Students petition for academic and wellness reform following Mountain View High death

STORY AND PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Note: Resources for persons feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can be found at the bottom of this story.

Students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District are petitioning for reform that they say will better ensure the district supports students’ mental health needs, initially prompted by the passing of a Mountain View High School junior earlier this month.

Broadly, students have called for decreased homework loads and other measures meant to alleviate academic stress, as well as a range of solutions to bolster the district’s mental health support.

The circumstances of the death that prompted the petition are not yet public, and students have since disassociated the petition with the passing itself. An original foreword to the petition assumed the cause of death to be suicide, and criticized the school for not properly addressing this most recent death as well as two others over the course of the past three years which were publicly confirmed to be suicides. 

In an interview, Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer stressed the importance of avoiding spreading rumors about the passing out of respect for the family’s privacy and grieving process.

“We certainly do know, though, that that we have lost students to suicide on the Mountain View High campus in the last few years,” Meyer said. “And it is certainly a reminder of how significant that loss is to young people.”

Mountain View senior Marina Reynaud, who created the collaborative document with over 250 signatures, backtracked from that a day after she started circulating the petition. She said that after receiving feedback from another Mountain View student, she decided to change the premise of the petition because it was not her intention to use the deaths to her “benefit” and amplify her own message.

A new foreword to the petition explicitly notes that it “is not intended to be attached to the recent deaths of our MVHS peers.”

“What we are trying to do however, is spread awareness to the administration on the amount of students who do or have dealt with mental health problems during their time in high school,” the foreword continues. “Mental health is a huge issue at Mountain View (and many other schools) that should be addressed.”

HOMEWORK AND COURSE LOAD

One of the most detailed action items on the petition — and a seemingly recurring talking point in the student mental health discussion — is a call for decreased homework loads.

“Teachers should give less homework: It would be beneficial to students’ stress levels if teachers were forced to only assign 30-45 minutes of homework per day,” the petition reads. “Then, the rest of the students’ time can be allotted for studying and extracurriculars.”

According to the 2019–2020 Mountain View student handbook, students in college preparatory and non–UC recognized honors classes can expect up to 2–3 hours of “focused, undistracted homework per week” in each class, which averages out to 36 minutes a night at the top end.

AP and UC-approved honors courses should generally assign 4–5 hours of homework weekly — an average of an hour a night at the top end — the handbook also states.

In an interview, Raynaud reaffirmed her assertion that homework needs to be further limited, but said that there’s more nuance than what’s written in the petition.

“I think sometimes there is homework that’s just kind of busy work that I do agree should [be limited],” Raynaud said. “But homework that is like reading a textbook or actually learning things, I think there’s really no way to shorten that. Especially for AP classes, there’s a certain amount of work you have to do.”

Mountain View junior Abbie Reese, who wrote about overwhelming amounts of homework and the pressure to take AP and honors courses on a widely circulated Instagram post with 700 likes, agreed that AP course loads are inevitably going to be difficult.

“In terms of homework, of course AP teachers have content they need to teach and … it is a harder course,” Reese said. “I think it does get a little iffy when it falls into the category of none of your students can get this done on time and most of them are reaching out to you and saying, ‘We don’t have enough time for this.’”

When asked why students would choose to take AP and honors classes if the college prep homework load is in line with what they see as reasonable, both Raynaud and Reese contended that students are pressured to take AP and honors courses that they can’t handle.

Students, Raynaud claimed, are primarily pressured by their parents and other students, but she also asserted that pressure from some teachers pushes students toward unbalanced course loads.

When asked, Raynaud couldn’t think of any specific school policies or recurring actions the school takes that explicitly encourage students to take courses they can’t handle, but said that it’s “small things” from teachers.

“Today, and I don’t think this was intentional to hurt someone, but my teacher was like, ‘Oh, fill out this form and tell me which AP tests you’re taking.’ And that was under the assumption that everyone in that class was taking an AP test,” Raynaud said.

Raynaud said that the question was posed in an AP class — but that she still thought the implication was harmful.

Reese said that she feels that some of her teachers, though certainly not all, encourage her to take AP and honors courses that she can handle academically, but not in the broader context of the other courses she takes and her own wellness.

She said that her academic counselor has generally done a good job of guiding her toward balanced course loads, and Raynaud suggested that the district hire more academic counselors so that each counselor has fewer students to work with, allowing them to make more individualized and better-informed recommendations to students when choosing courses.

Superintendent Meyer said that while she’s not aware of any policies at the district level specifically about encouraging moderation in course load, there has been conversation on the subject and academic counselors generally guide students toward balanced schedules.

“I do believe that all of our counseling departments do emphasize the importance of balance,” Meyer said. “And counsel students towards making sure that they have a variety of experiences that may include courses that aren’t AP and extracurriculars, and to make sure that they have time within their day.”

The petition also calls for teachers to “plan their schedules so that tests and projects don’t overlap”; implement a “growth mindset” grading system; and allow for more lenient late work policy, although the specifics of those items are unclear, and Raynaud wasn’t entirely certain what she’d want them to look like — some of those points weren’t written by her, as it’s a collaborative document.

“The conversation of balance has been constant,” Wellness Coordinator William Blair said. “Part of our course selection process includes a time management worksheet … that we give students [and] we encourage our teachers to have the conversations with the students about balance, and what’s an appropriate load. … The philosophy of having a balanced workload, I think, is something that we’ve been promoting.”

Meyer said that there has been discussion about limiting AP courses — a suggestion that Reese made — but no specific policy at the moment.

She noted that the district needs to both ensure that students don’t feel compelled to take AP courses but also support “perhaps the smaller number” of students who benefit from and excel in AP courses. She also said that it’s important that the district “open access” for students who aren’t in advanced AP courses at the moment.

Raynaud, for her part, said that she’s undecided on the idea of capping AP courses, because she suspects students might look to pile on other activities like clubs and volunteer organizations to make up for having fewer AP courses.

“I think it just kind of takes away the school part of the stress,” Raynaud said. “But I think … in the end, you’re just going to still be doing a bunch of things for college applications.”

Despite no concrete district-wide policy, the Mountain View student handbook “encourages students to consider the number of AP classes they enroll in, keeping in mind that real college courses frequently require self-directed study that can, at a student’s option, far exceed time specified here.”

The handbook suggests that students who find themselves spending significantly more time than the expected 4–5 hours a week on homework in an AP or honors course speak with their teachers “for help examining their study habits and strategies and for other resources.”

On the topic of homework, Meyer said that there’s research to do moving forward, specifically pertaining to whether homework is contributing to actual mastery of the subject, as opposed to being extra work that’s reinforcing content that’s already solidified.

“So there’s that question around, at what point are you having diminishing returns for homework, and is there a way to assess perhaps differently so students don’t feel compelled to … complete a task as opposed to master the subject?” Meyer said.

“I think we need to look at the stress that comes with feeling compelled to take a very full load of very challenging courses,” she added. “But at the same time, we also need to look within those courses to make sure that we’re doing what we need to do.”

MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES

Alongside the discussion surrounding homework and course loads, the mental health services that the school provides are also a dominant part of the petition and broader conversation.

The petition specifically calls for hiring more therapeutic counselors so that students “don’t have to be on a waiting list” and can “find a counselor that is a good fit for them instead of placing them with the counselor … available at the moment.”

Raynaud, who said she wasn’t completely familiar with the district’s existing infrastructure, also suggested hiring licensed psychotherapists to work in conjunction with the district’s existing support. 

Blair, the district’s wellness coordinator, said that in general, there aren’t any waitlists for the support services that the district offers.

In broad terms, the first step to accessing the district’s services is to fill out the district’s referral form, which can be done by the student in need, a friend, teacher or any other community member. 

“[The intake coordinator] meets with the student to kind of determine what the best support looks like,” Blair said. “Sometimes it’s academic counseling support, sometimes it’s support with social services or therapeutic mental health support. Sometimes it’s more at the administrative level, sometimes it’s about helping to foster communication with teachers and with family. So there’s a wide range of what the need may be.”

The district partners with CHAC, Uplift Family Services and Stanford Psychiatry to provide one-to-one counseling and therapeutic support with a general policy of providing short-term care for students, and later helping with the transition into more long-term care as needed.

Blair acknowledged that the district’s services might not always best serve students, and that the district is “happy to help” students find support elsewhere as needed.

“Almost across the board with all of our providers, we have increased services in the 2021 school year, and we’re expanding services as we hit [next year] as well,” Blair said, speaking of the district’s increased caseload capacity with its partners. “We’re building the infrastructure.”

“We have strong academic counseling, strong college and career counseling and strong therapeutic services,” Meyer said. “But there are the day-to-day stressors and the things that may not qualify you for clinical therapy, where you might need to go talk to someone and think it through and have someone objectively share support.”

Meyer said that the current model in some ways supports those “day-to-day” stressors, but that the district is still talking about the best way to support those needs.

Reese, who said she wasn’t entirely familiar with the support that the district provides in partnership with organizations like CHAC, suggested that the district offer therapeutic counseling services similar to the way it offers academic counselors, although she acknowledged it would take a significant amount of time and money.

Students would be paired with a wellness counselor for their four years in high school just as they are with academic counselors, which Reese contended could help remove some of the barriers like reluctance or lack of information that might prevent students from accessing support.

“I don’t know how well this would coincide with some of the other systems being proposed … But just as a baseline, every student would know exactly … who [to] you reach out to if you’re having a hard time,” Reese said.

Meyer said that the district this year shifted its academic counseling services to include more social emotional learning components, which in fact aligns partially with what Reese suggested.

“Our academic counselors have infused more social emotional support opportunities within their counseling yearly schedule,” Meyer said. “So that involves having time to talk to the students about their goals and and how it’s going with them — more of a check in and shifting away from only talking about what courses you need to graduate and be UC-ready, to really exploring what they’re interested in, what their strengths are and adding in that social emotional component.”

Blair said that many students do reach out to their academic counselors for mental health support, and Meyer added that many teachers, assistant principals and principals fill that role as well.

“I want to say … prior to needing that [clinical] support, our teachers do an excellent job of creating a welcoming environment within their classroom … recognizing that that relationship has to be built to optimize the environment and to optimize learning,” Meyer said.

Blair also cited student leadership classes, freshman orientation programs, academic counseling, tutorial centers and college and career centers all as being a part of broader “preventative” services that foster well being in the student body.

“My message is, if you have a need for support, please reach out, and we’ll do our best to get you connected with the appropriate support,” Blair said.

MOVING ON TOO QUICKLY

Although not included in Raynaud’s petition, a number of students have criticized what they say was a failure on the part of the district to properly address the death.

Reese, who was notified of the death the night prior by a mutual friend and said she was close to the student in middle school, felt that her teachers moved on from the death — as well as the two others in recent memory — far too quickly, and didn’t give students enough room to process it.

“I went through swinging back and forth between feeling numb and sad,” she said. “And then obviously, I had school the next day, and I was just kind of thrown back into a normal schedule. … And it was like, ‘I don’t really know how to process right now, because I feel like I need time to talk about what’s going on.’”

She said that while she thought one or two of her teachers addressed it well — including her first period teacher — the “vast majority” of the staff she interacted with “mentioned it in passing,” then carried on. She added that friends told her that some of their teachers had misgendered the student, which she found particularly frustrating.

As for what specifically she wanted from her teachers, Reese said that she would’ve liked more space to discuss and share feelings.

“This is kind of a weird comparison, but in my AP U.S. history class when [the Capitol insurrection happened], we were given time at the beginning of class to kind of discuss how that made us feel because a lot of us were getting really bad anxiety over it,” she said. “I think I’d like to see some of that — you know, a lot of us need some time to process, maybe share our thoughts to our teacher, get some more personal words.”

Meyer said that since being notified of the student’s death, the district has engaged in daily consultation with experts at Stanford University, the HEARD alliance, Kara and CHAC through Blair’s office to inform best policy.

“We rely very heavily on their guidance,” Blair said. “We’re following best practices set out by the professionals.”

After receiving news of the death, the district sent a message to the community notifying of the loss, and prepared a statement for first period teachers to read in their classes the next day. Blair said that teachers were encouraged to allow space for processing, and added that several support sessions were held for teachers who felt they needed additional guidance navigating the issue.

“Everybody grieves differently, and I think that’s really important,” Blair said. “Some students need the space to process and to talk, [and for] others, part of the grieving process is to not be in that space of processing.”

The school staffed the library with CHAC support staff to provide a space for students who needed additional processing, and also made available a Zoom link for similar support for remote students to “honor all responses to grief.”

Blair said that staff support meetings were also held for Los Altos High School teachers to prepare them should the topic come up in conversation, but Los Altos teachers were not instructed to read Meyer’s statement notifying of the death — which was in line with the expert consultation.

“I do have to say this feedback [about moving on too quickly] is really appreciated,” Meyer said. “Because we’re speaking to our advisors, but we want to make sure that the students have a voice in this as well. And if they’re telling us they need more, they need more.”

NEXT STEPS

Moving forward, Meyer and Blair pledged to have continued conversations about the district’s role in supporting student mental health.

“It has been devastating to see our students mourning, our families mourning and our staff mourning,” Meyer said. “And to that end, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to not only work to prevent any tragedies, but to support the students who are here and mourning with us.”

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Blair said. “We become educators because we love young people, and we love students, and we want them to thrive. … And it’s difficult watching our young people when they’re struggling. … We want to be there to help them through those struggles and through those challenges.”

Both Blair and Meyer expressed gratitude for the students who have reached out to them with suggestions moving forward, and encouraged students to continue to speak out.

“One of the things that we continue to plan with a more heightened urgency is to have a systemic way to reach out to students and to use their perspective and voice for district-wide improvement,” Meyer said. “One of the reasons that we recently reorganized the district office for the community outreach specialist was to have a systemic way to do that, and to honor the voices of those who are in the classroom all day and have a better vantage point than we do.”

The district recently appointed Los Altos English teacher Michelle Bissonnette to the new role of community outreach specialist, which will be responsible for communicating with and gathering feedback from the community to inform policy across the district.

Meyer said that, in the short term, she plans to share the feedback from students about where their stress comes from and what they think the district can do moving forward with teachers and the board — and to assess in those conversations how, or whether, the district should implement change.

“We knew before, but there certainly is an outcry,” Meyer said. “Students definitely have shared with us that the stress that they’re feeling within the day is very difficult. And so we have to honor and respect that voice and do what we can to support them.”

“It’s an ongoing collaboration,” Blair said. “It takes time, it takes thoughtfulness, it takes a concerted effort — and I think we are all committed to that. It’s the ongoing collaboration that I think will get us to where we want to be.”

Any person feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a crisis counselor, or text “HELLO” to 741741. The Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District’s student referral form can be found here in English, and here in Spanish.

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.

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.”