This November, Mountain View voters will be faced with a traffic safety measure that has almost nothing to do with traffic safety.
Measure C, in reality, marks a critical juncture in the city's response to homelessness, and will determine whether those who are unhoused and living in RVs will be banned from parking on most city streets. City officials have long held that such a prohibition only makes sense when the homeless have an alternate place to go, leaving voters on Election Day with the challenge of deciding whether that goal has been met.
The pivotal moment has been a long time coming, resulting from five years of back-and-forth over how Mountain View should best address a steady rise in homelessness. The latest count shows the city has more than 600 homeless residents, the most visible of whom live in hundreds of cars and RVs that serve as makeshift homes.
Most of the RVs are clustered along just a handful of city streets, including Crisanto Avenue, which has an estimated 70 inhabited vehicles and has received national attention for being a de facto RV park.
Emerging from the debate is how to best balance compassion for the unhoused against enforcement of parking rules and perceived public safety hazards. For some, it's a question of whether Mountain View has an obligation to do more than neighboring cities to support the homeless. For others, it comes down to a moral question of whether it's right to allow residents to live in vehicles on the street, permitting a lifestyle borne out of desperation.
The emotionally charged issue, traditionally played out at council meetings, is now finally before voters, in the middle of a pandemic. And while it's unlikely to resolve the dispute in its entirety, Measure C's fate will certainly bend the city's approach to homeless RV dwellers that has divided city residents for years.
The path to the ballot box
Measure C can be traced directly back the results of the 2018 election.
Up until then, the City Council was largely unwilling to pass parking restrictions aimed at ousting the homeless. Even a vote to study the idea was rejected.
But multiple council members who rejected the idea were suddenly off the council after the 2018 election. Then-Councilman Ken Rosenberg did not run for reelection, and council members Pat Showalter and Lenny Siegel lost their reelection bids. Fast forward to March 2019, just months after the newly elected members were sworn in, and the council was ready for a citywide ban.
March 2019 was also the moment the oversized vehicle ban went from a homelessness enforcement policy to one about traffic safety. A 2014 court decision found that prohibiting people from living in vehicles is unconstitutional and tantamount to criminalizing homelessness, making similar laws in Palo Alto and Sunnyvale unenforceable.
In order to avoid a lawsuit, city officials pivoted on the language. It was no longer about the homeless, but about banning vehicles that reduce bike safety, parking availability and create "line-of-sight" obstructions.
The council's parking prohibitions were split into two parts, restricting parking for any vehicle that is more than 22 feet long, 7 feet high or 7 feet wide. One ordinance banned oversized vehicles on streets with bike lanes, while the other banned them on any "narrow" street less than 40 feet wide. When it was passed, it was unknown exactly which streets in Mountain View met the "narrow streets" definition.
While the restrictions on streets with bike lanes were uncontested and went into effect last year, the narrow streets ban was immediately challenged. Residents began collecting signatures the day the ordinance passed, seeking a referendum that would force the City Council to reconsider.
The referendum gave the City Council the option to either toss out the ordinance or place it before voters to decide. Council members chose the latter, placing it on the Nov. 3 ballot as Measure C.
An end to unsanctioned housing
Proponents of Measure C argue that public streets should not be used as a place to live, and that allowing de facto RV parks disconnected from basic services has caused a whole host of problems.
Complaints of excessive litter and garbage, leaking RVs, loud generators, unleashed pets and concerns of criminal activity have swirled around the issue of vehicle dwellers for years. Perhaps the most visceral are the reports of dumped raw sewage and discarded human waste.
Shari Emling, one of Measure C's most vocal proponents, said Mountain View's streets were never designed for habitation. On top of problems like sewage dumping, she said she believes there is a small minority of vehicle dwellers that brings a criminal element to these unsanctioned communities.
Emling said the city's loose approach has only attracted more people to live in these inhumane conditions, and that Mountain View's taxpayers are stuck footing the bill for a regional problem.
"Measure C is the most positive thing we can do right now and it's the only way forward," Emling said. "Yes there is a repercussion because certain people will have to move out of town, but that's how it is. We can't solve it for the entire Peninsula anymore."
Supporters of the measure also say the city has accomplished its initial goal, which was to provide an alternative for vehicle dwellers prior to parking enforcement. Mountain View has launched a robust safe parking program that can support more than 100 vehicles, most of them RVs, and recent reports show the program is close to capacity with a slim waiting list.
To Emling, that's a signal that anyone who wants help from the city -- including a safe, designated place to park with case management services -- can get it, and the remaining vehicle dwellers that decline to participate must move elsewhere.
"They have to want the help," she said. "There are a lot of people living on the street who don't want safe housing, they will not answer their door or they actually say they want to live on the street. We can't help those people."
Some of the complaints are anecdotal and difficult to substantiate. For sewage dumping, city officials said it's hard to pinpoint trends due to big fluctuations and evolving efforts to collect data. The city reported an average of 11 incidents of illegal waste dumping per quarter between July and December 2017, but only one in the first quarter of 2018.
Proponents of Measure C point to a 2018 quote from police spokeswoman Katie Nelson, who told media outlets that many of the RVs are leaking sewage into the street or outright dumping it into grass areas and in gutters.
Last year, Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga told an ABC7 reporter that gang violence was also a problem among people living in RVs. At the time, police Chief Max Bosel said there have been some instances of gang-related arrests, but there is "no evidence that suggests people living in vehicles are any more or less likely to commit crimes."
A call for compassion
To Mountain View resident Dave Arnone, many of the arguments in favor of Measure C ring hollow. To call it a traffic safety measure is disingenuous, he said, but to call it a compassionate approach to homelessness while booting people out of the city is infuriating.
People aren't living in RVs to somehow take advantage and leech off of city services for free, but they are hanging on to some semblance of housing before living in encampments or along the creek, he said. The parking ban would strip away that roof over their head in order to make some homeowners feel more comfortable, but would hardly solve the problem of abject poverty.
"The idea that this is going to clean up the community and make all the homeless go away is absolutely not true," Arnone said.
For opponents of Measure C, one of the most worrying aspects is just how blunt and far-reaching the ordinance was written to be. Every street more narrow than 40 feet would be included in the blanket ban on oversized vehicles, capturing the vast majority of Mountain View's roadways.
But there is also an element of mystery to Measure C in that city staff still do not know, precisely, which streets are included in the ban. A preliminary map released last year showed which streets might be affected (in red), but the city has yet to pull out the measuring tape and decisively say which streets would be deemed narrow.
Lenka Wright, the city's communications officer, said city staff would need to measure the width of about 300 streets that are within the 40-foot range to determine which streets would prohibit oversized vehicles, and that only "field verified" streets will be subject to the ban.
Crisanto Avenue was designed with a 40-foot width, and would likely qualify as a narrow street under the ordinance, Wright said.
The city's safe parking program, while helpful for some, is hardly an adequate solution to the hundreds of vehicle dwellers in Mountain View, Arnone said. Not only are some of those city-operated lots temporary and pending redevelopment, but they require all participants to own a safe, working and insured vehicle. Just from doing anecdotal surveys, Arnone said he believes that close to half of the inhabited RVs are being rented out, some for $800 a month. RV renters are not allowed into the safe parking lots.
Arnone said he believes Measure C's supporters have a fanciful view that case management is somehow a cure for what ails the unhoused living in vehicles. Even if people get into the program, receive services and are gainfully employed, it will be tough for them to find permanent housing they can afford. For many, it simply won't be an option.
"Case management doesn't mean the same thing in Silicon Valley as it means in Fresno. The step from living in an RV to renting an apartment is huge," Arnone said. "It's a fallacy that case management is a solution to affordable housing."
Janet Werkman, another opponent of Measure C, said the beliefs around case management are "tremendously" out of touch with reality. While it is a good tool for those suffering from chronic mental illness or addiction problems who can't manage their own lives, it's shamefully inadequate for people who simply don't have enough money for a home.
"Many people don't fit the model at all, they are working and they are managing their lives. They don't need case management, they need housing," Werkman said. "It's not the same problem."
Mountain View's fair share
Where both sides of Measure C seem to agree is that Mountain View has done much more to help the homeless than neighboring cities. On top of looking the other way with regard to vehicle dwellers, the city's safe parking program now accommodates roughly one-third of all the safe parking spots in Santa Clara County.
On top of that, the city has a cold weather shelter that opened with zero opposition, and has more recently sought to create a transitional housing project with 100 units by the end of the year after being awarded $12.4 million in state Homekey program funds.
To many supporters of Measure C, these are achievements to be proud of, but the city cannot single-handedly solve the problem of homelessness for everyone. Emling said the city should direct money to people living in cars and RVs who have a connection to Mountain View, but that it also has a fiduciary responsibility to cut off the stream of new inhabited vehicles taking up residence in the city from elsewhere.
"It's a regional problem, and other cities need to step up," Emling said. "Because Mountain View is doing way more than their share, and Mountain View is doing it because they care about these people.
"Why does it become our responsibility to take care of the Bay Area?" she asked.
Arnone disputes the idea that Mountain View is a magnet for the homeless -- plenty of other cities are dealing with the same problem -- and said pulling up the drawbridge is the wrong approach. He believes residents, by and large, do not want to be like Los Altos, and would bristle at the idea of taking a "tough love" approach that pushes vulnerable residents away to the Central Valley.
Werkman, who spearheaded the signature gathering effort to block the narrow streets ban, said she believes the supporters of Measure C are few and far between, a "small but very loud and rather belligerent minority" pressing to ban the homeless from living in vehicles. Knocking on hundreds of doors and asking for signatures, she said only a small number seemed to support Measure C.
"We wouldn't have gotten those 5,000 signatures ... if there weren't a lot of people who really did not like what the city was doing by banning RVs," she said.
Werkman said the challenge to Mountain View's historically compassionate approach is partly due to untrue rumors about the homeless. The people living in cars and RVs are not committing crimes at higher rates, nor are they some kind of degenerate underclass that needs to be removed from the community. Now is the time to really get close to the people who are unhoused and learn who they are and what their lives are like, clearing the air and understanding their needs, she said.
"If you are really talking about helping people and bringing down this barrier between the haves and the have-nots, you really need to start desegregating. We need to start dealing with people as if we are part of the same community," Werkman said.