A tug of war over people living in RVs in East Palo Alto heated up Wednesday morning as city staff ordered a tow truck to haul away RVs on Weeks Street, where a storm drain became clogged with sewage from the vehicles, creating a public health hazard, according to city staff.
About 50 protesters, who stood shoulder to shoulder to block the tow truck at 8 a.m. Wednesday, said city police and Assistant City Manager Sean Charpentier handed out tow notices on Tuesday at about 3 p.m., giving people less than 24 hours to move their RVs.
"Many of these vehicles cannot be moved on such short notice. So the city is impounding people's homes," protest organizer Patricia Finau Lopez, who lives on Weeks, said in a press release.
The RVs and cars in the 1100 block of Weeks Street have been housing working parents, children and the elderly, among others, protesters said. The region's severe housing crisis has led to impoverished people living in cars, they said.
From the city's standpoint, however, the make-shift housing situation is causing public-safety problems.
Many RV residents on Weeks illegally empty their chemical toilets onto the street, and the waste has entered the storm drain, city officials said in a press release.
City signs posted on Weeks stated the evictions were for emergency and health and safety reasons. The area is prone to flooding, and the 1 to 2 inches of rain forecast for Wednesday and Thursday could spread the sewage, according to the city. (As of Thursday, a photo of Weeks showed that the street had flooded.)
A similar sewage clog-up led to recent Hepatitis A outbreaks in southern California, city staff said.
Prior to Wednesday's evictions, city staff told the RV dwellers of places where they could dispose their waste in Redwood City, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.
Nearby resident Mark Dinan said he sympathizes with the RV dwellers, but the unregulated presence of so many portable dwellings has had serious health consequences for him and his neighbors.
"Most times my biggest complaint is stepping on human feces on the Bay Trail," he said.
"This has become a lawless zone," he added, noting that people who are not living in the RVs have come to the area to party.
"A lot of people living here are not East Palo Alto residents. We're talking about people who have been pushed out of Palo Alto and other cities," he said. "Everybody has empathy for this situation, but we can't let East Palo Alto become a hazard zone for residents. ... This is a health and safety issue, not a social issue."
The Weeks site is adjacent to a property owned by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Dr. Priscilla Chan, founders of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The couple plans to turn the land into the long-term home of The Primary School, which serves children in pre-K through eighth grade.
Trash, beer bottles and other debris littered the site of the future school on Wednesday morning. Someone left an abandoned barbecue grill near the fence.
Dinan's concern is when human waste and other materials infect the community and the wetlands.
"There's got to be better conditions for people to live in," he said.
Adrian Bonilla lives in one of the RVs with his wife and two grandsons. He said they used to sublet a room in a house on nearby Poplar Avenue, but they were not allowed access to the kitchen, nor could they could find parking nearby.
"We could only use the bathroom," he said.
The family has lived in their RV for the past three months. Last night they moved their vehicle one block over after police came and told them it would be towed in the morning. It would cost them $1,000 to retrieve the vehicle, he said police told him.
"We don't have that money," he said.
Bonilla works as a mechanic; his wife works for the Ravenswood City School District, driving a van for children with special needs. Husband and wife work second jobs as Uber drivers, he said. They live in their RV because it is so difficult to find an affordable place to rent, he said.
"The cheapest house is $4,000 a month, and it is only two rooms, and sometimes there is no parking," he said.
Protest organizer Marlayna Tuiasosopo said people worked late into the night Tuesday to push nonworking RVs around the corner so they would not be towed. The problem is only going to shift without real solutions, though, she and others said.
On Wednesday morning, one of the last RVs left on the street was getting a jump-start from a car.
Guillermo Pasqual, who lives in the vehicle with two brothers and an uncle, said they all work in construction in surrounding cities.
"They don't permit us to stay here, but they don't tell us where we can go. The city is not helping us," he said.
But city leaders said that they have brought in staff from LifeMoves, a Menlo Park-based housing support nonprofit, and other social service providers to assist residents.
Separately, Ravenswood City School District Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff said that she and East Palo Alto Pastor Paul Bains have been working with LifeMoves on a safe-parking initiative so that families can have a safe place to stay. They're attempting to identify parking lots around the city that could also host sanitary facilities and provide security.
"If the city can't afford port-a-potties and dumpsters, we can find funders," said Hernandez-Goff, who noted that 58 percent of school district students are homeless or in unstable housing.
The district has responded by installing washers and dryers at schools so that homeless families can do their laundry. It is also providing 1,200 to 1,500 dinners and serves breakfasts and snacks to children who come to school with empty stomachs.
Michael Mashack, who is on the city's Second Unit Task Force (a group dedicated to addressing issues surrounding accessory-dwelling units), was walking his dog on Weeks Wednesday when he saw the RVs were gone.
"I was a little surprised and disappointed," he said of the signs the city had put up and the short notice given to the vehicle dwellers.
He said many longtime residents feel pressure from newer residents who want to change the city.
"I would love to see some modernization, but make it work for us" rather than making people have to fight against outside pressures, he said.
Some protesters pointed to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as an example of the kind of influx of big money that's seeking to improve the community but also changing it in ways that are making it too expensive for longtime residents. But Hernandez-Goff said that initiative representatives have been meeting with the school district and community leaders.
"They have been helpful in trying to find solutions, but we need land, and we need to do something right now. Planning for home building is wonderful, but that takes two to three years," she said.
City leaders have been grappling with how to regulate RVs and other oversized vehicles on city streets. On Wednesday night, the Public Works and Transportation Commission considered an ordinance crafted by staff that would impose a minimum 60-day emergency ban of RVs on the eastern end of Weeks Street from Pulgas Avenue to the Baylands. The ordinance would also prohibit parking of oversized vehicles of any kind on city streets that are taller and wider than seven feet and longer than 20 feet.
Staff would work with nonprofit and faith-based groups to find a solution and perhaps sites where the RVs could stay, at least temporarily.
Commissioners voted to table the ordinance in order to consider alternatives at their next meeting and to uncouple the RV and oversized-vehicle issues. They recommended that staff immediately begin working with the faith-based and nonprofit groups on temporary solutions for the RV dwellers. The remedies could include parking lots for overnight stays, portable toilets, trash receptacles and places to shower.
Assistant City Manager Sean Charpentier said the City Council will consider the proposed ordinance on Dec. 19, without formal recommendation from the commission.
For now, on Weeks Street, the West Bay Sanitary District was called to pump the storm drain, which will need to be disinfected, city staff said.
East Palo Alto also planned to bring in a specialized firm to clean the road.
See more online: Watch Palo Alto Weekly journalists discuss the issue of RVs in East Palo Alto on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," which can be found here.