Mountain View's fledgling safe parking program is poised to enlist some much-needed outside help to relocate some of the hundreds of homeless people currently living out of vehicles parked along city streets.
Council members are expected to vote Tuesday, Feb. 25, on whether to lease a portion of Shoreline Amphitheatre's parking area to Santa Clara County, setting aside enough room for 30 "oversized" vehicles including RVs. If approved, the county would be able to operate the parking lot 24 hours a day. The limited overnight hours currently offered under the city's safe parking program are largely seen as the biggest barrier for making the program work.
Santa Clara County's homeless population has risen from 7,394 people in 2017 to 9,706 in 2019, according to a census taken last year, mirroring a regional homelessness crisis that has gripped the Bay Area. A growing segment of the homeless population has sought shelter by living in vehicles, including cars, vans and RVs.
Mountain View has in some ways been the poster child for the problem, with national media attention focusing on the lines of RVs parked along Crisanto Avenue and Shoreline Boulevard just a few miles from some of the most powerful tech companies in the world.
The City Council drafted a safe parking program last year that was supposed to bring lived-in vehicles off of city streets and into safe, designated areas offering support services. But it's gotten off to a rocky start, running into difficulty finding insurers willing to provide liability coverage. And once the safe parking program finally got off the ground this year, few people actually showed up.
The biggest impediment, according to homeless advocates and officials running the program, is that the city's rules forbid vehicles from staying in the safe parking lots around the clock -- they must relocate between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. City leaders say their hands are tied, citing the City Attorney's opinion that allowing all-day parking would trigger state mobile home residency laws.
The first safe parking lot to launch, located in Shoreline lot "B," opened a few weeks ago, and only a few vehicles have used it to date, said Amber Stime, director of the nonprofit Move MV. That isn't to say there isn't any interest -- plenty of people are asking about it -- but many people are reluctant to take advantage of the program if they have to move their vehicle every day.
"They are concerned about the logistics of moving," she said, adding that some vehicles are as big as Winnebagos. "But people are interested, they do want to be off the streets they do want somewhere where they can be a bit more safe."
When asked about the county stepping in to solve the problem, Stime said she was first interested to see what the council decides at its Feb. 25 meeting. The item is on the consent calendar, typically reserved for noncontroversial items and routine business.
The reason Santa Clara County can operate a safe parking program around the clock, while Mountain View cannot, is because of a special exemption enshrined in state law for a select number of agencies. AB 932, passed in 2017, allows an explicit list of cities and counties to construct and operate homeless shelters without having to abide by rules contained in the Mobilehome Parks Act or the Mobilehome Residency Law.
When asked why the pair of state laws would prevent the city from operating 24 hours a day, City Attorney Krishan Chopra told the Voice that it would saddle the city with requirements like tenant protections, as if the parking lot was a "permanent housing source." It would essentially mean the city is operating a mobile home park.
The idea of the county stepping in was spearheaded by county Supervisor Joe Simitian, who said that Mountain View deserves credit for grappling with the insurance and legal challenges along with finding an appropriate place to put the safe parking sites. But at this point, it looks like leveraging the county's special status is the best way to get RV dwellers off city streets and solve the "logjam" around the issue of 24-hour parking.
"If we lease or buy a site and it is in the county's control, it becomes the county's site." he said. "We would not have to operate safe parking programs with the same set of concerns that would otherwise be a source of anxiety."
Finding a place for vehicle dwellers to park, along with establishing the city's rules and regulations for the de facto homeless shelters dates back to early 2018. When asked why the county didn't use its special status to fix the problem years ago, Simitian told the Voice it was important to let Mountain View retain its autonomy in resolving the challenge of vehicle dwellers until it was necessary for the county to take a more active role.
"It was only when the city really confronted the issue of the need for a 24-hour facility and expressed the concern about being the agency that provided that when I felt it was appropriate to say, 'All right, we should step up in a more significant way,'" Simitian said.
Council members at the Feb. 25 meeting are also scheduled to vote on whether to amend the existing lease agreement between the city and Live Nation, which produces concerts at Shoreline Amphiteatre, that would allow a portion of lot B to be used for safe parking during the concert season. Under the current agreement, the safe parking program is scheduled to end on March 15 to make room for concert parking. More information on the proposal is available online.
While the lease agreement would help the city operate one of its safe parking lots on a 24-hour basis and attract more participants, it's likely to just make a dent in a regional problem. Cities grappling with rising homelessness in the Bay Area are increasingly turning to safe parking, including recently launched programs in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, which are bound to run into the same challenges as Mountain View.
That could change soon. Earlier this month, state Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) introduced legislation that seeks to broaden the list of public agencies empowered to create safe parking programs exempt from legal requirements associated with permanent residency, particularly mobile home tenant relocation requirements. Mountain View city staff reportedly met with Berman last month to discuss the scope of the law, AB 2586, and potential sponsorship by the city.