Their apartment was just a short drive away, but on Friday evening Steve and Teresa Peters decided not to go home. The husband and wife -- both engineers -- packed their two daughters, 3-year-old Elena, and 16-month-old Evelyn, in the family SUV and they headed to the parking lot of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Mountain View. That's where, to get a feeling for what the city's homeless face, they were going to spend the night.
That March 4 evening, they weren't alone. Inspired by the recent rise in people living out of their cars on Mountain View's streets, about a dozen members of the St. Timothy's congregation were undertaking a sort of weekend-long vow of poverty. They were going to experience firsthand what it felt like to live on the street.
Steve Peters, who came up with the idea, said he hoped to instill a little bit of goodwill toward the city's growing number of car campers. He pointed to the lack of areas where people could live in their cars as a sign that many viewed the poor only as a nuisance.
It was simplistic for them to spend one night in their car when his family could return home anytime, Peters admitted. But nonetheless, he felt the exercise might show them some of the hardships the homeless face. Plus it was Lent, so he needed to give up something.
"At a minimum, I thought we should try it ourselves," he said. "I was hoping we might promote a little more empathy in the community."
"We could call what we're doing 'YIMBY' -- yes in my backyard," his wife added.
Just before bedtime on that stormy Friday, the dozen or so participants sat in circle in the church hall for a brief meeting. Visiting the group, Pastor Brian Leong of Lord Grace Christian Church explained his efforts to better network Peninsula churches to address the growing homeless population. In an idea he pitched to city leaders earlier this month, local congregations could arrange for people living out of their cars to stay in the church parking lots. That way, they would at least have bathrooms, garbage service and perhaps a little more security, he said.
"I could get four churches almost immediately to go along with this," Leong said. "We want to work together and pool our resources to see if can have an impact on this."
For now, Leong said he is waiting to see if the city is willing cover a church's basic liability costs.
The group sang a hymn, discussed what they were doing, and the church's deacon read a Bible verse, Matthew 25:40, urging followers to treat the least of their brethren as they would their savior. Then the group broke and retired to their cars for the night.
The Peters family removed the backseat of their Chevy Trailblazer to create just enough room for the four of them to squeeze in together under a pile of blankets. With the car's interior lights on, the Peters read their girls a bedtime story. Just as the rain started, they decided to call it a night.
"I just hope I don't get a crick in my neck," Peters said as he closed the rear hatch.
It turned out to be a wet night -- both outside and in the car. Condensation accumulated overnight, and the Peters family woke up to find their car was pretty moist inside. It felt like camping, Peters said the next morning -- not as comfortable as home but not bad for one-night.
Meeting the next morning for coffee in the church, they learned that one of the families camping left their headlights on overnight, and they now needed a jump-start. But otherwise, it was a success, and it got them thinking about how a larger outreach program to the homeless could work, he said.
"It definitely taught us some of the specific things and logistical challenges of doing this," he said. "It was a starting point."