Protected Parking

Palo Alto City Council enacts a parking lot-based housing program to support the ever growing homelessness rates within the city


Just last year, at the start of the pandemic, Santa Clara County saw a huge increase in homeless residents with numbers totalling over 10 thousand people. On September 14, 2020, Palo Alto City Council approved a bill allowing for “safe parking lots” to be created within the city. Now, in 2021, the first one of these lots has been opened and is taking steps forward to help the ever growing homeless problem. 

Move Mountain View is a non-profit organization that focuses on combating the homelessness crisis within Santa Clara County. Move Mountain View is actively pushing for the creation of more safe parking lots to better help their cause and the thousands of people experiencing homelessness within Palo Alto and neighboring cities.

Safe parking lots are privately owned parking lots that the owner opens for use from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. as a place for people to park their RVs. However, county-owned parking lots, such as the lot on Geng Road have now been permitted to stay open 24/7 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to get access to these parking lots, organizations such as Move Mountain View interview the resident to see whether they should be permitted to stay in the parking lot area.

Amber Stine, the director of the non-profit, believes that the safe parking lots are an integral role to help families struggling with homelessness. “Having a home is a must. It’s a human right. And so the parking lot is just a step towards that,” Stine said.

Having a home is a must. It’s a human right. And so the parking lot is just a step towards that.

— Amber Stine

The increasing rent and prices of homes, particularly in the Bay Area, has pushed many families out of their living areas and onto the streets. Stine hopes that safe parking lots will provide family units with a temporary home that is much safer then the current living options the houseless population is faced with. 

“These are family units that can’t afford to live in this area where they can’t afford an apartment,” Stine said. “So they’ve chosen to do the next best thing which is to use their vehicles so they can stay in the area.” 

Families who are living in RVs and cars are very limited when it comes to space, and often the children of these families are not provided with a safe place to play. Thanks to the safe parking lots, families are provided with enclosed space with good security for their children to roam free without the danger of moving cars or strangers.

“One of the beauties of the Palo Alto lot has been that it’s fenced in and there are automatic gates, so the kids can run around freely,” Stine said. 

Just by looking at El Camino Real, you can clearly see the sheer number of houseless individuals, with dozens of RVs lininged up on the sides of the road being used for living. 

Move Mountain View currently operates the lot on Geng Road to support the homeless population in Palo Alto. The lot holds 12 RV spots and also unique facilities such as showers and laundry holders. 

Before people arrived at the Geng lot, multiple preparations were completed. Move Mountain View interviewed and selected the habitants and re-cleaned the area with volunteer support.

“Currently, we have a lot of people volunteering, food services that are coming through and giving it a providing hot meals and food for free,” Stine said

The non-profit works with the City Council to receive funding for the lot. The City of Palo Alto stated in a brief that, “[Safe parking lots] prevent the problem of vehicles reappearing on city streets during the day, which can create line-of-sight issues and other neighborhood challenges.”

Stine’s goal is to help get the families into apartments and homes after living in the safe parking lot. The lots are meant to serve as a starting point where families could start to create plans for a new home.

I believe that homelessness in Palo Alto is often overlooked—many people see homelessness as a ‘poor people issue.’

— Johannah Seah

“I learned that people would be driving around for hours trying to figure out where the safest space is going to be for them to spend the night. So when you alleviate that anxiety, it leaves a lot of space in their mind to plan,” Stine said

Paly sophomore, Johannah Seah, believes the safe parking lot will provide temporary assistance to houseless people, but in the long run she hopes that they will receive affordable housing. As a resident of Palo Alto, she recognizes the disparity between well-off residents and the more unfortunate. 

“I believe that homelessness in Palo Alto is often overlooked—many people see homelessness as a “poor people issue” and deem Palo Alto a rich town, and thus, a town in which everyone is housed,” Seah said. “However, that is not the case.” 

Although community opinion on the lots varies across Palo Alto, Stine hopes that people will come to accept the community at the safe parking lot. 

“Give people a chance to get to know them,” Stine said. “You would be surprised at how much they are our neighbors.” 

• Photos by Owen Bittinger