Watch Weekly journalists discuss the program with Pastor Paul Bains, executive director of Project WeHope, the organization that will be managing the RV Safe Parking Pilot Program, on "Behind the Headlines".
The East Palo Alto City Council unanimously approved a program to support RV dwellers on government land on Tuesday night, July 17, to the applause of a roomful of community supporters who told the council "good job."
The RV Safe Parking Pilot Program, the first program in Silicon Valley to house and support RV dwellers on government land, could start as soon as November.
The council voted 4-0, with Mayor Ruben Abrica absent to approve the program, which will utilize $118,000 from the city's general fund surplus and $200,000 from the voter-approved Measure O, a residential rental business license tax.
The city declared the shelter crisis under state Government Code 8698, which grants cities authorization for declaring a local crisis if there is a significant threat to the health and safety. The lack of shelter falls under that category, staff said.
The declaration allows the city to take action to address the crisis, but it also grants the city immunity from liability for ordinary negligence by providing emergency shelter.
"Clearly, as a city and a community, I think we are trailblazing. I know that we're going to learn as we go," Councilman Carlos Romero said.
"This is a great opportunity not only as a city, but also for the other 20 cities in our region to follow," Councilman Larry Moody said. "This is a way to care for our own."
The vote followed a heartfelt discussion at the previous council meeting on July 3 about the need for communities to help the least fortunate. The council voted unanimously at that time to support the proposed RV Safe Parking Pilot Program, which will allow up to 20 recreational vehicles and motor homes to temporarily park on city-owned property.
The groundbreaking program will use the former Tanklage site at 1798 Bay Road for a one-year pilot program to allow people to park their RVs overnight while receiving support services, with the goal of moving the people into transitional housing. East Palo Alto nonprofit Project WeHope, which provides shelter and services to homeless persons, will manage the program and lease the property. The site will have portable toilets, security guards, meals at Project WeHope's gym, and laundry and shower services through WeHope's Dignity on Wheels mobile van.
The program is estimated to cost about $300,000. Project WeHope will contribute one-third of the funding, with the city contributing two-thirds through its general fund, primarily drawing on monies generated by the East Palo Alto residential rental business license tax.
City staff estimated capital costs of between $50,000 to $100,000 for amenities such as lighting and a hookup to water, which would be funded by the city.
At least 37 RVs, some housing families, are parking along Bay Road and Tara Street on the city's southeastern edge. Pastor Paul Bains, head of Project WeHope, said this number, which his team counted during outreach, did not include RVs in driveways and on private land, so the number of RVs that house people could be much higher.
The parking program will prioritize East Palo Alto families, the elderly, disabled persons and veterans, staff said. Persons in the program will have an entry pass to the lot, which a guard would check. Project WeHope and East Palo Alto police have been working to identify which RV dwellers are East Palo Alto residents through driver's licenses and vehicle registrations. The process has been somewhat complicated since some East Palo Alto residents have been renting out or loaning their RVs to homeless people, Bains said.
Families in the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, many of whose children are enrolled in the Ravenswood City School District, would be accommodated in the program after East Palo Alto residents, if there are spaces.
Roots of the program
East Palo Alto's new program was formulated after some RV dwellers living in the 1100 block of Weeks Street were evicted last November just before a large winter storm. The city had to clean the site of hazardous materials, including 6,000 gallons of raw sewage that had been illegally discharged into the storm drain by a few of the RV dwellers. The effluence overflowed onto the street, which was also strewn with personal belongings and trash.
Acknowledging that the situation was getting out of hand and unsustainable, the city held multiple council and public meetings and instructed staff to work out details of what the parking program could look like.
To qualify, the RVs must be registered, operational and have insurance. Applicants must sign a waiver of occupancy, acknowledging that permission to park at the site is not a tenancy right. They can only park overnight at the site for up to 90 days.
During the daytime, they must park their RVs on the street or drive them to their workplaces. Applicants must agree to participate in a case-management program. They must be clean and sober, or if they are addicted to substances, they must be in a recovery program. No drugs or alcohol would be allowed on the site.
To address the sewage and garbage issue, the RVs must have the ability to dispose of sewage in a certified dumping station. The program would provide RV owners with vouchers for the sewage dumping and solid waste at a station in Redwood City. The nonprofit Samaritan House would help people get their RVs running.
Nonprofits LifeMoves and Abode Services would help the RV dwellers find and move into transitional housing. For RV dwellers who require more than the 90 days to do that, their stays at the property could be extended on a case-by-case basis, Bains said. Project WeHope would be required to file quarterly assessment and status reports regarding the program's progress and outcomes.
City staff members did not recommend establishing a permanent RV park, although they did study the costs. One-time capital costs for a full-time RV park would be at least $750,000 to $1 million. Operating costs would exceed $250,000 annually, according to the staff report.
There are legal considerations to launching the pilot program. The city acquired the Tanklage site from the East Palo Alto Redevelopment Agency after the state dissolved such agencies. The property transfer added a deed restriction as a governmental-use property. City ordinance defines such uses as a public purpose: a park, police or fire station, library, local agency administration building or public parking, as examples.
Staff has determined the use for a temporary RV parking program complies with the deed restriction and municipal definition. State government code also grants cities the power to declare a shelter crisis, which is deemed to be a local emergency.
"A shelter crisis may be declared when a city finds that a significant number of persons within the jurisdiction are without the ability to obtain shelter and that the situation has resulted in a threat to the health and safety of those persons," staff wrote. Declaring a shelter crisis, a city is authorized to take necessary action, including using public facilities to address the crisis.
Program faces opposition
Some East Palo Alto residents, while sympathetic, are opposed to the program's location at Bay Road and Clarke Avenue. Fifty nearby residents signed a June 11 petition and others spoke at a June 14 community meeting, expressing concerns about congested street parking, an influx of additional RV dwellers, a possible lack of police department oversight and environmental concerns, among others.
Residents at the July 3 council meeting offered a mix of support. Mark Dinan, whose yard backed up to the Weeks Street RV encampment, said the dwellers brought human waste, drugs, trash and prostitution.
Louella Parker, said she hasn't been able to sell her home because of the RVs in the neighborhood.
"It feels like a temporary thing," she said of the program, "But what happens after it?"
Elizabeth Pulido said her neighborhood at Fordham Street and Bay Road is already inundated with drug dealers, crime and violence. The city should instead use the funding to address these problems.
"Why does the city want to bring another burden to this community?" she said.
But Mike Francois said he supports the project, which could be emulated by other cities to help solve the broader regional issue of people living in RVs.
"What I like about this is you're going to put families first," he said.
Councilman Larry Moody, who has worked with ministries focused on homelessness, said 90 days might not be long enough for some people to get into housing.
"I would suggest we look at a six-month program that really identifies the 20 families we will work with over a long period of time," he said.
"It is also an opportunity for local churches to engage in true ministry," he added, where they could offer parking lots and perhaps breakfasts.
The importance of using in-city service providers, such as El Concilio for case management, can't be understated, he said.
"It holds the residents of the RV community to a standard" of accountability to their community, he said.
Mayor Ruben Abrica also asked the faith community to step up.
"I am definitely not a religious person, but I want to go ahead and say this. From what I know, particularly of the Christian tradition, if Jesus Christ showed up today in the same way that he lived, you know, we might be looking down on him and not really helping him and the people around him, which included all kinds of people who were having a lot of trouble. That's my appeal to the religious community: To help us solve these problems that do deeper than just specific situations."
Abrica said that he hopes that other cities will follow suit. He said he will approach Menlo Park in particular to help with a program for Belle Haven RV residents.
"This is a crisis that's affecting people at the very ground level: human beings. This is not to say that we have the solution. But we are the kind of city that has historically tried to address human needs directly and not be afraid and to try things out. And if they don't work, then we can modify them," Abrica said.
In fact, East Palo Alto is not alone in considering safe-parking programs for RV dwellers, but it's the only one to do so with public property. In Santa Clara County, San Jose and Mountain View are working on pilot safe-parking programs. Both would fund sites at faith-based organizations.
Santa Clara County approved on June 5 an agreement with Move Mountain View for parking and supportive services for up to $287,525 and with Amigos de Guadalupe in San Jose for up to $505,000 for a program running from June 5, 2018, through June 30, 2020.
Abrica said he has spent much time visiting with the people who live in RVs, and he cautioned against knee-jerk reactions against them.
"Just like any other community on this planet -- somebody (here) said it -- most people are doing the best they can. They're not creating problems. There are a few -- and I would say they exist in every community, whether it's a housing community, an ethnic community, a religious community -- there are people who are doing harm and are not doing right, and I do agree that we need to address that and deal with that," he said.
"But we should not paint all people with the same brush and then blame them for problems that run deeper in our society," he said.
To keep RVs from other cities from driving over to fill the gaps left after the existing vehicles leave the streets, city staff has recommended that an overnight parking ordinance, enforcement of the existing 72-hour parking rule and vehicle-operations codes should run in tandem with the pilot parking program.
Council members on July 3 agreed, warning that East Palo Alto's program should not be used to solve other cities' problems. They said there would be a future discussion regarding a potential overnight ban for all oversized vehicles in the city. The Public Works and Transportation Committee is expected to hold public hearings on an ordinance in late July or August.