With much of the U.S. Geological Survey departing from its Menlo Park headquarters to Mountain View, the Menlo Park City Council has been talking about what can be done with the federally-owned property.
In the long term, council members have expressed interest in seeing affordable housing developed on the site. But in the meantime?
Maybe the secluded campus could be used to provide safe parking access for a growing number of people in the region who are living in RVs.
That's the idea Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller said he and San Mateo County Supervisor Warren Slocum have just begun to discuss, and plan to bring in more stakeholders to explore.
While the USGS headquarters at 345 Middlefield Road hasn't been fully abandoned yet, Mueller said, "There's still plenty of ample parking on-site not being utilized."
The effort is very preliminary, both Mueller and Slocum emphasized, but they're definitely interested in exploring the concept. They plan to work with Congresswoman Anna Eshoo to explore the idea, as the initiative would need an OK at the federal level to move forward.
Mueller said he'd be interested in partnering on such an initiative with Menlo Park-based homeless services provider LifeMoves, which operates a safe parking facility in San Jose.
Slocum said he's also working with staff to identify best practices for safe parking lots by studying others in Santa Clara and Oakland.
"There's more to it than just a parking lot," he said, noting that other safe parking sites offer wraparound services to support the households served there. In addition, he said, the county has identified a separate potential safe parking site at a county-owned parking lot near the U.S. 101/Woodside Road interchange in Redwood City and is working with the city of Redwood City to explore starting a safe parking program there.
In Slocum's district, which includes East Palo Alto, North Fair Oaks and Menlo Park northeast of El Camino Real, as well as other unincorporated areas, the number of households living in RVs is growing significantly.
In a January count of the number of people experiencing homelessness countywide, the number of people living in RVs was up 127% from 2017, with a total of 494 people counted, compared with 218 in 2017. In Redwood City, there were 102 RVs counted and in East Palo Alto there were 53.
After the January count, the county followed up with a survey of 80 RV households. Many people living in RVs, the county reported, are working, lived in the county before moving into an RV, are living in an RV because of the high cost of housing, and are looking for other housing options.
Of the 80 RV households surveyed, 59% of respondents were employed, and 69% reported living in the county before they moved into their RV.
When asked why they lived in an RV, 54% reported it was because of the high cost of rent, while 13% said it was because of an eviction.
Even though 57% said they were looking for housing and saw the RV as a temporary housing situation, 64% said they'd been living in an RV for a year or more.
In addition, about 9% of RV households included children.
While signs of people sleeping on the street in RVs or other vehicles are unlikely to be visible in Menlo Park because of the city's long-standing overnight parking ban, it doesn't mean former Menlo Park households aren't living in vehicles: They just spend their nights outside city boundaries.
Toby Sanchez is one of those former Menlo Park residents displaced into vehicle living. He and his roommate had been long-term renters in the run-down Stanford Inn, before the owner converted the rooms into short-term Airbnb rentals and recently received approval to redevelop the site into commercial space, condos and a penthouse. When The Almanac checked in with him in August, he shared that he and his roommate had been sleeping in a car for months.
"We have jobs. At least we're working," he said. "We're still making it. We don't have a choice, really."
They go to neighboring cities like Redwood City and Mountain View, seek out areas where RVs are parked and try to blend in.
These areas are not hard to find, he added.
"People are sleeping in cars everywhere," he said. "We're homeless, not criminals."