Homelessness and unstable housing
AVHS senior Kevin Valdez has been living in an RV parked between Rengstorff Park and the Caltrain tracks for over a year. His family lost their apartment in Cupertino to a fire in April 2016. After receiving temporary shelter from the City of Sunnyvale for several months, his family of five began renting the RV and Valdez transferred to AVHS, while his brother attends Graham Middle School.
They live together in one vehicle: Valdez, his mother, his 20-year-old brother, his 12-year-old brother, and his one-year-old sister.
“The first couple nights I didn’t sleep,” Valdez said. “I felt like I didn’t have enough space.”
Celerina Navarro, a mother of three children, lives in an RV less than 100 feet from Valdez. Navarro was evicted from the apartment she shared with many family members; the landlords said there were too many people living in a single apartment.
In her RV, Navarro lacks access to cell service, running water, and electricity. Preparing and storing food is difficult, so she resorts to eating at restaurants more often than not, which costs more.
Valdez’s family uses a gas stove and stores frozen food in a cooler.
“We barely have any food,” Valdez said. “A few days ago my mom told me we don’t have anything to eat. She didn’t have any money.”
Navarro, Valdez, and families parked in RVs are able to use public resources at Rengstorff Park such as the bathrooms, barbeques, and water fountains.
Valdez heats up water from the park bathrooms on his gas stove to take showers. The one bathroom in the RV is two feet wide and six feet tall.
“I’m so tall that my head touches the roof, so I have to stand still,” Valdez said. “I get a big cup and pour the water on my head.”
Marina Portillo, a fourth grader at Castro Elementary School, also lives in an RV on Crisanto Avenue with her mother and her older brother.
Her mother’s boyfriend usually takes care of her and her brother, as her mom works two jobs.
Portillo and other families living in the motorhomes regularly face unsanitary conditions when neighbors litter or dispose of sewage waste improperly, leaving sewage on the ground in bags or directly on the streets the RVs are parked on.
According to Valdez, Navarro, and Portillo, the police regularly give citations and tow RVs for violating a variety of laws, one being improper disposal of waste.
“My seven-year-old daughter is scared whenever the cops come by,” Navarro said. “She is paranoid about whether they will come in and go through our stuff.”
Portillo’s mother has asked her if she wants to move to the RV encampments along Shoreline Boulevard, where the police are supposedly less strict, but Portillo said she doesn’t want to leave the friends she’s made on Rengstorff.
She knew one of her friends from school, but they didn’t talk until they realized that they both lived along Crisanto Avenue.
“Let me tell you something: she laughs a lot,” Portillo said, describing her friend. “People call her Giggles.”
Valdez said he also recognizes a sense of community among RV residents.
“When someone else moves into the trailers, we greet them,” Valdez said. “We are in the same position as them.
Valdez feels strongly motivated to excel in school so he can eventually provide his family with a safe, permanent residence and he aims to be the first of his family to graduate high school.
“I just want to get my family out of this situation,” Valdez said. “My mom tells me to follow my dreams.”
At school, Valdez falls under the categorization of an “individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Like other students who self-report or are identified by a staff member as such, Valdez is supported by the school as required by federal law.as required by federal law. Valdez had the option to remain at his school in Cupertino and is given access to a free VTA card for transportation and free meals during the school day.
Students identified as homeless are also given priority access to on-campus Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) counselors. According to counselor Simi Ketterer, a student’s emotional health and housing situation are interconnected.“I just want to get my family out of this situation,” Valdez said. “My mom tells me to follow my dreams.”
“If you don’t have housing and food, you don’t function,” Ketterer said. “Our team is also here to help with the emotional trauma that comes with it [difficult living situations].”
Recently, the state has implemented modified high school graduation requirements for homeless and foster youth which makes graduation more attainable.
Without WiFi access or a place to study outside of school, Valdez tries to complete his homework on campus. Last school year, MVHS extended the library hours to 6 pm from Monday to Thursday to better support these students.
Students in an unstable living situation are directed to the district-wide Community Resources Coordinator, who assists them with issues such as helping families find permanent housing or getting free medical services. This position is currently unfilled; while the district works to fill this role, MVHS students can work with Huong Vo, the Student Services Coordinator.
Sometimes, Vo and other administrators find it difficult to identify students given the unseen nature of their housing situation.
“You wouldn’t know this about someone when they’re walking down the street or in your classes,” Vo said, “We don’t really know unless they tell us,” Pierce adds that students and their families may want to “live in the shadows” if they happen to be undocumented immigrants and fearful of deportation.
Valdez recalled coming home one day and seeing a white ‘City of Mountain View’ van drive down the street as the MVPD towed multiple RVs.
“The rest of that week I couldn’t focus at school,” Valdez said.
To improve community and police relations, the MVPD appointed police officer Mike Taber to the new role of community outreach officer. Part of his responsibilities includes coordinating with nonprofit organizations like the Community Services Agency to provide residents in unstable housing conditions with case managers, food cards, and other services.
Taber spends much of his time visiting RV encampments -- the major ones on Crisanto Avenue, Latham, Terabella, and Shoreline -- and known “troubled areas”. Taber said he works to build trust with the people he serves.
Yet, despite the MVPD’s efforts to reach out to the community, some still feel animosity and fear toward police officers.
“One of the cops had a baseball bat,” Portillo said. “He once said, ‘in two weeks, you guys are all gone.’”
According to Taber, the MVPD has towed five motorhomes in the last month for a variety of reasons, including failing to move the vehicle after every 72 hours as ordained by the state, disobeying the sewage waste disposal law, and other law violations.
Taber said towing vehicles is a last resort for the city. In most cases, first-time violators of laws are rarely towed, and most residents are provided with plenty of warnings and some leniency.
“We do understand that they are people’s homes,” Taber said.
According to police spokeswoman Katie Nelson, people have sent thank you notes to Taber for helping them improve their living situation, and many take photos with Taber, a way in which he proudly documents his interactions with residents.
Taber has even made it a part of his role to drive people to the Community Services Agency headquarters and connect them with supportive services.
At the same time, Taber expressed his frustration with residents who do not comply with the law, for whatever reason.
“We are going to do everything we can,” Taber said. “Please just obey the law.”
Motor homeowner Navarro said she thinks the city should do “anything they can” to support its struggling residents.
“It’s not the ideal place to live, but it’s all I can afford right now,” Navarro said. “We want something better.”
Despite residents’ need for affordable housing, the city “knows it cannot meet these significant challenges alone”, as stated on the Mountain View government website.
The Community Services Agency (CSA), a nonprofit that offers homeless prevention services to Mountain View residents, helps to close that gap.
Serving over 2,500 people total last year, CSA case managers address the specific housing needs of their clients and support them with CSA’s other resources -- an onsite food pantry open Monday through Friday, and mobile shower, laundry, and dental services.
The organization’s main goal is for their clients to get permanent housing and be able to support themselves financially.
CSA’s largest barrier to this goal -- the lack of affordable and available housing in Mountain View -- often requires them to ask clients if they are willing to leave the city.
However, according to Associate Director of Community Services Agency Nicole Fargo Nosich, many clients choose to stay because they have families and would not want to jeopardize their children’s well-being by pulling them out of local schools.
People can apply for local government-subsidized housing, but sometimes clients will be waitlisted anywhere from two to seven years until they can receive housing, according to Nosich.
“Bringing in affordable housing is of the utmost importance and not below-market-rate housing,” Nosich said. “Below market-rate housing is not going to solve it [the housing crisis].”
Nosich identified below-market-rate apartments as costing $1500 to $1800 a month.
A development project funded by Google is slated for a vote in November and could add up to 10,000 affordable housing units in Mountain View.
Considering the impact this could have on low-income families struggling with housing, Nosich said it ultimately depended on the cost of the units.
If the city chooses to list the units even at below-market-rate housing, “that’s not going to solve it for probably the vast majority of the clients our agency is serving,” Nosich said. “It’s certainly not going to solve it for people who are homeless.”