At Project WeHOPE’s “safe parking” lot in East Palo Alto, RV life dwells not in the abstract. On a rainy evening in January, lumbering homes on wheels rolled into the shelter to get off the street for the night. Bundled-up “residents” stood under a pop-up tent in the shivering cold chowing down a free dinner of chicken and rice from Styrofoam containers.
Janitors. Housekeepers. The working poor, relieved to have a legal, protected haven in the shelter.
Meanwhile, recreational-vehicle-living is far from an abstract concept either in the growing number of communities, now including Redwood City, where people priced out of the sizzling housing market are decamping to business districts and other people’s neighborhoods. To the consternation of both residential and business neighbors upset about sanitation, traffic and parking — not to mention the visual impact— the RVs are congregating in pockets along Stafford Street in the Centennial neighborhood next to the Caltrain tracks north of Whipple Avenue, in the Spring and Chestnut streets area south of Woodside Road, and along Veterans Boulevard and Walnut Street.
The largest enclave is the line-up of upwards of 30 oversized vehicles, including a commuter-type bus and crippled motor homes, that snakes along Oddstad Drive, a frontage road north of the Maple Street freeway overpass.
Business people and residents want the city to do something about on-street RV parking —banning it outright or finding somewhere else for them to park, among other solutions.
Entwined with larger social problems with homelessness, it’s a polarizing issue that is cropping up all over the Bay Area and testing the idea of what “community” and “neighborhood” mean. In Mountain View, which has three overnight RV lots, the City Council last year passed a ban on parking by oversized vehicles, which has been challenged by residents who think it’s unfair and inhumane. The ban’s repeal is now headed for a citywide vote in November. The Palo Alto City Council plans a trial of allowing RVs to park at interested churches.
The Redwood City Council has an ad-hoc committee, which includes Councilmembers Diana Reddy and Gisele Hale and has been meeting with neighbors and RV residents and visiting other cities to see what’s working elsewhere. The goal is to come up with recommendations for the full Redwood City Council by the spring.
“It’s a very sensitive, highly complicated issue that on the one hand, the vast majority of people who are living in RVs tend to be displaced renters,” says Reddy, who has gone door-to-door to find out who lives in the RVs. Most, she has found, are people who work locally and live in RVs “in order to make working here viable for them” not the small percentage with the mental health or substance abuse issues so many fear.
“The people that I talked to are doing what they can given the situation,” Reddy says. “… No one is trying to take advantage of the residents. Some people are not taking care of their footprint and I’d like to address that, but I have not talked to anyone that I felt was trying to take advantage or had ill feelings toward the residents or were trying to do anything detrimental to Redwood City.”
City officials have been meeting with neighbors and working on near-term answers to their concerns both with homeless encampments and RVs, including reports of human waste and trash being left behind, drug-dealing and other unsavory activities. Following a Dec. 3 meeting with Centennial residents, city crews came back Dec. 12 and did street sweeping and trash collection on Stafford Street, which hadn’t been done in two years, according to Jim Hedges, the neighborhood association co-chair.
The City Council has also set aside $150,000 in one-time funds, two thirds of which will be used for safe dumping of sewage and other waste and removal of hazardous items and debris.
Addressing the complaints on Oddstad Drive is a pressing issue, and a meeting was held Jan. 23 with affected business people.
Marlene Guinasso manages La Petite Playhouse, an indoor play and party space for young children. “We’re down about 18 percent from last year, and it’s really impacted our business because people complain that there’s no parking,” she says. “People complain that they feel unsafe parking around the area. I try to assure them that they (the RV dwellers) don’t bother anybody. But yeah, honestly, there’s drug-dealing there. We see it all the time.”
From the window of the Jewelry Exchange store on Oddstad, Bob Butera sees the same RVs every day, despite signs prohibiting parking between 2 a. m. and 5 a.m. “Once in a while, you’ll see a police car drive by but that’s all they do is drive by. They don’t stop. They don’t do anything.” The RV-dwellers who go to work and come back to sleep aren’t creating the problems, Butera says. It’s those who are doing drug deals, having bonfires at night and cooking outdoors.
Redwood City Police Capt. Ashley Osborne, who commands the Patrol Division, maintains that enforcement that is happening isn’t necessarily visible. Police issue citations which are picked up by the owner. People cited for certain drug-related or Penal Code offenses no longer have to go to jail, as a result of the recategorization of some felonies as misdemeanors after Prop. 47 passed in 2014. “We leave and they’re still there.”
Absent an outright ban, the only available enforcement tool is a 72-hour limit on parking of vehicles of any kind, but a driver only needs to move it one vehicle length to be legal. It can be cited and potentially towed, but RVs take up a lot of space in tow yards and not all companies are equipped to handle oversized vehicles.
“It’s a much different animal than just towing a vehicle that might be in violation of the 72-hour violation just because of its size,” Osborne says. “It’s also someone’s residence. It’s not just a vehicle and there’s more issues involved with that.” However, the department recently got authorization to hire two dedicated parking officers, who Osborne hopes will make a difference.
Police are working with other city departments and outside agencies to mitigate the impacts of homelessness and the growing transient population. “Not to say we don’t have a role,” Osborne adds. “We do. But I don’t think we can solve the problem out of the PD.”
For people who can’t keep up with rising rents, an RV may seem their only option. But even at local trailer and RV parks, it’s slim pickings.
“I am full until 2021,” says Robin Matthias, manager of the 130-space Sequoia Trailer Park on Barron Avenue, who has a waiting list of nearly two-dozen for various sized RVs. Monthly rent is $1,032 for a 30-amp vehicle or $258 a week; tenants have access to laundry, showers and toilets. Ninety-five percent are local.
Matthias is sympathetic. “I wish I had a double-decker park but I don’t.” Indeed, if she weren’t able to live onsite, “I would be out of here myself.”
Councilmember Reddy says the RV dwellers include people who live in distant but more affordable areas like Stockton or Manteca and used to rent a room during the week and go home on weekends. “That’s no longer the case.” If someone is doing what he can to provide for his family, “I’m not willing to say that one person is more entitled than another person to have housing.”
Hedges, the Centennial neighborhood leader, concedes that the long-distance commuters parking RVs have been “pretty decent,” but he maintains that RV dwellers should not be considered part of a neighborhood. “If they’re my neighbors, I’d like to know something about them. If Fred moves in, I know in a month whether he’s a drug dealer or not. But these people, you don’t know what they are.” He figures the ultimate solution will be for the city to create RV areas with essential services, as has happened in East Palo Alto, “basically setting up an RV park for them.”
Deputy City Manager Alex Khojikian responds that it’s premature to talk about possible sites or the eventual recommendations: “We’re working on it over the next couple of months but we’ll be looking at everything.”
One of those places is Project WeHOPE’s RV shelter, which helps people get back onto the road to self-sufficiency, according to President and co-founder Paul Bains. The fortunate few who have been vetted to take refuge at the shelter since it opened in May 2019 have had access to feeding programs, showers and laundry facilities, but must follow guidelines. They can take classes such as in financial literacy. So far, 13 families have moved into housing; only two RV dwellers were found to have drug issues, says Bains, who is a pastor. “We are told it’s the first of its kind in the country.”
The RV dwellers get a permit that allows them into the shelter lot from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., and they can also park during the day on city streets despite a ban on oversized vehicles. Priority is given to families from East Palo Alto and Menlo Park who have kids, then seniors, then veterans and down the list. The facility is on city-owned land and East Palo Alto covers about two-thirds of the $330,000 annual cost.
“Most of these people have been priced out,” Bains says of the demographic. “Loss of jobs. Medical bills. The rent increased by 30, 40, 50 percent. That’s the reason why they are in that position. They are the working poor.”
That profile fits four residents interviewed for this story, most speaking with the help of a Spanish-speaking interpreter. Two were janitors, one of whom lost his job and then was injured in a motorcycle accident and can’t work. A 58-year-old housekeeper said she and her husband couldn’t afford $2,000 to rent their studio apartment, and are living in an RV now with her sister-in-law, 51, a housekeeper, who’d been paying $800 for a single room. Parking on the street was frightening and the women are a deeply grateful to Project WeHOPE.
Says Bains, if someone can change the trajectory of one person or one family living in an RV, “that’s a life being impacted in a positive way.”
This story was originally published in the February print edition of Climate Magazine.