Crisanto Avenue, home to the city's largest makeshift encampment of people living out of their cars, was a tense scene on Tuesday afternoon as a police-led operation began towing vehicles for violating city rules.
Witnesses said the operation began around 1 p.m as officers cordoned off parts of the street to allow tow trucks to begin removing the vehicles.
Two of the RVs were towed away because they were leaking sewage from their septic tanks, according to Mountain View Police spokeswoman Katie Nelson. In recent days city workers had tested some puddles of suspicious liquid around some motorhomes, and they confirmed that the vehicles' wastewater tanks were leaking, she said.
The people living inside the leaking vehicles were warned on "several" occasions over recent weeks, Nelson said.
"This is obviously a serious environmental concern," Nelson said.
Three other vehicles being used for housing along Crisanto were also towed away for violating the city's parking rules requiring them to move every 72 hours, Nelson said. Those vehicles had already received multiple citations before being removed, she said.
"They chose to ignore (our warnings) and we had no choice but to tow them out," Nelson said.
People living along Crisanto who spoke to the Voice said the city has never before taken such a sweeping enforcement action against them. Members of the nearby Day Worker Center said an adolescent girl came in on Tuesday sobbing and "in a panic" because she was worried her family's home would be hauled away while her mother was away at work. The girl's home was not towed, said Maria Marroquin, Day Worker Center executive director, but she said police could have avoided frightening people.
"If there's criminal activity, they need to handle it in a humane way that doesn't scare children," she said.
In recent days, residents said police officers have been warning them that they were receiving complaints of crimes, including drug use and prostitution. Nelson said the Tuesday operation had nothing to do with those alleged crimes. She also disputed that any families were displaced as part of the Tuesday operation. There was no evidence that any of the removed vehicles were inhabited by families with children, she said.
On Friday afternoon, campers along Crisanto say they noticed a city parking enforcement officer marking tires along the street. Some alleged that police officers had been giving warnings that harsher enforcement would be coming soon.
"We honestly don't want to be here, but the rent is too much," said Will Valdez, a 20-year-old who lives with his mother and three siblings in the area. "I'm upset -- I'm pretty sure that the police have better things to do than this."
A former nurse who lost her Morgan Hill home in 2008, Julie West said she has been living out of a trailer on Crisanto for the last two years. On Tuesday afternoon, she received a phone call while at her job that her home was being hauled away, and she raced back to find it gone.
West acknowledged that she had received past citations, but she said she had paid all those fees. She pointed out that her trailer was blocked in by other vehicles and couldn't be easily be hitched and relocated. It would cost at least $500 to get her trailer back, she said.
Many of West's possessions were strewn along the curbside, and she fumed that police officers had cut the locks on her storage containers and possibly rifled through her belongings.
"I have no place to live now. Where am I supposed to go? If I get murdered or raped, what's going to happen?" she said. "I'm not a failure or a junkie or a criminal, but that's how I feel like we're being treated."
Crisanto Avenue has become the epicenter for the city's growing homeless population. Many of the people living out of their vehicles say they have local jobs, but housing remains unaffordable in the area. But meanwhile, residents who live in homes nearby have been growing increasingly frustrated with the car camps, saying they were responsible for garbage and crime problems.
Writing on behalf of the police department, Nelson on Wednesday put out a lengthy online post on Nextdoor clarifying why the Crisanto vehicles were towed. She insisted that the city and police were working on a "compassionate, holistic approach" to the growing homeless issue, but she pointed out that new problems were popping up. Teenagers had recently been harassed along Crisanto Avenue by people living out of their vehicles, she wrote, and a woman living out of an RV near Cuesta Park was arrested on Wednesday for selling heroin.
"We want everyone to feel safe, and this type of behavior is unacceptable," she wrote.
Mountain View city officials have been working for nearly two years to create a stronger network of social services to aid the growing numbers of homeless living out of their vehicles. That plans includes a commitment of more than $1 million to help address local homelessness
This story was updated on Wednesday afternoon with new information.