The city of Mountain View is currently home to one-third of all the safe parking spaces in Santa Clara County, designed to support homeless residents living out of cars and RVs with a goal of placing them into permanent housing.
And while city officials tout its 76 spots as significant progress in relocating vehicle dwellers off of city streets and into safe parking sites, they still face a daunting task. As of July, an estimated 265 vehicles are serving as makeshift homes along public roads, suggesting that the city's program -- while outsized for a smaller suburban city -- may have only put a dent in a chronic problem.
Since 2015, Mountain View has explored the idea of safe parking as a new method of dealing with rising homelessness. The city's homeless population ballooned from 139 in 2013 to 606 in 2019, bringing with it a steep rise in people living in cars and RVs clustered along several city streets. The most prominent example, Crisanto Avenue, had 70 inhabited vehicles as of a July 2020 survey.
The topic has since become a wedge political issue that has deeply divided city residents, with some calling for strict enforcement of parking rules to force RV dwellers from city streets. The City Council voted last year to approve an all-day ban on oversized vehicles on streets with bike lanes or that are less than 40 feet wide, but it was successfully challenged by a referendum. The ban will now come before voters in the November election as Measure C.
After numerous studies and difficulty getting the program off the ground, the city finally launched the safe parking program in earnest earlier this year. The city now provides 76 safe parking spaces, compared to the 136 spaces located elsewhere in the county. The City Council voted on Sept. 8 to expand the program, adding 25 more spaces for inhabited passenger vehicles.
"The journey over the last four years has taken the city from having no options for safe parking ... to being a city that now has the largest safe parking program in the county," said Kimberly Thomas, assistant to the city manager.
The two biggest safe parking sites, located in a former VTA parking lot on E. Evelyn Avenue and "Lot B" of Shoreline Amphitheatre, are nearly at capacity. By the latest count, 62 people are living in 27 vehicles at Shoreline, and 67 people are living in 29 vehicles at Evelyn. Of the people participating in the program, 12 are families with children in Mountain View schools, and 19 are under the age of 19, according to a city staff report.
But for reasons unknown to the city, the launch of the program hasn't come with an equal drop in people living in RVs and passenger vehicles on city streets. The street-by-street count has wobbled between 200 and 300 inhabited vehicles since 2017, and the latest survey in July shows 265 vehicles are still being used as homes on public roads.
The only major difference is that RVs along Shoreline Boulevard have completely cleared out, whereas more vehicles are now clustered on Crisanto Avenue and Pioneer Way.
City staff at the Sept. 8 council meeting theorized several reasons for the lack of movement in the numbers, including a possible increase in homelessness due to the coronavirus pandemic or more vehicle dwellers moving in from cities with fewer services. The city also dropped its parking enforcement rules during the COVID-19 emergency, which could have contributed to an increase, or it's possible these vehicles were simply missed in past counts. City staff did not cite data to back up any of its theories.
"It gives you some gauge of the realm of possibilities associated with why there is a slight increase in the count," Thomas told council members.
One of the big challenges that emerged since the safe parking program began is where to park commuter vehicle, an issue that caught the city by surprise. Many of the people living in cars and RVs have a second -- or even a third -- vehicle that they use to get to work each day, and the safe parking lots were never equipped to support secondary vehicles. For the Shoreline lot, where parking is limited, some homeless participants have been parking at the Shoreline Dog Park, nearly a half-mile trek from the safe parking site.
At the Evelyn lot, many participants are parking their extra vehicles on Pioneer Way, which is nearby but has caused friction with local business owners frustrated with the loss of spaces available to customers.
"There has been some pushback from the business owners for some of our tenants parking on the streets, which is not very neighborly," said Amber Stime, executive director of the nonprofit Move MV. "I'm not going to go and confront them, but I think we are doing our best to honor their space."
Councilman Lucas Ramirez said it makes sense to formally add commuter parking to the program, recognizing that people live in one vehicle but use another to go to work, go shopping and take kids to school. Failing to accommodate that runs the risk of deterring participation and failing to address the problem of people parking in the street.
"If you have to walk a fair distance to the dog park to get to your commuter vehicle, you may just decide 'Why not stay on Crisanto? Why not stay on Continental Circle? Because I can just park my vehicle right next door,'" Ramirez said.
Where the extra, unanticipated cars present a problem, some see a silver lining. Michael Love, a former pastor and operations manager for Move MV, said the commuter vehicles are a good sign that many of the homeless residents in the program are likely still working.
"The presence of the commuter car is a sign that this is somebody who is really on the cusp of being able to be, as quickly as possible, returned back to permanent housing," Love said.
Despite city staff framing the safe parking program as a success and a major milestone at the Sept. 8 meeting, some public speakers were critical of the council for taking several years to set up a modest program. Monta Loma resident Tim Mackenzie said the council has been dragging its feet, and that there has been a lot of "dehumanization and hostility" from the council towards people who are using the service. Charlotte Quinn, another speaker, said the council has done little to solve the problem while simultaneously attempting to kick RV dwellers out of the city. She hammered the city for resting on its laurels and comparing itself to other cities.
"There is nothing more important for you guys to be doing right now," Quinn said. "I seriously don't understand your function if this is not a priority, that you can possibly speak about not wanting to do more than San Jose as if a bar that's set that low is good enough."
Councilman John McAlister defended the council's record, saying the city had to go through a complicated, painstakingly slow process to get the program off the ground. To come to the city and say it didn't work hard on the problem would be "misinformed," he said.
Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga said she was fine with Mountain View punching above its weight when it comes to safe parking, but vented that the city has had to virtually go it alone and spend money on a problem that should be Santa Clara County's collective responsibility.
"I totally am proud to be a leader, I'm proud to set the example but I just get disappointed when I don't see followers from our neighboring communities," Abe-Koga said. "That's my real frustration here."