These days, Crisanto Avenue near Rengstorff Park looks something like a used-car lot, or maybe a campground. On the far side of the street, a row of nearly 50 motor homes, vans and other vehicles line the road, some with lawn chairs and barbecue grills stationed nearby.
This stretch of roadway has become one of several makeshift locations in Mountain View where homeless families, transients and the fully employed have congregated.
The car-campers parked and living on Mountain View's streets have taken center stage as the latest exhibit in Mountain View's ongoing troubles with affordable housing and income inequality. Mountain View officials say it's become clear that a growing number of people have taken to living out of their vehicles rather than pay the rising housing costs. But city officials have been unsure what to do about it, especially since these vehicle-dwellers for aren't breaking any laws as long as they move their abodes every 72 hours.
Among the few car-campers milling about near Rengstorff Park on Tuesday was Scotty Whaley, a 59-year-old who presented himself as defiantly happy in the face of hardship. In an ironic twist, he told the Voice that he had worked in Mountain View as a property manager, but since losing his job he said he decided a good way to save money would be to live in his Dodge van.
Over the last four months of living on the street, he said, he encountered surprisingly few problems. The other vehicle-dwellers were quiet and polite, and the nearby apartment residents didn't mind them, he said. His van is outfitted with a television, propane warmers and a mattress in the back. It was a remarkably tidy space.
He had some complaints -- he couldn't use the restroom at Rengstorff Park after the city locked it each night, Whaley said. Taking a shower usually meant traveling up to a service center in Palo Alto. But overall, he was content, he said.
"I'm living in a castle!" he said. "I'm a fortunate guy -- I look at it that way."
City leaders aren't so sanguine about the situation, and they are reviewing options for addressing problems that have cropped up along with the vehicle encampments.
The City Council discussed the issue at its Feb. 23 meeting, armed with data from a 14-page staff report. Initially, council members expressed the desire to create a safe parking space where the car-campers could stay instead of parking along public streets. But when examined, that idea turned out to be more complicated than expected.
The biggest problem for a safe parking program is finding a suitable space. City staff members reported that they had examined 14 lots in town, but none was without challenges. Perhaps the most obvious site -- the Shoreline Amphitheatre parking lots -- will soon become unusable as the concert season ramps up in April. For that matter, officials from churches and nonprofits expressed some wariness about opening their parking lots and facilities to the growing number of vehicle-dwellers.
Faith leaders said they wanted to help, but they want the city to provide leadership, said Brian Leong of Lord's Grace Christian Church. Council members urged staff to look into providing liability coverage to encourage charity groups to open their facilities to people living in their cars.
From the testimony of several people living out of their vehicles, council members say they became convinced that this homeless population might be better thought of as the working poor. They may not face many of the chronic issues typically attached to the homeless population, such as alcoholism, drug use and mental illness.
"All the evidence is these are people who are working, but not making enough to have a permanent residence," said Councilman Lenny Siegel. "Our homeless population is different than San Jose or Washington, D.C. Most of our homeless have jobs. Many have children enrolled in our schools."
Last year, the council approved the closure of a small RV park in North Whisman in favor of a row house development.
Many of the people living out of their vehicles would happily pay for a space at an RV park, if there was any space available, said Marcia Christlieb, who identified herself as a NASA employee. She said she has been living in her RV off Latham Street after learning that a Redwood City motor-home park had a 100-person waiting list.
In contrast to testimony by other speakers, Christlieb said people living in their cars were routinely harassed by neighboring residents.
"I'm unable to work if I have to commute from Gilroy every day because that's the only place within a reasonable distance that's affordable," Christlieb said. "I'm not addicted to drugs. I'm homeless, I'm educated, and there's nowhere to go."
In the end, council members opted for a plan to study the issue further and take a series of interim steps to help the vehicle dwellers. They backed a plan to recruit the mobile service Dignity on Wheels to visit the main car encampments and provide residents with free shower and laundry services. After hearing accounts of RV dwellers traveling to Redwood City just to empty their septic tanks, council members said that the city needs to look into buying some kind of waste-disposal unit.
Council members also asked staff to look into keeping the Rengstorff Park restrooms open overnight.
Many public speakers said a longer-term solution to curb rising rents and provide more options for the indigent is needed. Perhaps most alarming for council members was the staff's report that 30 children attending the Mountain View Whisman School District are homeless. If the city needs a yardstick to measure its success on solving this issue, those children should be it, said Councilman Ken Rosenberg.
"Thirty children going to our schools are living in vehicles -- that's a disgrace," he said. "My goal is zero kids living in cars."
Through the discussion, many speakers acknowledged that the scope of the regional homeless issue was beyond Mountain View's control. Santa Clara County's elected leaders are currently examining a variety of housing initiatives aimed at the homeless, and Mountain View council members gave direction to advocate for more aid in the North County region.
As a long-term solution, council members said the city would need to continue efforts to bring more affordable housing to the Mountain View area. Next month, the city will also discuss a beefed-up rental mediation program that could impose some restrictions on rent increases.
For the time being, it looks like Mountain View's vehicle campers won't be moving anywhere.