On Peninsula and in South Bay, RVs Have Become Symbol of Homelessness

An RV is parked along El Camino Real in Palo Alto. About 50 RVs lined the street next to Stanford University earlier this year in response to a lack of affordable housing. (Liz Gannes/KQED)

On El Camino Real this year, right alongside Stanford University, RVs and trailers have been parked bumper to bumper.

Some recreational vehicles look worn down; others are set on blocks. This is in Palo Alto, where the median home value is $2.5 million.

“Be careful. Watch your step coming in," said Angela Anderson-Williams, as she showed me around her RV. "This door is messed up, so you have to climb in this way.”

She is 50 years old and works two jobs: one at a restaurant and another doing home care for an elderly man. She’s also back in college two days a week to try to get into real estate.

Anderson-Williams raised her kids in nearby Burlingame, but last year she had a falling out with her landlord and couldn’t find anyone willing to take a Section 8 voucher. So now she lives in an RV. Her adult son, Malik, lives in the one next door, and her two daughters are living with their godparents in Burlingame until they finish school.

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In San Francisco and Oakland, tents are a symbol of the homeless problem. But in the Peninsula and South Bay, from Palo Alto to Mountain View to Gilroy, RVs have become that symbol.

“It’s kind of really sad that those people who work to keep the Silicon Valley going can't even afford to live here,” Anderson-Williams said.

There were about 50 RVs on El Camino when I started talking to people there last month. Anderson-Williams said she liked the location because it felt safe and the cops left you alone, which is rare for South Bay cities. And she said it’s inspiring to look out at Stanford.

Angela Anderson-Williams works two jobs: one at a restaurant and another doing home care for a senior citizen. She's with her son, Malik. (Peter Maroulis)

“How could you not want greatness being here, you know?” she said.

There’s an 'in-betweenness' about living in RVs. You’re not quite homeless but your living situation is insecure, said Brian Greenberg, a homeless advocate and psychologist at the local group LifeMoves.

“We see it in our client population. Most of the folks we serve are employed,” Greenberg said.

According to Greenberg, about 85 percent of the heads of household of the homeless families he sees are employed. And there’s another problem.

“You know, we used to call NIMBYism or ‘not in my backyard,’” he said. “Now we call BANANA or ‘build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody.’”

And that makes the homeless crisis especially acute in Palo Alto. When local groups tried to build affordable housing in 2013, they were shut down by Palo Alto voters. There are no permanent homeless shelters, although a few churches offer about 20 spots to sleep per night.

“When you have large geographic areas that don't provide shelter, you're going to have an outsize number of people living in vehicles,” Greenberg said.

Palo Alto isn’t ready to agree that the RVs are a symptom of an affordable housing problem, said Liz Kniss, the city's vice mayor. Instead, Kniss was focused on parking rules. While living in your car isn’t illegal in Palo Alto, parking for long periods of time is.

“So one of the problems at this point is we haven't indicated that you will be either ticketed or towed after 72 hours,” she said.

Back on El Camino Real, a parking crackdown on RVs occurred just before the Fourth of July weekend.

“A cop car came swooping up and I'm like, 'Oh boy,'" Anderson-Williams said. “And he gets out of the car and asks, ‘Hi, how are you this evening?’”

Then she noticed the police putting letters about parking rules on everyone's RV, including hers. A couple of days later, about half the RVs were gone.

Anderson-Williams and her son, Malik, moved their RVs to a parking lot in Redwood City. She said security guards had already come by to complain and that going back to the grind of moving every few days was a hassle. But she remained hopeful. As long as she has the RV, she doesn’t have to pay rent.

“That’s the plus of it all, because we do get to save money,” she said. “So I know that this is not a permanent situation for us.”

Anderson-Williams feels like she’s moving forward.

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Liz Gannes is a reporter with our partner 60db, a personalized audio service and app.

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