Mountain View Whisman school board members rejected the idea of offering homeless students a safe parking program at one of the city's middle schools, citing the logistical challenges of supporting families living in RVs and trailers.
The decision came after hours of deliberations during a study session Saturday morning, Sept. 21, less than three days before the Mountain View City Council is scheduled to discuss an all-hours ban on oversized vehicles parked along most of the city's streets.
Though the ban could push homeless students out of the school district, trustees agreed that providing a haven for RVs at either Crittenden or Graham Middle School would be fraught with challenges. The district would have to abide by the city's strict regulations on safe parking programs, get buy-in from neighbors and convince homeless families to self-identify and participate in the program.
Board president Tamara Wilson said the school district's core mission is making sure students get a solid education, and she felt the board was getting ahead of itself trying to take the lead on a safe parking program.
"We all agree it's the morally right thing to do -- to house people and give them a stable place to land," Wilson said. "How we do that is exceedingly challenging."
The idea of a school-sponsored safe parking program was first floated in June by Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph, who suggested that RVs housing homeless families with children in the school district could be moved off of city streets and onto school parking lots. Of the close to 300 occupied vehicles in the city, 21 district students are living in 16 RVs and 2 more children are living in one car, according to data collected by the school district earlier this month.
A total of 142 students in the district are deemed homeless according to state guidelines, a majority of whom reside with more than one family in the same home. Most homeless students attend Castro Elementary and Graham and Crittenden middle schools.
Despite bringing up the idea in June, Rudolph was skeptical that the district could make it work. At the Saturday meeting, he pointed out that the school district would likely have to abide by the city's safe parking ordinance, which is expected to limit the hours of operation from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and force families to move during the day -- something that he believes many families won't be willing to do.
Even if the school district could negotiate a deal to keep RVs on-site for a full school year -- which some trustees favored -- it would trigger a whole host of requirements, including access to water and waste removal, Rudolph said. It's also unclear whether all 16 RVs could fit at Crittenden or Graham, as the city is seeking to impose 10-foot buffers between vehicles and 25-foot buffers from neighboring residential properties.
Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles is that many of the families don't own the RVs and are renting them from a third party for anywhere from $500 to $800 month, Rudolph said. Those families aren't in control of where the vehicle sits, which is where the idea safe parking program truly breaks down. He said the more he considered the idea, the more red flags came up and the less confident he was that the district could take the lead.
"My gut is telling me that yes, morally it is the right thing to do. But logistically and from a liability standpoint, it's not the place the district should be in," Rudolph said. "We should look at other avenues."
As homelessness continues to increase across the Bay Area, several cities and faith-based organizations have sought to create safe parking programs for those residing in cars, RVs and trailers. State lawmakers considered and ultimately tabled legislation this month that would have cleared the way for safe parking programs at community college campuses, but Rudolph said he was aware of only one K-12 district in the region that had even considered the idea.
Mountain View Whisman board members generally agreed that they wouldn't want to pursue safe parking without knowing whether homeless families would even be willing to participate. A majority of the 142 students have yet to be re-identified by the district as homeless for the 2019-20 school year because the parents are hesitant to communicate with any government agency, said Priscila Bogdanic, the district's liaison for homeless students and foster youth.
If the families are hesitant to disclose that information confidentially, Rudolph said they may be reluctant to plant themselves on Graham Middle School's parking lot over the course of the school year. The parking lot would be in view from the athletic fields, and students could easily be identified as homeless by their peers.
In lieu of a safe parking program, trustees said they want the school district to play an advocacy role, assisting homeless families and linking them to other safe parking programs. Some trustees floated the idea of giving families with kids priority status for safe parking sites operated by the city or faith-based organizations.
Throughout the study session, board members also mulled whether to create a more formalized support system for homeless students. While the district often acts as the "first line of defense" in helping homeless families with children, Wilson said it lacks an overarching strategic plan to help the district's most vulnerable students.
"I think this is especially important for this specific homeless population," she said.
Bogdanic said the district connects families who identify as homeless with donated sleeping bags, backpacks, clothes and information on resources like the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos (CSA). Through contributions from school PTAs, the district also provides gift cards to families in need, the most useful of which are for Target and Safeway.
"It really goes from clothing to referrals to CSA," she said. "I've taken families to CSA directly and helped with the younger children while the mom is with a case manager."
Schools also provide help on a case-by-case basis depending on what homeless families need. On Friday last week, for example, Bogdanic said one of the students had lost or broke his glasses and needed a replacement.
Looking to the future, the district may establish a homework center available for needy students after school, though finding volunteers can be challenging, Bogdanic said. On early Thursday release days in particular, she said it's tough to find people who can be available from noon until 5 p.m.
The Mountain View City Council is scheduled to consider the oversized vehicle ban and safe parking ordinance at its meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 24, in the City Council Chambers, 500 Castro St. The open session of the meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.