Safe parking for families living in motorhomes in East Palo Alto – Telemundo Bay Area 48

When Lupita Lara was left homeless a decade ago, she had to figure things out on her own. Now, as a case manager for WeHOPE, an East Palo Alto nonprofit that serves people who are homeless or living in their vehicles, you are providing the help you never received.

“I was homeless in 2011 and I wish the help that is out there now I had from my case manager. I would do it myself,” Lara said. “I wanted to help other people who have been homeless to let them know: it’s okay. We have all been there. I understand what they are going through and I can help them.”

Since 2019, WeHOPE has operated a secure RV parking program at 1798 Bay Road. The parking lot provides a safe place for up to 20 RV residents to park their vehicles for free. Residents also receive free meals and services so they can save money for housing in the future.

Half of Bay Area renters are burdened with rent, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing, according to the Bay Area Equity Atlas, a regional data center that analyzes data. and reports on trends in inequality.

The high cost of rent sometimes pushes low-income people out of their homes, out of state, or onto the streets. In 2019, 1,512 people were counted as homeless in San Mateo County. Of these, 494 lived in mobile homes, had to park on the streets and deal with city laws that could prohibit parking in certain areas or at certain times.

Rising rents prompted María Elena Vásquez and her husband to move into an RV, where they now live in WeHOPE’s secure parking program. Vasquez has lived for the past two years at the Bay Road site, where she feels safe and secure after living on the streets.

“Living on the street is ugly,” Vasquez said in an interview. “Here we feel protected”

After Vasquez’s landlord doubled the rent for his Menlo Park studio (they would have had to pay more than $ 3,000), Vasquez’s husband bought an RV for a one-time cost of about $ 4,000.

Buying the motorhome was cheaper than paying the monthly rent. But living on the streets brought its own challenges.

“We would park where we could find a place,” Vásquez said, adding that she was worried that she would be robbed or that “someone was going to shoot me because I worked nights and came home early in the morning.”

In the secure RV parking program, residents get free water, electricity, showers, meals every day, and 24-hour security. Renting a spot in some private RV parks can cost $ 80 a night or more than $ 1,000 a month on the Peninsula.

“Thank God they haven’t charged us anything since the day we moved here,” Vasquez said. “All of this helps us save the little money we receive … We have a lot of help from the program, but it is not enough because we want to have a place to live.”

But the search for permanent housing has been long and fruitless so far. Vasquez, who has been unemployed due to the pandemic, said she has filled out multiple applications but has received no response from any. The waiting list for affordable housing can last for months, sometimes years.

Since the program’s inception in 2019, WeHOPE has helped 34 of its last 73 clients move into permanent housing, which is its ultimate goal. This May, the park was packed, with five people on the waiting list.

As WeHOPE’s Lead Case Manager, Lara helps connect residents to healthcare, housing applications, or the logistics of life, such as obtaining a license.

“I defend them as much as I can,” Lara said. “My clients know they can call me whenever they want. I work from eight to five, but I am always there for my clients.”

His proudest moment was when one of his clients bought his own home with the money he saved while living in the park.

“A lot of clients say I’m a bit strict, but in the end they thank me. So she thanked me for pushing her. She thanked me for always being with her,” Lara said.

There are also two modular homes on the Bay Road site that offer a temporary place to stay while families search for permanent housing. Modular homes are prefab steel units complete with bedrooms, kitchen space, common spaces, and amenities.

For the Samaniegos, a family of four, moving from their RV to the three-bedroom modular home in April has given them much-needed space.

“We are very grateful. We have more space to cook and our own rooms. We are more at peace,” said Teresa Samaniego.

Her children, high school students Edwin Samaniego and José Sameniego Jr., said that moving into a house means they will have their own space to play video games and enjoy their mother’s homemade meals.

Modular Homes are a project of United Hope Builders, a nonprofit organization that builds steel modular homes to help create affordable housing. Pastor Paul Bains, founder / president / CEO of WeHOPE and president of United Hope Builders, said they plan to produce three to four modular homes each year.

Regarding the parking program, Bains said WeHOPE started the RV parking program in partnership with the City of East Palo Alto to create a safe place for families to live. The program costs about $ 374,000 to run during the year.

Most of the people who live in RVs in the city are working families, Bains said, and not people trying to cause trouble.

“People just needed one hand,” Bains said. “Most of the families are local families. They couldn’t afford to live in places because rents kept going up and up. That made it almost impossible for them to live where they worked.”

And during the pandemic, demand for their services has increased, Bains said. They had to add hand washing stations to accommodate the pandemic, as public restrooms and libraries – places people who need access to water would normally go to – were closed.

Bains, like Lara, emphasized that the program is not a permanent place for people to stay, but a “ladder” to get them out of the cycle of homelessness.

Residents of the safe parking program are required to participate in classes, such as cooking classes, financial literacy, or anger management, and meet with case managers regularly to stay in the park.

“We do not believe that love is love unless there is discipline. The programs create access ramps for people to return to self-sufficiency,” Bains said.

East Palo Alto was the first city in San Mateo County to create a safe parking program for RV residents, pioneering the way for other cities to follow suit.

Redwood City started its own program in October 2020. Its program can accommodate about 40 RVs and is run by LifeMoves, a Silicon Valley nonprofit dedicated to finding solutions for the homeless.

LiveMoves Vice President of Programs and Services Brian Greenberg said the creation of parking programs such as those in East Palo Alto and Redwood City are a response to rising levels of homelessness in the past two years.

“Many cities have been interested in creating safe parking programs,” Greenberg said. “Both East Palo Alto and Redwood City took a leadership role in establishing this and not looking to push people into the next community, but working with them in their own communities.”

Sociology researcher David Grusky, a professor of sociology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, applauded programs like these.

But he said systemic change is needed to address inequality in the country.

“We have to fight on two fronts,” Grusky said. “One front is trying to bring about a big systemic change, which would mean more redistribution, providing basic services to people who cannot afford them, and fixing our labor market institutions.”

Another way to reduce inequality is to create a labor market that gives workers more power to bargain with employers for higher wages, he said.

While Grusky said there is a movement to make those systemic changes, programs like the RV Safe Parking program help “plug the holes” by directly helping people in need.

“We also have an obligation to try to address the problems that arise when you don’t have those great systemic forces right in place,” Grusky said. “You have to do what you have to do.”