and one synagogue have reportedly expressed interest in joining the program, according to Move MV members.
The growing participation is welcomed by safe parking advocates, but they point out that the available space will still remain inadequate for the foreseeable future. In part, these shortcomings are due to the city's cautious approach toward finding and opening new locations, said Dave Arnone, a Move MV board member.
"I see all this compassion and possibility for what we can do, and I hear solution after solution being proposed, only to hear the city say no," Arnone told the Voice. "I just want to get to a place where there's people who want to get to a solution."
In some ways, this could be a classic mistake of asking for permission. The Walmart at the San Antonio shopping center has for years tacitly allowed vehicle dwellers to stay in its parking lot overnight, according to city officials. This use is technically not allowed, but city planners say they have refrained from restricting the practice.
By contrast, formal city-sanctioned safe parking lots must check off many boxes for safety and security requirements. The most glaring example is a Terra Bella Avenue lot approved in October for an 11-vehicle safe parking site. The lot can only be used for a few years, but city officials say they must first complete a series of upgrades. They intend to demolish a structure, grade the parcel and then install fencing, lighting and electrical service. Once the site is ready, the city intends to have garbage service, septic dumping and some kind of ongoing security. As of this week, that work remains unfinished, and the site still lacks a city permit.
"It's kind of unfortunate, because we could just put cars on that site right now," said Brian Leong, co-founder of Move MV. "Everything is ready to go for that lot, but it's just a logistical issue."
Given this slow progress, Arnone has urged the city to be more flexible and creative to address the need. Speaking at the June 11 council meeting, Arnone and former Mayor Lenny Siegel both criticized the city's requirement that safe parking sites only operate overnight from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., forcing people to constantly move their vehicles back onto city streets during the day. Not only is it inconvenient, but it only undermines the whole purpose of the safe parking program, they argued.
This overnight-only rule stems from the city trying to avoid legal risk. City attorneys claim Mountain View could be legally liable for operating the equivalent of a mobile home or RV park if it didn't enforce temporary hours of operation. If city leaders wanted to change this rule, it would require state legislation, said City Attorney Jannie Quinn.
Making a presentation before the council, Arnone emphatically suggested the city needs to try different ideas, such as a formal marketing campaign to "aggressively" solicit property owners to open safe parking sites. Vacant sites waiting for redevelopment are all over town, Arnone said, so why couldn't the city waive its rules to allow a few vehicles to temporarily stay there?
"We have set the bar so high that I don't know how to be successful," Arnone told the Voice. "I want to go out and talk to private business owners, but I can't tell an owner what hoops he has to go through."
Arnone proposed launching a new joint task force made up of residents, government leaders and private experts who could cooperate to find spaces. It was an idea that council members supported.
But in response to Arnone, City Manager Dan Rich bristled at the implication that city staff could have done more. He pointed out the city had pushed Google last year to open up one of its parking lots. The tech company declined, but the pressure led them to instead donate $1 million to help expand the Hope's Corner homeless center.
"The city has spent countless hours on this," Rich said. "I would love for anyone to be more successful, but it's a false narrative to say that the city hasn't put extensive resources out there."
The push for more safe parking in Mountain View is inextricably intertwined with the recent push to restrict inhabited vehicles on city streets. Last week, the City Council approved a gradual plan to ban large vehicles from parking overnight in certain neighborhoods by early next year, which has put new pressure on the need to provide an alternative.
In an optimistic scenario, city staff said the city could eventually provide up to 100 spaces. This includes plans to use a former VTA parking lot at Evelyn Avenue and one of Shoreline Amphitheatre's lots during the winter months. The city staff report did not say where the other 40 spaces would come from, but said it would cost up to $280,000 to manage all of them.