Placing the unhoused in a safe, clean location during the coronavirus pandemic has been a top priority for cities and counties across California, and safe parking -- specifically for those living in RVs -- appears to be a local success story.
Two safe parking lots, one outside Shoreline Amphitheatre and one near downtown Mountain View, are quickly filling up with vehicle dwellers. According to the latest count this week, 38 vehicles are now parked across two safe parking sites, and occupants are receiving case management for services and a path toward a permanent home.
Mountain View has 67 safe parking spaces designated for RVs, accounting for 84% of the total spaces for oversized vehicles in all of Santa Clara County.
So who is showing up? So far, 15 of the 38 participants are families with children enrolled in local school districts, and nine are seniors. Ten work in Mountain View, and four have a disability, according to Mountain View city staff.
City officials say they're working to open a third -- albeit smaller -- safe parking site on Terra Bella Avenue for eight more vehicles, and are trying to find a way to provide a communal water supply for participants to tap into during their stay.
Switching to 24-hour operation was the critical tipping point for Mountain View's safe parking program, which had little participation in the first months of operation. The three lots, which could house a total of 68 oversized vehicles, largely stood empty when participants were required to pack up and leave each day between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
The breakthrough came last month, when the city leased its first safe parking lot to the county to operate on a 24-hour basis, prompting a spike in participation. Citing concerns over the coronavirus and the risk of transmission among unhoused residents, the city has since leased a former VTA parking lot on East Evelyn Avenue for 24-hour operation.
Providing shelter for the homeless in Santa Clara County went from an aspirational goal to an imperative public health priority last month to keep the virus from spreading. The county has launched multiple makeshift shelters and reserved hundreds of hotel and motel rooms for homeless people, announcing last week that it now has enough temporary housing for every known homeless person who has contracted COVID-19.
Still, safe parking remains just a small slice of the county's total homeless shelter capacity, with data showing practically no space for RVs and no spaces available on a 24-hour basis outside of Mountain View as of March.
The tally of safe parking spaces does not include the temporary surge in trailers provided by FEMA to prevent the spread of coronavirus among sick homeless residents, which became an integral part of the state's pandemic response last month. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California received 1,309 trailers specifically for quarantine use -- pulling people out of shelters and into isolation.
Since then, San Jose has set up 109 trailers in a parking lot outside Happy Hollow Park and Zoo in San Jose, and another 15 located at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, which has been repurposed as a homeless shelter.
Homeless people are considered at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, and are largely unable to adhere to safe social distancing and shelter-in-place orders imposed by county public health officials. The problem is exacerbated in that California's homeless population was already on the rise, spiking significantly in most Bay Area counties over the last three years.
The latest count from 2019 shows there were 9,706 homeless residents in Santa Clara County, a 31% increase over 2017, of which 82% were considered "unsheltered." Among those who were counted, 18% were reportedly living in cars, RVs and vans.
The launch of Mountain View's safe parking lot coincides with a new city law prohibiting oversized vehicles from parking on roads with bike lanes, which passed last year but took effect in March. The ordinance was highly controversial, and was seen as a way to boot homeless people living in vehicles off of city streets.
A second component of the ban that would have restricted RVs from parking on "narrow" streets less than 40 feet wide has not taken effect due to a voter referendum, and will appear before voters on the November ballot.
City Council members who supported the prohibition say the growing number of people who live in vehicles are better served in designated safe parking sites, rather than lining city streets without designated support services.