Following the lead of East Palo Alto and Mountain View, two members of the Palo Alto City Council are proposing an overnight parking area for recreational vehicles (RVs), whose growing presence along El Camino Real, in residential neighborhoods and near local parks has become a source of concern for residents and city leaders.
In a memo that the City Council will consider on June 10, council members Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou suggest the city consider a pilot program on public land at 1237 San Antonio Road, east of U.S. Highway 101. Often referred to as the Los Altos Water Treatment Plant, the site was previously eyed as a possible location for a new and bigger animal shelter. Under the proposal, the city would explore either constructing bathrooms or bringing portable bathroom and shower services to the lot.
Kou told the Weekly that she proposed establishing an RV program several years ago to help people living in RVs, though the idea did not gain traction at that time. Palo Alto staff talked with churches about opening their parking lots to RV, but few stepped up and the program quickly fizzled.
Meanwhile, other cities have moved ahead with their own programs. East Palo Alto this month opened a pilot Safe Parking program, just as a city ban on oversized vehicles went into effect. Funded by the city and the nonprofit Project WeHope, the program allows residents to park their vehicles in a lot at 1798 Bay Road between 7:30 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The Mountain View City Council on May 7 approved a deal to lease and eventually buy an unused 2-acre property from the Valley Transportation Authority to provide safe parking for homeless residents. The city adopted in March its own ban on overnight RV parking, though that restriction will not take effect until at least late 2020.
All three cities are trying to balance residents' concerns about safety and sanitation around RV encampments with the goal of helping residents who are unable to afford permanent housing. Earlier this month, a biennial census released by Santa Clara County showed a 31% increase in the county's population of homeless residents between January 2017 and January 2019, up to the current total of 9,706.
DuBois and Kou's memo notes that the number of people living in vehicles has "grown substantially in the last decade.
"The effort must be made to find immediate and short- and long-term solutions," their memo states. "The ultimate goal is to provide assistance to people to get them back on the path to stable housing."
Kou and DuBois request that city staff identify large lots that could be used for a managed overnight parking program, including areas on Bayshore Road and at Stanford Research Park. It proposes that the city initiate the program at the San Antonio site and ask Santa Clara County to fund employment and housing services for RV residents.
The memo also recommends that the new program be run by an organization supported by the city, directing staff to explore potential partnerships with area nonprofits including Project WeHope, Samaritan House, Life Moves and Abode Services.
Kou said that one of her goals in proposing the RV program is to establish a balance between the city's existing plans to build new housing and the need to take care of current residents who are struggling to get by. She and DuBois both see the issue of RV encampments as one that the city should "not sweep under the rug or turn our eye away from.
"At this point, we have a housing plan that really addresses new production," Kou told the Weekly. "I want to make sure that the people who are living here now (in RVs) are given some consideration as well."
DuBois said the memo aims to reopen the conversation about both helping the RV residents and gaining a better understanding of who they are. It underscores the need to "understand if there are higher-income or transient workers who are using vehicle dwelling as a lifestyle choice who should be directed to other types of residences or location," the memo states.
It also directs staff to reserve spots in the new parking program for low-income individuals.
DuBois said he believes local businesses can play an important role in addressing the problem, particularly if they are located in commercial and industrial areas.
"I'd really like to see the business community step up, particularly ones with some of the larger parking lots," DuBois said. "There are potentially large lots in places where it wouldn't bother anyone."
Even if the council agrees to explore using the San Antonio Road site for RV parking, the city will need many more sites to accommodate the potential demand, he noted.