Council rejects restrictions on RV campers

City tolerance toward homeless put to test amid growing complaints

As more and more people are living out of vehicles, the response from many Peninsula cities has been the same: Go somewhere else.

In Los Altos, just parking a motorhome for a half-hour in the evening can lead to a citation. Palo Alto and Sunnyvale both previously tried to outlaw living out of vehicles, until a federal court ruled that such restrictions were unconstitutional. Instead, those cities have been ramping up restrictions on street parking, arguably as a means to the same end.

In Mountain View, city officials have taken pains to handle the problem differently, and at no small cost. Over the last couple years, the city has devoted more than $1 million and thousands of staff hours to homeless programs, rehousing initiatives and basic services such as portable toilets, showers and waste disposal for people living out of their vehicles. Given the direction to be compassionate, city police have reportedly turned a blind eye to some parking violations.

Some say these policies have been rolling out the welcome mat for more to come. At any rate, the number of inhabited vehicles in Mountain View has ballooned. A professional survey conducted in June 2016 counted 126 lived-in vehicles, mostly RVs. Last December, when the Mountain View police department performed its own count, the number of inhabited vehicles was tallied at just under 300.

On Tuesday night, March 6, Mountain View's tolerant stance toward the roadside RV encampments was put to the test. Despite increasing complaints of trash and crime problems, the City Council voted 6-1, with Councilman John McAlister opposed, to essentially hold the line. In doing so, the council majority declined to support stricter enforcement measures that might have driven hundreds of homeless people out of town. But city leaders indicated that the status quo was becoming unsustainable, and they signaled that harsher measures would need to eventually come once they could establish some kind of safe space for the RV dwellers to go.

"Until we create an alternative for the bulk of people living in vehicles, we really aren't solving the problem," said Mayor Lenny Siegel. "If we make these programs work, then I believe that other cities will follow.

"It's better than trying to move the problem along," he said.

The meeting was a five-hour slog that waded into the many thorny issues surrounding people living out of their vehicles. Present at the meeting was a large turnout of housing advocates who emphatically urged city leaders not to "criminalize poverty." Their concerns were counterbalanced by dozens of letters and hundreds of past complaints from residents who have lost patience with having the homeless problem parked outside their front door.

The controversy of the night was focused on a menu of options presented by city staff to ramp up parking and towing enforcement. Among these ideas, staff proposed prohibiting vehicles from parking on city streets if they were over a certain size or during certain times of the day. Alternatively, city officials also proposed creating some kind of permit system, in which people living out of vehicles would have to register with the city.

The enforcement proposals were not fully fledged. City staffers said they wanted to get a sense for the political support on the council before they studied how these programs could work, logistically as well as legally.

Echoing the concerns of many frustrated residents, council members Lisa Matichak and Margaret Abe-Koga both spoke in support of stricter measures to control the RV encampments. Matichak described accompanying police officers as they made the rounds to visit the city's vehicle camps. While some deserved sympathy, her main takeaway was that many people were living on the street by choice, she said.

"I don't feel like the situation has improved. While some people have been helped, more people keep coming to town," Matichak said. "We absolutely should do what we can for the folks who need help, but there's other folks who are taking advantage of the situation."

But a series of votes on studying these ramped-up enforcement measures came up short. In a 3-4 vote -- with Siegel and council members Pat Showalter, Ken Rosenberg and Chris Clark opposed -- the council shot down a motion by Abe-Koga to study restricting parking for large vehicles and creating a permitting system. Another split vote failed to pass a proposal to study new restrictions on RVs near city parks and streets with visibility concerns, such as Shoreline Boulevard.

"This wouldn't do anything to solve homelessness in Mountain View. It just moves it," said Councilman Ken Rosenberg. "This seems to be an effort to make it seem like we're doing something when we're not."

The winning vote for the night was to maintain the status quo for just a little longer. City officials are putting forward new initiatives to aid the homeless, and they need a little more time to show results, said Councilman Chris Clark. In a 6-1 vote, the council agreed to keep enforcement largely the same with one significant modification: Clark requested giving the police discretion on when to tow vehicles. Previously, city officials said vehicles would typically be towed only after five citations or for serious safety concerns, according to city officials. Clark said the local police had demonstrated excellent judgment on this.

McAlister voted against the proposal, saying he wanted to see some restrictions near city parks and more funding for law enforcement.

Spending $230,000 for various short-term measures to aid the homeless proved less controversial on the council. The measures include new funding for a "rapid rehousing" program, as well as for free showers and waste dumping for RV-dwellers and the cleanup costs for any biohazard spills.

For leaky vehicles that cause health hazards, the city will put forward $30,000 to pay for the towing costs, in effect subsidizing tow yards for agreeing to take RVs and trailers. Some tow companies in the Bay Area reportedly are declining to take large campers and trailers because they are dilapidated and cost too much to move. Only one tow company will still take custody of large motorhomes in Los Angeles, a city dealing with its own homeless crisis.

One promising sign for city leaders was a new nonprofit that will soon provide "safe parking lots" for people living in vehicles to stay. The group, calling itself Lots of Love, was started by several local churches who proposed the idea in 2015. Speaking for the group, Pastor Brian Leong of the Lord's Grace Christian Church in Mountain View said that starting the nonprofit took much longer than expected, but he urged the city to give it a little more time.

"We've always been a caring and compassionate city," he said. "If you cut RVs out of the city we won't be able to get off the ground to see if safe parking can help the problem."

Yet it was not immediately clear how many vehicles the new nonprofit would be able to immediately take off the streets. Leong said the group still needed to hire a director, and then members would look to start a pilot program that would run for at least three months.

The council agreed to contribute $55,000 to help fund the new nonprofit through mid-2019.

Yet, even as the council majority pushed for a compassionate approach to the homeless problem, members hinted that their patience could soon reach its limits.

"Our community has been more than willing to be tolerant with this so long as there was a plan and we would eventually return things to where they were," Clark said. "When we have an alternative available we should move forward (with stricter enforcement), but I'm struggling with what to do in the interim."

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