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MV forum explores ongoing issue of vehicle dwellers

Crisanto RVs
Megan V. Winslow / Town Crier
RVs line up on Crisanto Avenue in Mountain View, above. According to city officials, 250-300 people are living in their vehicles in town.

Silicon Valley success has triggered sky-high housing prices that have forced many residents from four walls to four-wheeled vehicles. The city of Mountain View estimates between 250 and 300 RVs and other vehicles are parked on city streets that residents call home.

Addressing the city’s increasing homeless and vehicle-dwelling population – and its impacts – was the focus of a Feb. 8 League of Women Voters-sponsored forum at the Mountain View Senior Center. The event featured three panelists approaching the problem from different perspectives – humanitarian (Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency), management/enforcement (Mountain View Police Sgt. Wahed Magee) and administrative/policymaking (Kimberly Thomas, assistant to Mountain View City Manager Dan Rich).

Thomas provided some eye-opening statistics about the homeless in Mountain View. City officials counted 139 homeless individuals in 2013. The total grew to 276 when the count was conducted two years later, and the number ballooned to 416 in 2017. She said Mountain View accounts for nearly 6 percent of Santa Clara County’s estimated 7,400 homeless residents.

“It keeps getting worse and worse and worse,” Myers said. “The difference between those who have and those who have not is increasing – it’s huge here in Silicon Valley, but it’s happening all over country.”

Myers said CSA, which he noted helps residents in need get “food on the table and a roof over their heads,” was working with approximately 3,000 residents six or seven years ago. He’s anticipating approximately 10,000 this fiscal year. “Most of that growth is in the last three years,” he said. “It shocks the hell out of me, and it should shock everybody.”

He said living in vehicles has become a “creative choice” for those who don’t want to move out of the area or become homeless. Myers’ recent records revealed 12 children living in vehicles and 21 seniors.

One speaker claimed to be among the homeless. Chuck Jagoda related his struggle with homelessness that began in 2009 and ended in 2013, when he secured public housing in Sunnyvale. He described himself as a teacher who could not afford a place to live.

“People are sliding from the middle class to the working poor, from the working poor to shelters,” he told the forum gathering.

Myers said homelessness is not caused by unemployment – many of these people have jobs. He said it’s simply a lack of affordability.

“We have a very low unemployment rate – people who are able-bodied are employed,” he said.

Lenient regulations

Magee said that as a police officer, he looks to balance compassion with enforcement. While some vehicle dwellers are legitimately homeless and open to help, he noted that others are involved in drugs and other criminal activity.

Many are from out of town, Magee added, lured to Mountain View by what they perceive as a city lenient on restrictions. They come “knowing this is a location where they provide services,” he said, and word has spread that “Mountain View welcomes RVs.”

Magee said vehicles in the city are required to move at least 1,000 feet every 72 hours – it’s a rule officers regularly enforce. Violators are subject to fines and having their vehicles towed.

Thomas said the Mountain View City Council has spearheaded several efforts in the past few years to address the homeless problem. One effort included hiring a special officer, Michael Taber, to interact with the homeless and inform them of available services. According to Thomas, Taber has connected with more than 300 homeless residents since he started the job seven months ago.

The city has recently begun providing sanitation services for vehicle dwellers, and continues to explore a safe parking program through a private nonprofit organization. Thomas also pointed to a Santa Clara County homeless shelter that opened in Mountain View in December.

Longer term, Thomas said the city is looking to build more affordable housing units for very-low-income residents. She noted the council could consider a vehicle-dweller permitting program to keep track of and better serve the residents.

Jagoda said he’s convinced that most homeless residents are locally based and not from out of town.

“(But) it doesn’t matter,” he said. “They’re here, they’re brothers and sisters. If we all became homeless in the morning from an earthquake, we’d all be rushing to high schools and shelters to bring blankets and water. Just because we got homeless on our own doesn’t mean we don’t deserve your help. We’re not invaders, we’re you.”

He added: “Homelessness is a problem of lack of resources. If you’re subtracting resources from the equation, you don’t get it.”

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