Kao is not alone: East Palo Alto residents living near Weeks and other popular RV parking areas have spent the past two years coexisting alongside unhoused community members as conditions from the pandemic worsened the already tense housing crisis. Residents on and near Weeks voiced concerns and complaints to city council members about pollution and garbage on the street as a result of the vehicles' constant presence. Photos show trash, large bags and unusable or broken items strewn from the sidewalk to the road.
Following months of coordination, San Mateo County officials and local organizations acting as service providers and the city's Public Works department launched an effort to rid public spaces of trash without leaving unhoused individuals no place to stay. From March to early June, cleanup efforts took place in six locations, starting at two San Francisquito Creek sites and Bay Road. After the project was completed in Bell Street Park on May 24, crews carried out final cleanings at Cooley Landing and on Weeks.
Unhoused residents of the Bell Street encampment were either offered housing vouchers beforehand or day-of the cleanup, as the city worked with local shelters to open up beds.
Kao expressed his happiness about the noticeable difference in the community's use of Bell Street Park after the cleanups.
"I see kids playing there now," he said. "There were like five or six kids; that was something I never saw before."
In addition to cleanup efforts, the East Palo Alto City Council approved on June 7 a resolution that works to find a more permanent solution for RVs currently on the streets.
Starting on July 15, the city will begin towing oversize vehicles in accordance with the law for the first time since the pandemic began. To develop infrastructure to create longer-term housing solutions, the city also is planning the expansion of its RV Safe Parking program through April 2023 and the development of what will be called the Master Temporary Use Permit ("Master TUP") Program. The latter will give grants to subsidize permit fees so that participating property owners can provide various types of shelter for those in RVs, similar to the permanent structures that currently exist through nonprofits.
Safe parking and more
The city worked with the nonprofits WeHOPE and LifeMoves to create an RV Safe Parking Program, which started in 2019 and operates a space on Bay Road with a capacity for 20 oversize vehicles, providing unhoused people with safe parking, showers, toilets and other amenities and support services.
While there is a stated goal to have more RV Safe Parking spots available as towing begins, interim City Manager Patrick Heisinger told the council on June 7 that there are no guarantees, hence the hope that property owners will be enticed by the ease of the Master TUP program to shelter unhoused people.
The goal of Master TUP is to make it easier for interested applicants to get information about the permit process, which will be streamlined and treated as a high priority by the city. Ideally, the program would make it significantly easier and less bureaucratic to host RVs on one's property, opening up the amount of space available as vehicles begin getting displaced.
"One of the main goals of creating this specific application is just to speed things up from getting what we need as a reviewing agency to be able to approve the application," said Housing and Economic Development Manager Rachel Horst.
The application was created in collaboration with Menlo Fire and East Palo Alto's Planning, Housing, and Building divisions and asks applicants to provide the details of their proposed site. As an incentive, Horst stated that staff members are recommending that the city reimburse the $10,375 permit fee, which usually falls to the applicant.
Problem-solving with empathy
Navigating the balance between supporting unhoused individuals and maintaining an agreeable living environment for community residents is not a new issue for East Palo Alto community members, nor does the city's latest strategy present a straightforward solution.
At the council meeting, two East Palo Alto residents voiced their opinions. Both expressed their gratitude for the cleanup that occurred at Bell Street Park, with one stating that her organization was excited to host a soul-food party at the now-available location.
Resident Q Smith spoke to the importance of finding a healthy solution despite the difficult learning process and thanked Heisinger for providing alternative ideas.
"Being transparent and educating the city's residents is really important," Smith said, "and the few people that I've spoken with appreciate the fact that we are doing something for ... the less fortunate and unhoused."
Smith went on to say that everyone in the community is important and deserves help, echoing comments made by public officials.
"People matter," Smith said. "They're in the city with us. Just like we save the whales and the beaches and all that stuff, we need to save each other. Thank you for again keeping in mind that people matter, we matter, everybody matters."
Heisinger spoke to the empathy of the residents as problems have proliferated.
"In other communities, the second an RV parks on the street, you have people calling and complaining," he said. "That's not how it is here. The residents here know people are in need of a better housing situation. They're not trying to make their lives any tougher, but they're saying 'We need to live here as well.'"
In mid-June, Kao's strong feelings about public infrastructure in his community led him to run for and be appointed as East Palo Alto's Public Works and Transportation commissioner. Looking to the future, Kao said he remains optimistic about Weeks Street due to the positive impact of policy changes and cleanup efforts. Despite the cleanup this spring, roughly seven RVs remain parked on Weeks, complete with open hoods and laundry hung on nearby fences, but Kao is hoping that one day the street will be clean, and he'll feel safe enough to run on it again.•
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