But renting a space at an RV park has proven impossible. The monthly rent for a Redwood City parking space is more than $1,600. And even if she were able to come up with the rent, the occupancy is limited to three people.
"We are six. What are we going to do with the other half of our family?" Reyes said in a recent interview.
Initially, Reyes and her family parked their RV home on the streets, moving every three days to comply with local regulations that limit parking to 72 hours. For a while, they stayed in Palo Alto. Then Redwood City. Then Mountain View, where a police officer cited her for parking their home on the street and directed her to a newly created "safe parking" lot on Terra Bella Avenue. Operated by the nonprofit Move Mountain View, the site opened in September 2020 with the goal of providing vehicle dwellers a stable place to park and assistance in finding permanent housing. Her RV was one of the first few there. Soon, many others arrived.
Their years of parking on the street were challenging, she said. The children had little room to roam and the family was forced to be resourceful to meet basic needs.
There was also the challenge of finding a secure parking spot on the streets. At first, Reyes would follow other RVs and park where they parked. Later, she was often the one followed by others.
"It was very difficult," Reyes said. "I had to find a place to throw out the trash and we had to get a gym membership to take showers. We'd go to the dump stations to get clean water and get rid of the dirty water."
This summer, they made the move to Palo Alto's Geng Road program, in the Baylands, which like the Terra Bella site offers 24/7 parking for residents who live in vehicles. Unlike the smaller but more contentious safe parking programs at local churches, which are limited to four cars, Geng Road has 12 spots and it accommodates RVs.
The site east of U.S. Highway 101 was previously used as a temporary fire station while Palo Altos' new Rinconada Park station was being constructed; the parking program opened in February 2021. Now it offers amenities that other programs don't. On Sept. 30, Move Mountain View held a ceremony to unveil a suite of new services for the residents: a children's library, a closet with donated clothes, a locker room with showers and new washing machines and dryers.
For the Reyes family, the safe parking program on Geng offers a respite after years of moving around. Even though space inside their home remains tight for a family of six ("If the dog is chasing you, where are you going to go?" asked her 13-year-old daughter, Vesena), the Baylands are vast and scenic and the family can run and bike in the open space preserve. Most importantly, as its name implies, the parking site makes residents feel safer, Reyes said.
"For example, we're not in danger that a car is going to hit our RV on the street. Here, we don't have that problem," she said.
Move Mountain View does not have a specific time limit for stays at the seven parking lots it operates. But as part of the deal, all residents have to work with case workers to find a more permanent living situation. Right now, Reyes doesn't know where they will go, but she understands that eventually she'll have to move again.
"I don't mind being here forever," Reyes said. "I would hope I'd have a little more time because I really want to get a place. But I need more time."
The challenge of permanent housing
While safe parking sites like the one on Geng Road allow residents to access services and assistance, finding a permanent home remains a steep challenge for residents and case workers. Since Move Mountain View opened its first safe parking lots in 2018, it has seen about 380 clients. About 100 have moved to more stable destinations, according to the organization.
Amber Stime, executive director of Move Mountain View, said the organization explores numerous options for program participants. In some cases, it helps families apply for emergency housing vouchers from Santa Clara County, which are geared toward families that are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. In others, it leans on residents' relatives for assistance, or it helps them move to a destination where housing is cheaper.
"We've had some people say, 'I was thinking of moving to Texas.' So we work with them to see what it would take to live in Texas," Stime said. "It's not just about placing them in this community, but for those who want to stay, we want to help keep them here."
The Reyes family has its roots firmly planted in the Midpeninsula. Marleen Reyes' clients are here and her two daughters, Cristina and Vesena, both attend KIPP Excelencia Community Prep in Redwood City where they are, respectively, in fifth and eighth grades.
But Javier Godinez, who arrived at Geng Road in late July, is among those thinking of making a move to another part of the state. Godinez, a longtime resident of East Palo Alto, began living in an RV after his brother lost the home that they had previously shared.
He moved around, parking his home in San Carlos, Redwood City, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. There were no services or case workers in any of these places, he said, and many people resented the presence of these homes on wheels in their neighborhoods.
Godinez, 75, recalled in an interview his most recent stay in East Palo Alto, where he fended off complaints from people about his presence. Sometimes, he would find himself arguing with residents or police officers about his rights.
"I remember one time I was cooking and someone said, 'I will complain about you parking in the street,'" Godinez said. "I told the lady, 'Don't complain. This is a street. I pay taxes. You don't complain.'"
Now, he shares his RV on Geng Road with his two dogs, Peewee and Dolphin, and is planning his next destination. Maybe he'll go to Modesto, he mused. Or Fresno.
"Over there, everything is cheaper. Having an apartment is easier and there's a lot of places to park," Godinez said. "We'll try both things and see what's available for me."
The rise of safe parking lots
While permanent housing solutions remain out of reach, temporary ones like the safe parking program are becoming more common. The first two Move Mountain View parking lots opened to homeless residents in 2018 at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church and Lord's Grace Christian Church, with each dedicating three spots, said the Rev. Brian Leong, founder of Move Mountain View and pastor at Lord's Grace. Today, it has seven sites with 112 spaces in Mountain View and Palo Alto.
The Geng Road program is Palo Alto's largest and most ambitious. Unlike the city's three other sites, which are located behind churches and are limited to four spaces each, the Geng Road site has 12 spaces. And while the churches can only host vehicle dwellers overnight, Geng Road is open around the clock.
Getting the program set up took about two years of work by Leong, his allies in the faith community and their primary partner, Santa Clara County. In 2016, Leong brought the idea of housing vehicle dwellers at church lots to county Supervisor Joe Simitian, who encouraged him to identify sites and come up with a more sustainable model for safe parking. The big challenge that cities and churches were facing at the time, Simitian said, was anxiety about offering long-term parking and becoming subject to the state's landlord-tenant laws.
Simitian said that the county benefited from legislation that allowed it -- and certain other jurisdictions -- to operate temporary shelter sites without being subject to these laws. Once that became clear, he was able to approach Mountain View, Palo Alto and other cities and assure them that they wouldn't have to worry about running afoul of the state laws. The county also launched a "Whole Lotta Lots" campaign that urged cities to find sites that could accommodate vehicle dwellers.
"What we said is, 'If you'll find the site, we'll operate the programs using a trusted contractor and you won't have to worry about potential liability for being the landlord,'" Simitian said.
Leong said he was encouraged by the early results. One of the program's first clients moved out in three months, found a full-time job and an apartment, he said. He attributed this in large part to her no longer having to dedicate hours every day to find a place to park.
"For her to have that kind of space for the night so that she didn't have to be wandering around, knowing she had a designated space for herself, was one of the biggest lifesavers and life changers," Leong said.
In some cases, safe parking programs have faced neighborhood resistance. Last year, residents from Stevenson House, a senior community on Charleston Road, opposed a proposal from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto to launch safe parking and argued that the church should check all participants for criminal backgrounds. Critics were also preparing to formally appeal the city's approval of the program but ultimately opted to drop the appeal at the last minute.
A proposal by the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto to establish safe parking similarly elicited a mixed reaction from the neighborhood. More than two dozen residents, led by Todor Ganev, filed an appeal asserting that Move Mountain View is "essentially gathering a group of unscreened individuals, placing them in proximity to each other (and to residential homes/schools), and not safeguarding the community by running criminal background checks of these vehicle dwellers."
The City Council considered the appeal in August but allowed the church's proposal to move ahead.
Leong said it is still common to see opposition from immediate neighbors to safe parking programs. What has changed, he said, was the way that the cities respond to the "loud minority" of residents who want to prevent these programs. Churches have come to expect that it will take months to conduct outreach and explain the program to residents who are skeptical.
"In the very beginning we had preachers who wanted to participate but one of the neighbors was threatening lawsuits and the church backed off, the city backed off. It got ugly. Nowadays, we know it will be a six-month process," Leong said.
Unlike the church initiatives, the Geng Road program advanced with virtually no opposition. Located near the Baylands Athletic Field, the site does not have any immediate neighbors and there haven't been any complaints about program participants since the program was established. And even though it only has 12 parking spaces, Simitian argued that if people only stay here for a few months, it can serve a few hundred families every year.
"They need a place to start that process," Simitian said. "They need a place to stabilize their households, to get their kids squared away. And that's what this place provides."
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