Christmas often conjures a host of happy images. Sparkling trees, roaring hearths, family gatherings.
Ruben Almazo, 54, has none of that, but he is grateful nonetheless this holiday season. He used to park his RV, currently his home on wheels, on local streets. Robbery was a concern. “It was hard to sleep,” he says.
But since May, Almazo and a dozen other area RV dwellers have called this Safe Parking Lot home. And this past Saturday, Christmas cheer came to them.
“Come on everyone, in Spanish and English, sing along, ‘Feliz Navidad,'” said the Rev. Paul Bains, founder of Project WeHOPE, which worked with city officials to establish the lot.
A cracking chorus of happy voices, from pre-teens to grandparents joined Bains. Then donuts were served, a tree trimmed and presents dispensed.
For the children, there were donated winter coats to cut against the season’s overnight chill — sometimes worn to bed as most of the RVs have no electricity for heat — as well as dolls, trucks and games. For the parents, a gift card from Safeway, as well as the promise of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners.
“People hear ‘homeless’ and immediately think ‘drugs and alcohol problems,’” said Bains. “That’s not what is going on. Almost all of these people were simply forced out due to rents that suddenly go up 30% or more. They have jobs, more than one. They just want a chance to live like the rest of us.”
Almazo laments that his back injury prevents him for taking a job at the moment, but he hopes that will change in the coming months. As does his son, also named Ruben, who during the day is a ride-sharing driver but at night sleeps in the RV. Sometimes, when he has custody of his son, Christian, 10, all three sleep in the vehicle.
“It’s stressful living like this,” said Ruben Almazo, Jr., “I’m not used to it.”
Every night around 7 p.m., the Almazo family and dozen or more others in RVs roll into this guarded parking lot in an industrial part of town, their owners grateful for the overnight security guard.
The cold aside, this means they can sleep without worrying about visits from police officers or hassles from criminal elements in the neighborhood. By 7 a.m., they must leave the lot because of city rules, with most parking their RVs for the day on a nearby thoroughfare before heading off to one or more jobs.
“The best thing is just knowing my grandchildren can play without worrying,” said Adela Morales, 45, whose RV also is home to her companion and her two grandkids, Raul, 12, and Jasline, 11.
The group has lived in an RV with no electricity for three years. Inside, the vehicle was filled with blankets. A small Chihuahua poked his head out from a sleeping bag and cocked its head. Raul and Jasline smothered the dog with hugs, giggling.
“Before, the kids could never go outside the RV because of people fighting and doing drugs, but here they can ride their bikes around,” said Morales, who, like many others here, preferred to speak in Spanish. “We are grateful.”
Morales has a tale typical of those who live overnight in the WeHOPE lot. By day, she drives a van for a school that caters to special needs children. Morales used to live in an apartment nearby, but when the rent almost doubled to $2,800 for a one-bedroom unit she asked to move into an RV that her sister had formerly occupied.
Bay Area pay gap among biggest in US
WeHOPE established the safe RV lot in response to the growing number of working poor serving these wealthy Silicon Valley environs who find themselves living in vehicles because of soaring rents that have become a hallmark of California’s housing and income inequality crises.
A new state law goes into effect next year that will keep rent hikes to 5%. But Bains says that impending change has led to a flood of recent evictions and pushed more renters onto the streets. “It’s brutal out there,” he says.
While income inequality is growing across the country, it is particularly stark in the Bay Area.
The median home price in San Francisco is $1.4 million. Anyone earning $117,000 there is considered low income, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In Silicon Valley, tech giants such as Apple and Google inadvertently contribute to the problem by employing staffers whose six-figure salaries inspire some area landlords to jack up their rents.
That’s especially true here in East Palo Alto, the proud if lower-income neighbor to the tony enclave of Palo Alto, home to Stanford University and the billionaire investors of Sand Hill Road. East Palo Alto’s median income is $57,000, less than half of that of Palo Alto. But Facebook is just down the road, making real estate here jump.
California is home to a quarter of the nation’s 600,000 homeless, a fact that has caused President Donald Trump to criticize Gov. Gavin Newsom and threaten federal intervention. Newsom has pledged billions to solve the housing crisis — with another $4.5 billion raised from various tech companies — but those efforts have so far been stymied by a stalemate between state initiatives and local push-back in communities concerned about how housing density may affect property values and quality of life.
Meanwhile on the streets, life is getting more crowded.
About one-third of the state’s 140,000 homeless have decided to live in a car or RV, according to the University of Southern California’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute. A 2018 USC survey shows of those living in their vehicles, 51% are there because of financial reasons, 35% because of household conflict and 18% because friends or family could not shelter them.
This crisis in turn has spawned a growing number of Safe Parking programs across California, where pioneering organizations are now helping other groups set up similar public-private partnerships.
“Our manual on how to set up safe parking lots in your community used to sell occasionally, but now it’s flying off the shelves,” says Kristine Schwarz, executive director of Santa Barbara’s New Beginnings Counseling Center. “We’ve heard from officials in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Florida. It’s become a national issue, so there’s an uptick in requests for assistance.”
New Beginnings is widely considered the first group to establish a safe parking lot back in 2004. Now, the organization has 24 lots with 136 spaces spread out across Santa Barbara. While some local residents have pushed back, most embrace it, says Schwarz.
“There’s this fear that an ex-con will pitch a tent near your yard and will come and rape your children,” she says. “But these are normal people in a hard situation.”
Offering services to end homelessness
The parking lots are often owned by municipalities but left unused after businesses close. In some cases, church parking lots are donated. Funding for operations comes from faith-based groups, private donations and federal homeless prevention funds.
In exchange for overnight access, organizations provide lot residents with benefits such as security, mobile showers and washer/dryers, and, most importantly, access to social services aimed at getting those living in cars back into permanent housing.
“Lots being unavailable during the day also encourages the residents to go back into their neighborhoods, where people may be able to help them out,” says Emily Uyeda Kantrim, associate director of Safe Parking LA, a Los Angeles organization that serves 125 vehicles in eight city-wide lots. “The holidays especially are a time to reach out to friends.”
In contrast, the Rev. Josh McQueen of Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Washington, oversees a church lot that is open 24 hours. McQueen says that encourages those living in their cars to avail themselves of church services that could get them back on the road to housing.
“We’ve got showers in the church, case managers who help them with their situation, and even locker rooms where they can keep their things,” says McQueen, whose lot serves single men and couples without children. “Everyone’s story is different, so we have to take the time with them to best understand what they need.”
WeHOPE takes the same granular approach to helping those living in their vehicles. Caseworkers steer lot residents to free food and health care options and teach them about sound financial practices and eating habits.
So far, those tactics have helped nearly a third of the lot’s residents return to a housing option since May, says Bains.
“If there’s one thing I have learned working with people who are in their vehicles, it’s that they do not, in any way, see themselves as homeless,” says Bains, whose organization was named the state’s non-profit of the year in 2016. “They have great pride.”
Homeless but thankful on Christmas
That shows through in the smiling faces and welcoming gestures of Miguel Soriano, 61, and his companion Maria Vasquez, 58.
As they ushered visitors inside their cab-less Nomad RV, the couple pushed aside blankets and set aside their shelter-donated dinner of chicken and vegetables.
The couple pointed out where the two of them sleep upfront, and a small bunk where Maria’s 18-year-old daughter Vanessa, a college student, spends the night.
They have lived in the RV for more than a year, after their apartment in nearby Menlo Park spiked from $1,500 a month to $2,500. Until last May, they parked on the street. It was a tense time.
“Police or neighbors would tell us to move along,” said Maria, who is a housekeeper at a hotel. Miguel is a handyman.
“Being here in this lot is go great, we are away from the drugs and the violence,” she said, smiling. “We are protected.”
Asked how long she and her small family unit might continue living in the RV, Maria just shrugs and smiles.
“Quien sabe?” Who knows, in Spanish.
“But tonight was nice because last year at Christmas we were on the street,” said Maria. “This night at least, we were with the friends in this small parking lot who have become our new community. Being with people who care, that’s what Christmas is about, no?”