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."
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."