As more people are living out of their vehicles, Mountain View's residents have been caught in a bind between their sense of compassion and their comfort levels. Now the best outcome might be to move the problem off the streets.
For that goal, the city is looking to local do-gooders to help. In the coming weeks, a coalition of local churches will start testing out a "safe parking" program, opening up their facilities to overnight campers. This would mean families living out of their vehicles on the street could instead park in the church lots and use their restrooms. It's an idea that has gained traction among policymakers as a possible alternative to growing car encampments on city streets.
If all goes according to plan, a test pilot of the safe parking program should begin in April, said Pastor Brian Leong of the Lord's Grace Church in Mountain View. He and his partners recently launched a new nonprofit, Lots of Love, to provide insurance and management for the program.
"We want to alleviate as much as possible," he said. "It's not the end-all, be-all solution for the city, but we hope it makes a difference."
Numbers vary on how many people are currently living out of vehicles on Mountain View streets. The most recent survey conducted by local police officials in December counted 291 inhabited vehicles, more than half of which were large RVs and campers. These makeshift car camps are clustered in certain areas of the city, such as Crisanto Avenue near Rengstorff Park, Shoreline Boulevard and Continental Circle.
Leong and other Lots of Love participants say they realize their safe-parking program can help only a fraction of these vehicle campers, especially in the program's early days. For the pilot, he expects only three churches to participate, and each would take only four vehicles.
One of those churches will be St. Timothy's Episcopal Church. Speaking for the congregation, Rev. Lisa McIndoo said many members have been pushing for the church to get involved as a social justice issue. A couple years ago, about a dozen congregation members camped out overnight in the parking lot to better understand the homeless experience. Some have made it an annual sacrifice for Lent, she said.
The safe parking program had "overwhelming support" in the parish, McIndoo said.
"We're living in this very affluent part of the Bay Area, but then there's people around us that have significant housing issues," she said. "We want this to be a learning process for us to find out how we can be better servants of the community."
Leong and McIndoo both acknowledged the program is starting small, yet they believe the idea could quickly catch fire and inspire other churches to join once they can show it's working well. Already, about six other faith groups and property owners have expressed strong interest in opening up their parking lots for the program, Leong said.
Lots of Love plans to partner with the Community Services Agency by having outreach staff identify clients. As of right now, priority will be given to families with children, seniors and single women. No drugs, alcohol or weapons will be tolerated. Participants would also need to sign up for case management through the Community Services Agency, including joining a waiting list for permanent housing. Those participants must have a working vehicle, with valid registration, insurance and a driver's license.
It's likely that those requirements may exclude some of the city's homeless living in cars. Dozens of people living out of trailers actually don't own the vehicles, but rather are renting them from others. These "car landlords" typically don't hand over the ignition keys, leaving the renters unable to move the vehicles, Leong said.
Nevertheless, city officials see a lot of potential in the program -- in fact, the City Council voted last week to contribute $55,000 to help it start. Many involved in the Lots of Love pilot to a successful program in Santa Barbara as proof that the idea can significantly help the homeless.
Mayor Lenny Siegel said he hoped the city could eventually help bring more lots into the program, including the large city-owned parking lots near Shoreline Amphitheatre. That area wouldn't be available during the summer concert season, but it is mostly vacant during the cold weather months.
If Lots of Love can demonstrate that its safe-parking program is successful, then it has the potential to rapidly grow, Siegel said.
For now, the council has held off on ramping up police enforcement of people living out of their vehicles on the street, despite growing complaints about trash and crime. Siegel wants to refrain from harsher enforcement until the safe-parking program can accommodate the majority of car campers. He expects that to take at least a year.
"I see this as the first proof of concept to demonstrate we can create safe parking," Siegel said. "We can't do broad-brush enforcement without this."