Palo Alto's own miniature Hooverville on wheels is situated within sight of the tower on the Stanford University campus bearing the name of the president associated with the early period of the Great Depression.
Down-on-their luck workers and the unemployed line the west side of El Camino Real in RVs. The economy might be booming around them, but they can no longer afford a home.
The smattering of aged rigs has grown in the past months to at least 48 RVs, which form a line from Stanford Avenue to Medical Foundation Drive.
In response to public concerns, Palo Alto police have begun enforcing the city's 72-hour parking ordinance, which prohibits re-parking within a half-mile.
Stanford University, which borders the street, does not have jurisdiction over the car campers, but Jean McCown, associate vice president of government and community relations, called the situation "a reflection of the very challenging economic circumstances faced by many people in this region. We understand that similar situations of extensive RV parking exist in neighboring municipalities as well."
Brian Greenberg, vice president of programs and services at LifeMoves, which provides homeless services in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, said that most people living in RVs are single adults or couples and a few have minor children.
"Our experience is also that about half are employed, although not all in full-time positions, and that they are not earning enough to sustain housing in the local rental market," he said.
Some RV dwellers interviewed by the Weekly are new arrivals from other cities, where police have more aggressively given out tickets; others are deeply rooted to Palo Alto, having grown up, lived or worked nearby for most of their lives. Still others work as contractors or employees of Stanford University or Stanford Hospital.
They say they aren't looking for handouts, but they do wish for a place where they can stay.
Among the people living in RVs is Frank Aldama, 56, who said he came to El Camino Real a few months ago after being ticketed multiple times in San Jose for parking too long. He said he has run up $2,000 in tickets he can't pay.
On a recent morning, the wake of passing cars buffeted his RV, rocking it back and forth. So far, it's been the most RV-friendly place he's been, he said.
A U.S. Marines veteran, Aldama owned a trucking transport business; then his wife of 29 years decided to leave him. Aldama said his life fell apart.
"I fell into a downward spiral. I lost control over my life, and I started using drugs," he said.
A lengthy incarceration enabled him to finally kick his habit, and he has remained clean for four years, he said. After he got out, his brother and mother purchased the RV so that he wouldn't live on the street. He lives on food stamps and money his mother gives him for toiletries. He hasn't tried to get veterans' assistance and he was not aware of services at the Opportunity Center, just blocks away from his RV.
He said he would like to get a job, perhaps do some truck driving again, but his parking-ticket problem prevents that. If he had a job, he could pay off the tickets and get his life together again, he said.
"I would really like an opportunity to give back. If I had a decent job and a way to provide for myself I would rent a room. I wouldn't live in this RV," he said.
Mike Becker, 52, worked in a shop in San Francisco building doors and frames until two months ago. He has been living in an RV for two years, and before that he lived on a boat in Brisbane. He said he also has mental health issues: At times he is cheerful and chatty; at other times he doesn't want to talk to anyone.
"Behind this door I can feel safe where it's locked," he said.
Becker said he has no problem working.
"I'm not lazy. I don't want handouts or anything," he said.
If he could find an RV park with power and sewer, he would be happy to pay $600 to $800 a month, he said.
It's not just transient people who have relocated to El Camino.
Joel Betts, 61, lives in a rented SUV parked across the street from Palo Alto High School, which he attended. He works as a driver for a San Jose catering company.
He lost his apartment in 1993 when rents started going crazy, he said. He has car camped for 20 years in the Bay Area, Antioch and the San Joaquin Delta. He came to this spot about two months ago after "Mountain View started getting all tow happy," he said.
Some of the RV dwellers have jobs at Stanford.
Karen, who declined to give her last name, 67, a Stanford Hospital lab worker, mother and grandmother, said she is a third-generation Palo Altan who lost her home after a divorce and returned to the Bay Area to care for her ailing father.
She used to live in an apartment with her son and paid $895 a month rent, which rose to $1,695. She lost child-support payments when her son graduated high school and worked two jobs to make the monthly payment.
Karen has lived in an RV for about three-and-a-half years, initially in a cramped, duct-tape-sealed vehicle she dubbed "Butterfly Cottage" for the decorations she hung outside. She parked in a lot near work. Her RV neighbor was a Stanford physician who lived in Carmel on the weekends and in his RV during the week because he didn't want to commute, she said. But when the doctor left, the parking lot attendant said she couldn't live there anymore.
Recently she bought a much nicer, roomier RV. She makes a distinction between the working RV dwellers and retirees and others who can move somewhere else.
"There are some of us that need to be here," she noted.
Jeanne Nicholas, 49, works at Stanford University in a financial services call center. For five years she lived in a $2,800-a-month Mountain View apartment with her mother and aunt, both of whom she supports. When her rent was raised, she moved her mother and aunt into a home she owns in Fresno, regrettably having to evict her tenant.
A few weeks ago, she bought the 1998 RV to live in during the week. She commutes to Fresno on the weekend in her smart car, she said.
"It would be nice if Stanford provided accommodations for housing for workers. There are mobile home parks that accept RVs, but the rent is $2,000 a month just to park and they aren't convenient to where I work," she said.
Stanford's McCown said the university provides housing with priority for faculty and staff at the 624-unit Stanford West apartments, including below-market-rate units. A one-bedroom below-market-rate unit is under $1,000 a month.
Stanford recently purchased 167 apartments at Colonnade in Los Altos and has applied to build 215 apartments in Menlo Park, also with priority for faculty and staff under the same conditions as at Stanford West.
The university's new 70 below-market-rate units at Mayfield Place on El Camino are open to the public, including Stanford employees who meet the income qualifications. There was a lottery for those units and residents have moved in, she said.
Samantha Dorman, spokeswoman for Stanford Health Care and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, said the hospitals hope to gain an understanding of any relationships the RV dwellers have to Stanford as the city conducts its outreach through county case workers, which is part of the overall strategy.
City Manager James Keene has taken up the matter with officials in surrounding cities to try to find a regional solution, he said. Some cities, like Santa Barbara, run programs for people who live in RVs: The coastal town has a 13-year-old program that provides places for RV dwellers to park overnight, but there is a waiting list of 80 vehicles, according to the Santa Barbara Independent and other local papers.