Getting a cheesecake from Basuku is like winning the lottery

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MADISON YUE, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Melt-in-your mouth creamy, deeply caramelized and notoriously hard to come by nowadays, Charles Chen’s Basque cheesecakes have burst onto the Bay Area food scene. Basuku Cheesecakes, founded by Chen, has gained a cult following during the pandemic and now boasts pop-ups in San Francisco, Oakland and Palo Alto as well as national shipping. 

Barely a year ago, Chen, a food consultant, began baking for the first time as a hobby during the pandemic. He was intrigued by Basque cheesecake — a fusion of a traditional Spanish cheesecake and a Japanese style souffle cheesecake that has become increasingly popular — and a friend’s tips helped him perfect his own recipe. 

Chen’s cheesecake quickly caught on, with his chef friends posting about it on social media and the cheesecake mania snowballing from there. Chen, who had never expected a business to grow out of his cheesecake experiments, found himself inundated with orders that were quickly overwhelming his kitchen. 

The cheesecake maestro compared his sudden success to getting “struck by lightning,” from the perfect timing of starting pop-ups during the pandemic to the growth of his social media — where Chen has amassed a following of almost 13,000 cheesecake fanatics. 

Chen’s Basque cheesecakes.

Despite his rapid growth, Chen is still a “one man show” who bakes roughly 150 cheesecakes a week and struggles to keep up with the tide of demand. Dubbed the “most coveted cheesecake in the Bay Area” by fans on Instagram, Chen’s cheesecakes have spawned plenty of longing comments from fans who desperately want to get their hands on one. 

“I did not make this cake for it to be something that was exclusive,” said Chen, who recently finished a 33-day stint in the kitchen without a day off. “I’m working six, seven days a week.” 

As for Basuku Cheesecakes’s future, Chen says a permanent storefront is the next step, but he has no intention of expanding his menu beyond his iconic cheesecake. 

“I’m not a baker, not a chef,” Chen said. “I like to specialize in one product and I try my best to make that one product as best as I possibly can.” 

Chen may not be professionally trained, but he’s far from a newcomer to the industry, saying that his perfectionist approach to his cheesecakes comes from a lifetime of growing up in food and beverage. 

“My family had a Japanese restaurant, which operated for 30 years,” Chen said. “It’s just what I do, it’s in my blood, I live and breathe this stuff.” 

Despite all of his success, Chen still feels pressure to produce the best product he can.

“[When I’m] speaking to bakers who’ve been doing this for 25 years versus a year like myself, I say, ‘Every single time I put something in the oven, I’m still nervous,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, that’s because you care.’” 

Aside from keeping up the quality of his cheesecakes, Chen also cares about putting down roots in the community. Chen, who has recently used his social media platform to raise awareness about violence against Asian Americans and support fundraisers, said he wants Basuku Cheesecakes to not only be a go-to for tasty cakes, but to be a brand for people to rely on in rallying the community. 

Working with Oakland businesses, Chen was able to raise $13,000 in donations for the organizations Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Stop AAPI Hate, a number that rose to almost $40,000 with the added support of Silicon Valley companies. 

“Right now, the community needs something to bring us all together,” Chen said. “And whether it’s a cheesecake, whatever it is you know, I’m just trying to do my part to do that.”

Basuku Cheesecakes’ pick up locations: 

The Morris in San Francisco starting at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays 
Nightbird in San Francisco from 10–2 p.m. on Thursdays
The Commis Restaurant in Oakland from 2–3 p.m. on Thursdays
Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto starting at 11 a.m. on Fridays

For more information on how to pre order and frequent updates, check out Basuku Cheesecakes on Instagram.

At last, PAUSD, MVLA high schoolers return to campus

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, JONAS PAO AND MELODY XU, PHOTO COURTESY WYNNE SATTERWHITE

Almost exactly a year since campuses first shuttered to stem the tide of a raging pandemic, high schoolers in the Mountain View–Los Altos and Palo Alto Unified school districts returned to classrooms this week.

We spoke to students in both school districts to hear about their experiences taking their tentative first steps back on campus just days ago.

MOUNTAIN VIEW–LOS ALTOS

MVLA seniors returned to campus on Tuesday under the district’s “stable groups” model, participating in remote classes with other peers in a study hall–type format.

Mountain View senior Ava Hinz was one of those students.

“I think the most beneficial thing was definitely just being able to see my peers, even though I think only 70 [seniors] signed up for it,” Hinz said. “Everyone was very willing to talk to one another. I feel like everyone’s kind of in their cliques, but those cliques kind of just opened up because everyone’s been so isolated.”

Around 630 total students across the district have signed up for stable groups, with freshmen visiting campuses on Wednesday and Thursday for an orientation program after the Tuesday senior return.

All grade levels will return next week, with juniors on Mondays, freshmen on Tuesdays, seniors on Thursdays and sophomores on Fridays, with Wednesdays reserved for cohorts and asynchronous learning. 

Hinz said that while the stable groups aren’t anything close to a normal school day — she noted that she felt oddly isolated being in a classroom with other students, all participating in different remote classes — the return was a welcome change from nearly a year of distance learning.

“It’s been difficult,” she said. “I remember the first day of distance learning was just one of the most underwhelming things I’ve ever experienced.”

Fellow Mountain View senior Ethan Stone had nothing but praise for the stable groups.

“It was so nice to be back doing school in a classroom with other people as it gave me more motivation to work,” he wrote in a text message to the Post. “It felt like the first day of school, which felt great. It was so nice to have a change [of] pace, just something different.”

Both Hinz and Stone agreed that the social interaction during breaks were the highlights of their first day back, lending credence to what proponents of in-person learning have argued for months — that in-person social interaction will greatly benefit a demographic hard-hit mental health–wise throughout the pandemic.

“I was very skeptical of the plan going into it, but I was like ‘You know what, I’m going to go into it, there’s nothing I can lose,’ and I’m happy I went,” Hinz said.

For Leyla Benson — who’s played an instrumental role in helping the district navigate fast-changing guidance for school reopenings as the district’s associate superintendent of personnel services and COVID designee — this week’s return finally bears fruit to months of hard work spent planning for an in-person return.

“We were in negotiations [with the teacher’s union] today and I got a picture of the Los Altos cohorts,” Benson said. “I didn’t expect to react like I did — I was a high school principal and teacher before, but I’ve been in [human resources] so long that I’m kind of buried in the logistics — but I saw the picture and it really took me back to ‘Oh my gosh it’s so great to see everybody.’”

She said that other district staff on a group chat were similarly ecstatic.

“We’ve been running cohorts and athletics, but there was something about this that was different,” she said, referring to small groups largely for English learners, supervised study, academic support and special education students that the district has operated for the past few months.

She noted that she wouldn’t have been nearly as excited if the district weren’t able to provide so many options for its families to choose from based on comfort level, with the district’s ongoing self-guided “Option B” remote learning, as well as the remote “Option A” that will continue even as students return to campus.

Los Altos freshman Katie Skaggs — who visited campus on Wednesday for the orientation, but chose not to participate in the freshman stable groups that start next week — said she was excited to get a tour of the campus, which she’s only visited part of before for cross country practice.

“It’s very big,” Skaggs said. “I remember … I thought Egan was big, but it’s not, it’s pretty small. But I feel like I’ll get the hang of it.”

She said that while some of her peers were probably forced to go by their parents, the other students in her group seemed to be generally just as excited as she was.

Skaggs reported a relatively smooth transition from middle to high school, noting that she expected and was prepared for the increased workload; she also said she’s faring well in distance learning, which is part of the reason that she chose not to participate in a stable group.

“I don’t think [stable groups] would’ve benefited me much because, you know, I’m lucky and I have a desk in my room and I think I do pretty okay in my room,” she said. “I get decent grades, and I’m happy where I am. … For me personally, I didn’t see a point in just doing Zoom in a different spot that I’m not used to.” 

Skaggs did, however, say that she’ll return in April when the district transitions to its full hybrid model because she feels she’ll benefit from the actual in-person instruction. Both Stone and Hinz will also participate in the district’s hybrid instruction.

“We have been thinking, brainstorming, developing, negotiating return plans since last March,” Benson wrote in a later text message to the Post. “Adjusting to all the twists and turns during this unprecedented pandemic journey. More time and energy than we could have ever imagined has been spent on this most important topic. It is now, one year later, that we are seeing the steps that were once only imagined become reality.”

PALO ALTO UNIFIED

PAUSD’s “Zoom in a room” model, first introduced at a Feb. 9 school board meeting, places students in the same classroom as their teacher — but while still tuning in via Zoom.

Students are allowed to physically attend school on their designated days of the week; the plan’s lack of commitment allows students a choice between distance learning and in-person learning on a day-to-day basis.

For Paly sophomore Karrie Huang, returning to campus on Tuesday was a somewhat spontaneous decision that ended up proving worthwhile. 

“It was very well organized,” Huang said. “There were these little feet telling you which direction you should walk down the hallway, they had a bunch of hand-washing tables set up … and all the desks that you could use had plastic shields.”

Like most students, Huang initially had concerns about returning to campus — specifically about classroom dynamics — following such a long period of fully distanced learning. However, her interactions from this first day back on campus proved them wrong.

“You’d think it’d be really awkward, but the thing is, the teacher doesn’t really look at you. They’re in their corner, wearing their mask and looking into their computer, and you’re sitting at your desk looking at your computer,” Huang said.

Despite her equally positive experience with fully distanced learning up until this point in the school year, attending “Zoom in a room” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays will likely become a regular occurrence for Huang.

“I probably will go again next week,” Huang said. “My experience was pretty good, and it’s good to build a relationship with your teachers … and talk to friends, and to have a school environment.”

Paly sophomore Owen Kuwayti also decided to go to in-person school for fear of missing out on the experience of returning to school and meeting up with friends. But unlike Huang, Kuwayti left the campus with feelings of disappointment.

“I went yesterday, and I thought it wasn’t worth it.” Kuwayti said. “Even if there were hands-on activities, I just didn’t want to do it again because there were three people in some of my classes, and it’s a lot less comfortable than online school.”

Not only did Kuwayti feel like his classes were unusually barren, in general, he felt like the campus was abnormally empty compared to the usual hustle and bustle of pre-covid school.

“At lunch, none of my close friends were there, so I kind of had to go find someone that I knew and start talking with them, which was a little bit awkward, but it ended up being okay,” Kuwayti said.

Kuwayti said that if students had even a minor say in who they would go to school with, his experience would have been significantly better because he would have been able to interact with more of his close friends. 

Despite the awkwardness and lack of students at school, Kuwayti felt like all his classes were extremely safe, with one exception: physical education.

“We played kickball, which was still distanced and stuff, but it wasn’t like sitting behind plastic barriers on opposite sides of the classroom not talking to each other at all,” he said. “It was just a different kind of experience.”

Still, Kuwayti hopes to be able to get some of his close friends to go to school on the same day.

“I think it might be fun to coordinate with some people that are in my classes to go together, so when we go to lunch, we’re all together,” Kuwayti said. “But I think otherwise, … unless it’s a special case, I don’t think I would go back.”

Antoine’s Cookie Shop serves up nostalgia by the dozen

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND ARI STROBER, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

In Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” a single bite of the eponymous dish transports the sour-faced food critic, Anton Ego, to a memory of himself as a child, enjoying his mother’s cooking. Seeing a customer experience that involuntary sense of nostalgia is Antoine Tang’s favorite part of his job as owner of Antoine’s Cookie Shop.

“When I hear a customer have that kind of response to the cookies, I’m extremely proud,” Tang said. “Especially when I get an older person — I’m talking about someone in their 80s — that comes into my shop and buys the cookies, and they tell me, ‘These cookies are like what I had when I was a kid.’”

Antoine’s Cookie Shop, which just opened a second location at Palo Alto’s Town and Country Village, is a cozy nook with a 10-cookie menu of classic flavors (although, the crowd favorite is hands down the unique Cookies N’ Cream).

Thanks to community support, business hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic at the shop’s original San Mateo location, and the store’s January Palo Alto opening was met with a warm welcome from customers, selling two thousand cookies on opening day. Tang credits his success to the quality of his ingredients, consistency, and excellent employees.

“The first weekend in Palo Alto was extremely busy for us,” Tang said. “I think a lot of people came from different nearby towns. Our job right now is to win over the local community, and to let them know that we’re here.”

But Antoine’s wasn’t always this big — it began as a solo operation out of Tang’s house eight years ago. Tang started baking cookies “just for fun,” setting out to find the perfect chocolate chip cookies to satisfy his sweet tooth. But the 30-cookie batches were too much for him to eat alone, so he began sharing his cookies with his friends, who pushed him to take the next step to make his hobby into a full-fledged business.

“They told me, ‘Hey, you should sell these,’ and I said, ‘Eh, who’s gonna buy them?’” Tang said. “Then one of them said, ‘I’ll buy them.’ And then she bought some.”

That initial support from his friends pushed Tang to launch an online business delivering cookies all around the Bay Area. Over the next three years, Tang grew the business gradually, building a website and streamlining his ordering process. Demand started picking up, and Tang, who had never imagined starting a shop, began to sell up to 300 cookies a day.

“There was one Christmas where we got in so many orders that I knew I couldn’t keep up,” Tang said. “So I shut down the ordering page on the website around the 12th of December in 2015. And then I was like, ‘Okay, we really got to find a store.’”

Tang opened his first brick and mortar location in downtown San Mateo in 2016, where he could interact with customers face to face for the first time and began to build a staff.

“One of the things that really surprised me about opening the shop was how fulfilling it is to provide dignified employment to folks, especially young people,” Tang said, “A big part of the business is offering a safe place for young people to come work. And that’s something that I’m very proud of.” 

What began with Tang Googling “world’s best chocolate chip recipe” has now grown into a full-fledged business with his own recipes that brings freshly baked cookies and joy to customers around the Bay Area.

“I want people to eat the cookies and be very happy,” Tang said. “I want them to share with a friend. It’s a very shareable dessert. I love when people bring it to parties and they look like the hero.”

Antoine’s Cookie Shop is open in Town and Country Shopping Center Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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.”