The missing perspective: Mountain View’s RV residents shed light on their daily struggles, the real impact of Measure C and empathy

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN AND CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTOS BY CARLY HELTZEL

When Janet Stevens goes for a walk down her street, just like anyone else, she’ll strike up a conversation and smile warmly, talking to her equally friendly neighbors. 

But after they watch her cross the road and enter her home, something changes: People avoid making eye contact with her, uneasily cross to the other sidewalk to avoid her, throw trash at her home and harass her.

That’s just a fraction of what Stevens faces as a resident living in one of Mountain View’s around 280 recreational vehicles — more widely known as RVs.

“At first it startled me because I thought that [my neighbors and I] kind of had a rapport of at least saying ‘Hi,’ but now I understand that you can’t even acknowledge that I’m there,” Stevens said. “They wouldn’t look at me at all. I mean, they literally wouldn’t acknowledge my existence.” 

Stevens first moved into an RV when she lost her job due to extenuating medical circumstances. It took a thick skin to prevent her feelings from being hurt by the “degrading” and “shaming” look in her neighbors’ eyes, Stevens said. But after she got over the initial shock, she started trying to chat with people on the street in an attempt to humanize her and her neighbors. 

“I think the perception of who we are is the biggest problem because I think they believe we’re a group of people that we don’t represent,” Stevens said.

If you walked down the line of RVs, knocking on each door and talking to each person, she said, it would be just the same as any apartment building; they’re occupied by people ranging from those who have lost their partners and were forced to live off of one income, nurses, teachers, ex-firefighter and police officers who can’t afford the expensive rates of the Bay Area. 

And, according to Charles Wilkins — Stevens’ neighbor and fellow RV resident — other “good, law abiding citizens and productive members of the community.” 

“All we’re trying to do is survive,” Wilkins said. “They’re not crooks, they’re not bad people; they’re people who’ve worked hard all their lives but for one reason or another had to move out of their home.”

“The idea that we are a lesser group than the rest of the community is absolutely not true,” Stevens said. 

The misconceptions about Mountain View’s vehicularly housed residents are now posing a potentially life-threatening danger, they said, as the city implements Measure C to restrict oversized vehicles from parking on the majority of city streets.

THE IMPACT OF MEASURE C

Measure C — a recently instituted law that prohibits parking oversized vehicles on streets 40 feet wide or less — was passed by Mountain View voters on the November ballot, making the already precarious situation of both Stevens and Wilkins more unstable.

After the measure passed, the Mountain View City Council voted in December to reinstate its parking ban on 75% of city streets, displacing many of the area’s vehicularly housed residents.

“It’s heartbreaking when you see people not only forced to live in their car, but they’re trying to be happy about it,” Wilkins said. “And they’re being pushed away, because people think it looks bad. They don’t take into consideration who the person is, or the fact that they’re a person at all.”

Several city council members have said that their reasoning behind Measure C was to incentivize those living in RVs to pursue more permanent housing solutions and to promote affordable housing. But Stevens and Wilkins said that this simply does not work in the ways the council thinks it will.

“[Living here] is not a choice anyone makes willingly. … They are forced to do it,” Stevens said. “So the idea that [the city is] enabling us by allowing us to park on the streets is not realistic.”

Echoing this sentiment, Wilkins said that “affordable housing” is a relative term, especially in the COVID-19 economy.

“Affordable for me is not what they think it is,” he said. “[Moving] into an apartment that would be under ‘affordable housing,’ … it’s unattainable for a lot of people, myself included.”

Stevens said that much of the RV community resents the lawmakers for lumping their homes into the same category as all oversized vehicles, including moving trucks and 18-wheelers — she said she doesn’t believe the city council is working in their best interests.

Stevens is pictured before her RV. The newly instituted Measure C puts mobile home residents like Stevens and Wilkins in even more precarious a situation than before. (Carly Heltzel)

Stevens also said the measure is a result of the city council approaching the issue with a “not in my backyard” mentality, in which residents designate local issues, such as homelessness, as unwanted and attempt to push them out of their communities.

Stevens said the residents of the apartments they live near “don’t have a problem with us.” Instead, she said they’re worried about the safety hazards posed by other oversized vehicles such as 18-wheelers being parked on corners or in bike lanes.

 “If they could have voted with us, they would; they just had to vote against the other oversized vehicles,” Stevens said.

“We’re being thrown together in a group that should contain nothing more than moving trucks and tow trucks and things like that, but they’re throwing us RVers in there and all we’re trying to do is survive,” Wilkins added.

The council’s other solutions, such as Safe Parking lots — privately owned parking lots where oversized vehicles are allowed to park — present their own problems, according to Stevens.

Because of a medical condition that prevents her from regulating her core body temperature, Stevens needs to have her generator on to keep her heater running almost all the time, especially when it’s cold out in the winter. 

“[Safe Lots] sound really good if you don’t know anything about RVs,” Stevens said. “You need to run a generator to have any power, … and when you’re in a Safe Parking Lot, you’re not allowed to run your generator from [5 p.m. to 9 a.m.]. I couldn’t live in a Safe Lot.”

Prior to COVID-19, residents could only park in the Safe Lots at night, Wilkins added, causing them to waste gas moving to and from the lots and forcing their lives to be dictated entirely by that schedule.

But the root of the issue goes beyond the ineffective solutions, stemming from a lack of consideration and communication with people who are supposed to benefit from these resources — the RV residents.

“They say they’re trying to come up with a good solution and to help people out in a dignified way, but I’d like to point out that the people who are saying this are not proactive in any way with talking to people,” Wilkins said. “The people that are living out here have no say. If they truly wanted to help or make a difference, they would get some of us involved.”

He added that the lack of empathy from city council is “tearing [the city] down.”

“I don’t know when we quit caring about each other,” Wilkins said. “Now it’s just, ‘You’re in my way, you need to go.’”

And although many have told them to do just that, these residents said they can’t leave; they can only survive here. 

“JUST MOVE SOMEWHERE CHEAPER”

As a result of the expensive housing rates in California, many people are being forced out of their homes and onto the streets or into vehicles. But finding a permanent place to live is not as easy as simply moving out of the state, according to Stevens and Wilkins. 

For Stevens — who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, is a breast cancer survivor, must get an epidural shot every three months and has heart issues, among other medical conditions — moving out of the Bay area is virtually impossible. 

One of Stevens’s medical issues, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is so rare that she said there are only two places in the country where she can get the medication necessary to survive, and one of them is Stanford hospital. If she moved anywhere else, she couldn’t be treated, which could be life-threatening.

As a former worker for the state, her health insurance comes from the government’s Medicare system, while Wilkins, who has diabetes, is covered by Medi-Cal, another government insurance plan.

Because Wilkins receives health care from Santa Clara County, if he were to move out of the area, there is no certainty that his insurance would be approved or that he could receive the necessary medications in a different county. 

Not only is this where Stevens and Wilkins have trusted doctors and medical facilities, but Stevens said that she wouldn’t survive without her community here.

Stevens said she often calls her friends and acquaintances to drive her to the hospital, or bring her medicine or food when her medical conditions prevent her from leaving her RV. 

“If I was to get up and leave, my inability to have people support me and get my resources, for friends to bring me food and drive me to the doctor and things like that would be completely removed from my life,” Stevens said. “That would be life-threatening.”

Wilkins echoed this idea, citing the loss of a support system as his concern with relocating to a cheaper area. 

“I mean, everybody I know who can support me — not just supporting money-wise, but just raising moral support — is here,” Wilkins said. “When you’re my age, 50 years old or even older, and you move out of an area and you don’t know anybody, it’s really scary. It’s a scary world out there and you can’t be guaranteed anything when you’re moving to a new area.”

THEIR SITUATIONS

Wilkins is a professional musician, who, prior to COVID-19, played gigs at local cafes and restaurants with his band. 

“When you’re on tour, you have a lot of money in your pocket, but we don’t have a retirement plan, we don’t have medical insurance, we don’t have benefits; everything comes out of our pocket,” Wilkins said. “So I [would have to] stop doing what I love and do something that I absolutely hate.”

Wilks strumming a guitar in front of his RV. He was a professional musician before he had to move out onto the streets into an RV. (Carly Heltzel)

He has held jobs ranging from owning his own construction company to being a bouncer and a bounty hunter. But Wilkins, despite having an impressive work record under his belt, said it would be difficult for either of them to find jobs now.

“I’m in an age range where they don’t want to hire me even though I have the experience that they want,” Wilkins said. 

Wilkins’ lack of income coupled with the death of his mother forced him into an RV — he had previously lived with his mother in a mobile home until she passed away three years ago.

“I had nowhere to go — no house, no money,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to stay in the mobile home, so I was basically on the street for a while, couch surfing, and then I finally got my hands on an RV, and moved into that.” 

Stevens used to be a government employee for the state of California, until she lost the ability to use her legs for two years, after which she retired disabled. She said she lived in a house in Mountain View, then in a duplex in Cupertino, and moved into an RV when she couldn’t afford to live in a house anymore. 

“I had planned to get an RV because I knew I could not afford to live here, so I bought the RV with plans to travel a little bit and then find someplace else to live,” Stevens said. 

But her medical situation kept her tied to Stanford and the Bay Area. 

Stevens has lived in an RV for two years and three months, while Wilkins moved into one after the pandemic hit last March.

DIFFICULTIES

Living in an RV presents a wide array of hardships that neither Stevens nor Wilkins knew about before being forced to deal with them on a daily basis. 

“Nothing is easy,” Stevens said.

Just doing the basics, like making tea or breakfast, is challenging, if not impossible to do, according to Wilkins.

“Things you’ve been doing all your life like washing your hands and taking a shower, you have to plan all of this stuff out,” Wilkins said.

Stevens said “your whole life revolves around” water usage — even something that many take for granted like doing the dishes is a “big deal” because an RV can only store 50 gallons of dirty water before having to be emptied in a sewage facility in Redwood city. 

Driving to this facility, and anywhere else, is more complex than it seems. 

“If I don’t have gas, I have to go get it which is not cheap, and the idea of losing my spot is always a concern,” Stevens said. “To go get the gas is a big, big deal. You have to take everything down. My RV is locked for safety and on a level [to prevent it from rolling], so you’ve got to take that out, go get gas and come back.”

Similarly, for fear of losing his parking spot, Wilkins walks a mile to the nearest grocery store two to three times a week, since he said his refrigerator is essentially an ice box. And, he said, it simply costs too much to start the RV in the first place.

Wilkins and Stevens estimated that the gas mileage on an RV is about nine miles per gallon and, living on food stamps with no current income, a drive that is not essential to their survival is virtually impossible.

“I haven’t seen my daughter in about seven months because I can’t drive down [to L.A.] because I can’t afford the gas to get there and back,” Wilkins said.

Stevens said that gas is also vital to keep utilities in the RV running such as lighting, heating, air conditioning and refrigeration.

“I really can’t afford to run my generator, and when you don’t run your generator, you can’t run your heater,” Wilkins said. “When you’re sitting inside your RV and you can see your breath, you know it’s cold but really can’t afford to waste gas.”

The crucial role gas plays in providing adequate shelter from the elements makes it hard for Stevens to think about anything else. 

“When I wake up, I constantly think ‘Do I have enough gas? Do I have enough gas for my generator? Is everything working right?’ and God knows everything doesn’t work,” Stevens said. “There’s constantly something breaking.”

On top of these all-consuming day-to-day considerations, non-RV residents’ lack of understanding leads to concerns about sanitation. But contrary to what many believe, the RV residents are not “litterbugs” or “slobs,” Wilkins said.

“It’s as clean as it can be,” Stevens said. “If [the mess] were a problem, [city council] could have addressed that instead of just kicking us out. If it’s not sanitary, somebody should address it, but they have never done that.”

Throwing away their trash isn’t easy, but everyone on his street finds a way to keep their area clean, Wilkins added. In fact, almost all of the litter around the RVs got there by people driving by and throwing their trash at their homes: a dehumanizing experience, Stevens said.

For a period of time, at least once a day — sometimes up to three times a day — the same man would drive by the line of RVs where Stevens and Wilkins are parked and throw plastic wine bottles at the RVs.

“It was in this position where not only did he throw his garbage at us, at the RVs, but it gives the impression that that’s who you are and that’s what you deserve,” Stevens said.

Once she realized the man’s pattern of throwing the bottles, Stevens began calling the police every time he came by and following him to tell them where he was.

“I was never gonna let him keep driving past and throwing the bottles like that,” Stevens said.

But every time he crossed a city border, Stevens was transferred to a new police department or highway patrol and it proved difficult to pursue him for enough time.

He eventually stopped throwing bottles — Stevens assumes it’s because the police finally caught up to him through her tracking efforts — but she said that he still drives by every day.

“It’s really scary to me because … he’s got nothing better to do with his time, which is shocking, and also why are you driving by when you aren’t throwing the bottles any more?” Stevens said. “So I’m a little fearful that he may have some more ideas to do something to harass us, but I don’t scare easily either.”

But this small victory made little more than a dent in the “constant stream” of trash being thrown at the RVs including condoms and other “dirty things like that,” according to Stevens.

Another individual would honk all the way down the line of RVs, often at 6 a.m. or 10 p.m., when many of the residents are sleeping. 

“I think the impression is ‘We’re gonna wake you and harass you,’” Stevens said. “Or whatever his intentions are, he honks all the way through.”

FOCUSING ON THE POSITIVE

Despite their tumultuous lives and unstable housing situations, both Wilkins and Stevens have found ways to stay positive. 

Stevens helps relocate abandoned dogs and has one of her own, Sally, with whom she plays hide and seek; Sally even knows the commands for “warmer” and “colder” to help her find toys that Stevens hides in her RV. 

When she lived in a house, Stevens took it upon herself to call dog owners who would abandon their pets at parks and asked them to bring their dogs to shelters, or if that wasn’t possible, she would drive over to the owner and pick up the dogs herself to ensure they were not used for bait or other cruel practices.

In fact, one of the dogs she picked up and rescued from abandonment was Sally. 

Sally had breast cancer, a hernia, and a host of other medical issues, as many abandoned dogs do but Stevens stuck with her through her recovery.

“She is now my love and my everything,” Stevens said.

According to Stevens, Sally goes crazy around Wilkins because she loves seeing him so much, and Sally keeps them all smiling.

Another bright spot in their lives is Wilkins’ love of music. Stevens said that he was simply “born to play” music and has a raw talent with his guitar and vocals. Wilkins strums original songs on his guitar to take him away from the grim realities of a strenuous life in an RV. 

His music connects him to the world around, but he said he wishes more people would listen to not just his music, but what RV residents have to say.

“There’s no difference between the people that are down here living in RVs and on your streets,” Wilkins said. “It’s just our homes are on wheels.”

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