Creating safe parking lots around Mountain View has been the favored option to address the growing number of people living out of their vehicles. But that solution is falling woefully short, leading city officials to question whether their ambitions will succumb to a growing political backlash to push the homeless out of town.
As of this month, there are spaces for just eight vehicles at safe parking lots in Mountain View, which is estimated to have about 300 inhabited vehicles throughout the city. Currently, these sites can only accept standard-size cars and vans, and not the RVs and motor homes that have become emblematic of the city's homeless population.
For an issue mired in controversy, pretty much everyone agrees on one point -- the current system simply isn't working.
"I'm not going to point fingers at anybody, but what we're doing right now is just not working at the rate we need it," said Councilwoman Pat Showalter. "But I really don't think people are really aware of how much effort has gone into trying to ameliorate this problem."
There is consensus among city leaders the Mountain View needs to locate more large parking lots to temporarily house the homeless. But city officials say they are coming up short in that search.
For about three years, Kimberly Thomas, the assistant to the city manager, has been Mountain View's lead person on homeless issues. Over that time, she said her team has looked into every available parking lot in the city, including publicly owned properties. Across the board, she said, there was no property that was a perfect fit. Each site had its own restrictions and challenges for converting into a temporary vehicle encampment site.
"We've looked at every possible lot," Thomas said. "The challenge has always been to find something workable for this type of need. And that match simply hasn't occurred."
There is one exception. In October, the city signed an agreement with the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing to use a Terra Bella property temporarily to house up to 11 vehicles. It is a welcome addition, but still not the large area needed to get occupied vehicles off the streets.
There are a few potential sites that are frequently brought up. At the top of the list is Shoreline Amphitheatre, which has five dirt parking lots capable of accommodating nearly 7,000 vehicles, according to city records.
The site has many obvious advantages: It is city-owned with room to spare, especially during the off-season when the amphitheater's summer concert series ends. Also, the space is located far away from the city's residential centers, allowing city officials to avoid any neighborhood pushback from situating a homeless campground nearby.
While Shoreline Amphitheatre is publicly owned, the city of Mountain View leases the property for about $1.8 million per year to Live Nation for concerts and events. That long-term contract lasts through 2020, but it doesn't prohibit the city from using the amphitheater's parking lots. The 2006 lease explicitly gives the city the right to use three of the parking lots as needed -- even for a homeless campground -- so long as it doesn't interfere with Live Nation's scheduled events.
One problem, however, is the city has also agreed to allow Live Nation to sublease two of the parking lots to Google until 2025. In an agreement approved last year, Google is paying the city $2.25 million for exclusive rights to park about 1,200 vehicles in the lots.
Could the remaining Shoreline lots be used for the homeless? In recent months, the amphitheater's parking lots have been frequently brought up by City Council members and candidates.
Thomas said city staff has given the idea a cursory examination, but the full range of restrictions haven't been analyzed. She explained this was because the City Council never added it to the city's list of goals or made it an explicit priority for staff.
City staffers have also performed a cursory examination of Moffett Field, another site that is frequently proposed for a safe parking encampment. As federal land, that site faces a wide range of restrictions, and city staff consider it a non-starter, Thomas said.
Even if a perfect site materialized, a new safe parking site would also have to run through a series of roadblocks. Technically, any site with more than four parked vehicles should have a special temporary use permit, according to a city report published in October. City staffers haven't developed the framework for this permit yet, and it likely won't be ready until next year.
Any safe parking site would also be expected to apply for city building and fire permits, which normally include attached fees, as well as comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, according to the city report.
In addition, a safe parking operator would also be expected to obtain a signed letter from every adjacent property owner consenting to the site's use. In the likely event that at least one neighbor would be opposed to having a homeless camp next door, the city would require the proposal to go through a public hearing process.
Could these conditions be scaring away any property owners who might be willing to help? Thomas wouldn't say. The City Council backed these steps last month in the interest of helping people, but within the letter of the law, she said.
East Palo Alto's example
One potential solution could be to follow the lead of other cities. San Jose and East Palo Alto have both declared their citywide homelessness as a public emergency.
The declaration was more than symbolic: It allowed the cities to streamline the process for creating new safe parking sites and sidestep the normal policy considerations. In the case of East Palo Alto, declaring an emergency gave city officials a degree of immunity from liability and it also sped up the process for repurposing public land as they worked to launch a safe parking site for 20 RVs.
The urgency action was necessary given the large number of East Palo Alto residents who were suddenly thrust into homelessness, explained Pastor Paul Bains of the nonprofit WeHOPE.
"We're trying to take a negative situation and turn it into a positive," he said. "These people didn't choose to live in RVs. Many of them were tricked out by landlords saying they were going to remodel their apartments."
Thomas said Mountain View city staff did consider an emergency ordinance, and she acknowledged that it would offer added flexibility and the opportunity for some state funding grants.
"But it's not something at this time that we think we should address," she said. "In our city analysis, we didn't see it as connected to a safe parking program."
Some council members are beginning to lose patience with such a cautious approach. Mayor Lenny Siegel said he was likely penalized by voters in the election over the homeless issue, possibly costing him his chance at a second term. He expressed frustration that his past suggestions -- such as the Shoreline parking lots -- were not fully vetted by city staff. In some cases, these ideas were not taken up because he didn't have support from a majority on the council.
"I've been saying for a while now that the city needs to do more, but city staff always pushes back and says we're already doing a lot," Siegel said. "We haven't done much. I've tried, but the city went with slower solutions."
Mountain View city staff have spent an incredible amount of time on the homelessness issue. Since 2016, city employees spread across various departments have spent nearly 4,400 hours on homeless-related issues, according to report from March. Most of this staff time was spent responding to issues resulting from people living out of their vehicles, such as parking enforcement, illegal waste incidents or other complaints.
A breaking point could be fast approaching. Increasingly vocal residents have made it clear they have lost patience with the large number of inhabited vehicles on city streets. In October, the City Council formally requested that city staff investigate parking limits or possibly a permit system on city streets in an effort to limit inhabited vehicles. City staff is expected to present a menu of options at a meeting early next year.
But even if tighter restrictions were passed, the city still needs to figure out some kind of safe parking, said Councilwoman Lisa Matichak. She has advocated for stricter limits on street parking, but the city needs to provide some alternative place for people living out of their vehicles to go, she said.
"We were hoping the (safe parking program) could get up to speed more quickly that it did," she said. "I applaud their efforts, and I encourage them to keep going, but we need to look at other alternatives."