A neighborhood association on wheels

New advocacy group seeks to unite Mountain View's vehicle dwellers

Scott Rodvold takes a bottle of olive oil from his son while preparing dinner in the motorhome they share on March 8. Depleted finances following a medical emergency made it impossible to stay in his Mountain View apartment, he said. Photo by Magali Gauthier

Lacking a solid safety net, nearly half of Americans are estimated to be one crisis away from the poorhouse. They could be pushed into poverty from an accident, a job layoff, a rent increase or a medical emergency.
In the case of Scott Rodvold, 58, it was all of the above. It was just after Christmas 2016 when Rodvold collapsed at his Mountain View apartment and went into septic shock. He spent 17 days in a coma, eventually recovering only after being fortunate enough to get a liver transplant.

The medical trauma depleted both his health and his bank account. He was unable to continue his job as a construction material handler, and it became unsustainable to continue living at the apartment he shared with his young son, where the rent had recently increased to $2,800 a month.

That was when Rodvold's family joined the ranks of those living on the side of the road. He decided his best recourse was to buy a motorhome, park it at the most discreet curb he could find, and to try to carry on a semblance of middle-class life. These days he parks his motorhome on Continental Circle, a quiet street next to the Highway 85 sound barrier.

It's right across the street from the Americana Apartments, his former home.

Scott Rodvold puts a leash on Winnie and walks her along Continental Circle, by the apartment he used to live in. Photos by Magali Gauthier

Despite its prohibitive costs, Rodvold said he wants to stay in the Mountain View area, where he has lived since 1984.

"Why should my son have to leave his school?" Rodvold said. "I would like nothing more than to have enough to have an apartment and medical coverage, but it's clear that's not happening."

Scott Rodvold's son does his homework at a pull-out table in the RV. Photo by Magali Gauthier

Rodvold is one among dozens of unhoused residents who are now trying to change public perception and influence the debate on the city's homelessness problem. In an effort to unite the scattered residents living out of vehicles, Rodvold and others have founded a new advocacy group, the Mountain View Vehicle Residents. For too long, they say, city officials and homeowners have taken a paternalistic approach toward them, treating them as a problem rather than fellow residents pushed to desperate measures.

In particular, they seek to combat the narrative that vehicle dwellers are unemployed out-of-towners in a bad situation due to personal failings. This line of thinking is rife on the Mountain View's Nextdoor pages, where participation is restricted largely to residents with a mailing address.

According to one informal Nextdoor poll, over two-thirds of respondents said they didn't want vehicle dwellers anywhere on their streets, even if they were paying to park in a driveway. Stories abound on the site's pages of motorhome inhabitants being blamed for drug use, crimes and illegal dumping.

Any time these insinuations are made, they usually are followed with an easy political fix: Raise the drawbridge and force the poor to find somewhere else to go. Neighboring cities such as Palo Alto and Los Altos heavily restrict overnight street parking. Just last week, the city of Berkeley passed its own citywide parking ban against RVs, following pressure from residents and businesses. For years now, Mountain View officials have been urged to take similar measures.

"People don't want to see poverty in Mountain View. They believe this is Silicon Valley and they don't want to realize what's going on here," said Francisco Vargas. "When they do see it, they try to dehumanize us to justify their anger."

Francisco Vargas

One of the founding members of the Vehicle Residents group, Vargas, 23, believes people living out of their vehicles are being made into a scapegoat for the larger frustrations in the community. In a Voice profile published last year, Vargas described how his family lost their Mountain View apartment in 2016 and resorted to living in a trailer in the city's Jackson Park neighborhood while they saved up for a new place to live.

His family was broken up over the last weekend. His mother and sister moved to Riverside because they couldn't find a new apartment in their price range. Vargas, who attends Foothill College, and his father are still in Mountain View sleeping out of trailers while holding down local jobs.

Vargas has attended city meetings to discuss the homelessness issue, and he has become increasingly concerned that some city officials were searching for a pretext to kick out the homeless. He and other Vehicle Residents members began talking in December about how to change this perception.

Their small steering committee has met nearly 20 times, and they've focused their efforts on trying to connect with the hundreds of households living out of vehicles in Mountain View. Their group prints out regular bilingual newsletters that they distribute across the city, inviting people to attend their monthly group meetings, which regularly draw about 50 attendees.

The Vehicle Residents group's goal is to demonstrate that most of its members are actually working families who have lived in Mountain View for years. They assert that most people living out of their vehicles are doing so only because they were priced out of housing. The city of Mountain View has no employment statistics available for vehicle inhabitants, but more than four out of five homeless individuals were residing in Santa Clara County prior to losing their housing, according to a 2017 county homeless census. The same survey also found that nearly two-thirds of homeless residents remain on the street primarily because they can't afford rent for a new home.

Scott Rodvold has tried to make the RV feel as home-like as possible. But every 72 hours, loose belongings must get strapped down so he can move the vehicle. Photos by Magali Gauthier

The Vehicle Residents' advocacy has taken on new urgency as city officials are scheduled on March 19 to consider the issue of citywide homelessness and parking. The meeting was prompted last October when a majority of the City Council voted to consider some form of parking restrictions on inhabited vehicles.

Streets lined with vehicles have created ad-hoc neighborhoods of RV-dwellers throughout Mountain View. Video by Magali Gauthier

It is not yet clear what options city staff will present for the City Council to consider. Assistant to the city manager Kimberly Thomas said the city would discuss a variety of measures, including "short-term strategies, new data and a discussion of parking enforcement and safe parking strategies." It would be a progress report on their ongoing projects to date, she said.

Yet the meeting has rattled homeless individuals and advocates who fear that its outcome will be stricter enforcement. For several years, the city has worked to launch a safe-parking program under the belief that it was necessary to create an alternative space before street parking was restricted.

"You can't just enforce without creating a solution for those in an impossible situation," said Pastor Brian Leong, a pastor at Lord's Grace Christian Church who helped launch the city's safe-parking program. "I'm hoping that if the city is going to enforce more, then they'll open more lots for us, or create some other option for people besides leave the city."