Residents living in cars and RVs finally have a safe, dedicated place to park their vehicles during the day in Mountain View, overcoming a major obstacle that for months quashed participation in the city's fledgling safe parking program.
Starting this week, a dedicated part of the Shoreline Amphitheatre parking lot will now be open for inhabited vehicles 24 hours a day, according to an announcement by the city. This removes previous requirements to leave the lot daily between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., which deeply undercut the city's goal of bringing oversized vehicles off of city streets, where many formed into curbside encampments.
The Shoreline lot opened for around-the-clock operation for the first time on Wednesday, April 8, and has been filling up faster than expected, said Amber Stime, executive director of the nonprofit Move MV, which runs the program. Twelve applicants -- all with RVs -- showed up that day, and many of them remained in the lot through Thursday afternoon.
Stime said she believes the lot will be at its capacity of 29 RVs once she goes through the full list of past applications.
"People with kids in the school district have applied as well, and now we just need to follow through," Stime said. "We took as many as we could yesterday but we had to stay on through the evening, 8 or 9 p.m., taking in more people."
Mountain View city staff have grappled for years with a growing number vehicle dwellers largely concentrated along city streets including Crisanto Avenue, Shoreline Boulevard and Continental Circle. The latest count in 2019 found that 606 homeless people reside in Mountain View, up 47% from 2017, and an increasing number have turned to cars and RVs for shelter.
The City Council voted in September last year to prohibit oversized vehicles from parking on streets with bike lanes and along "narrow streets" less than 40 feet wide. The hope was that the ban, combined with creating safe parking sites, would encourage vehicle dwellers to move to a more suitable location.
The move was blasted by critics as a way to push homeless people out of Mountain View under the pretext of traffic safety, and came after years of pressure from residents who saw the long lines of occupied RVs as a blight. There were dire predictions that the city's restrictions on safe parking -- including the requirement to leave during the day -- would doom its chances of actually being used.
In the early months of the program's launch, that appeared to be the case. Few vehicle dwellers signed up to relocate to a safe parking site due to onerous rules imposed by the city, particularly the requirement to pack up and leave every morning.
City staff members insisted that their hands were tied. By opening safe parking lots for all-day parking, the city would be forced to comply with a host of other state requirements normally suited for mobile home parks, potentially putting the city on the hook for tenant protections and relocation assistance.
The breakthrough came in February, when Santa Clara County offered to lease the Shoreline lot and use its special status under state law to run a 24-hour safe parking lot with immunity from mobile home residency laws.
Despite the delay, people seem excited to jump on the opportunity, Stime said.
"I think people are very grateful," she said. "There were so many 'Thank yous', they're very happy and a lot of them were quick to respond. This is something they've been waiting for."
Homeless under the threat of COVID-19
Santa Clara County has made a significant push in recent weeks to boost homeless shelter space amid the spread of the new coronavirus, responding to a public health order that encourages all residents to stay at home in order to avoid exposure to the virus.
Part of that response meant quickly expanding access to safe parking lots in Mountain View. Shortly after the shelter order, council members voted at an emergency meeting to approve similar lease agreements with the county to operate 24-hour lots at two additional locations -- a VTA lot on Evelyn Avenue and a parking lot on Terra Bella Avenue.
People living in vehicles along city streets will not face fines or be towed during the coronavirus emergency orders. A notice distributed to vehicle dwellers on March 20 encourages people to enroll in the safe parking program, but adds that the Mountain View Police Department has suspended its parking enforcement efforts including 72-hour violations.
"At this time, officers will only conduct parking enforcement if we receive complaints regarding a public health or a public safety hazard," the notice states.
But the message appears to have been muddled. Earlier in the month, city public works staff posted notices that all vehicles must be moved off of streets with bike lanes in order to install "Oversized Vehicle Parking Restriction" signs on March 9 -- essentially rolling out the ban passed in September as the spread of the virus was reaching full swing. The line of RVs that were a common sight on Shoreline Boulevard for years has since vanished.
In recent weeks, the county has rapidly expanded its shelter services in order to take as many homeless people as possible off the streets and get them into a safe environment. Shelters that previously operated only overnight are now open all day, and seasonal shelters typically open during winter months are now staying open through the emergency, including the shelter at Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Mountain View.
Part of that expansion means a vast increase in safe parking programs, which was previously only a small sliver of the Santa Clara County's shelter capacity. In February, the county released a report stating there were only 109 safe parking spaces.
Along with Mountain View's trio of safe parking lots, the state of California provided 105 trailers to the city of San Jose to operate a temporary homeless shelter in a parking lot near Happy Hollow Park and Zoo.