The more than 40 recreational vehicles parked along El Camino Real, just outside Stanford University, have been deemed eyesores and nuisances, but inside them are people facing diverse circumstances: among them, families struggling to make ends meet and traveling contractors who work locally but have permanent homes in other California cities.
Over the course of two weeks, the Weekly spoke to nearly a dozen residents of this de facto RV park and found that for many, like a family of 10 who share one camper, living in an RV is a means of survival. For others, including a 62-year-old Central Valley resident approaching retirement, an RV is a temporary home away from home. Some were reluctant to share their stories and others were eager to clear up misconceptions about people who live in RVs.
Palo Alto is exploring the possibility of following in the footsteps of neighboring cities East Palo Alto and Mountain View, which each launched safe parking programs for RVs this year. In addition to free overnight parking, the programs provide access to showers, restrooms and laundry services.
The following stories offer a glimpse into the lives of the people inside the controversial vehicles that city leaders are trying to get off the streets.
The young families: Just trying to get by
About the above photo: A girl holds her baby cousin in the RV they share with a total of 10 family members.
Abigail, who also asked not to be identified by her last name, lives in an RV with her husband, her mother, her four children — ages 14, 12, 8 and 1 — and her niece Karen, her husband and their 16-month-old son, who moved into the RV about a month ago. This makes for 10 people living in the RV, which contains a full-sized bed, one set of bunk beds, a pullout sofa bed and a twin-sized bed all arranged like an intricate jigsaw puzzle.
Abigail said her family transitioned to RV living about a year ago, after her landlord increased their rent by $600. Karen and her family moved into the vehicle about a month ago after leaving their apartment, which was “falling apart,” she said. Karen also had a kidney condition and she said she is being treated at Stanford Hospital, so living close to the facility makes it convenient to get to appointments.
Despite some challenges, like the lack of personal space and limited access to restroom facilities, Abigail said her family doesn’t mind living in their RV. Without the burden of rent, the family is able to save up a lot more money, which they put toward food and other necessities. Abigail said her goal is to save up enough money to move to a state where the cost of living is cheaper.
She currently works part-time as a housekeeper and her husband works in construction, as does Karen’s husband. Karen works at McDonalds.
Tynika Davis and Ivan Castillo are a young couple who have lived in their RV for about a year with their dog, Khaleesi. The 23-year-olds previously lived in their van in San Mateo until “the city started cracking down really hard on people living in their cars,” Davis said.
She is originally from Oregon but moved to San Mateo when she was young with her mother. Castillo grew up nearby in San Bruno. Davis works at a local pet day care facility, and Castillo is a valet driver for a major tech company in Silicon Valley. Despite both being employed, neither of them makes enough money to afford rent in the area, which is why they’ve resorted to RV living.
“Most people want three times the amount for rent,” Davis said, referring to monthly income requirements.
Castillo said even the apartments that they could potentially afford wouldn’t accept them because of his credit score wasn’t high enough.
“I think it’s all kind of different on each person because you have people that choose to be out here living in their RVs compared to people who ended up out here, or need to be out here, or were kind of forced, as we were,” Castillo said. “We didn’t really have many other options.”
He said that many of his colleagues are commuters who live in the east bay or even as far out as the Sacramento area, and they travel long distances every day to get to work because they can’t afford to move closer.
“A lot of people have asked me … ‘Well, if you can’t afford to live here, why don’t you leave?’ And, for me, the answer is simple: I don’t have much family anywhere else. … And I grew up here. This is my home,” Castillo said.
Davis and Castillo said they are trying to build their credit scores up so they can afford permanent housing.
“I don’t want to be in this RV forever, let alone a year from now,” Castillo said.
The commuters: ‘We’re not homeless’
About the above photo: Arturo Torres, 48, checks his phone to get the address of a work site before heading off to his job as a commercial painter.
Miguel, who asked not to be identified by his last name, came to the Bay Area from Paso Robles earlier this year to find employment as a delivery driver after his wife, Alex, had a difficult pregnancy and gave birth to their daughter two months before her scheduled due date. Miguel had to quit work to care for his wife and quickly racked up credit card debt and other bills. To pay it off, he needed a higher-paying job that offered health benefits. The job market isn’t as good in Paso Robles, he explained.
“There is no livable wage for rent, plus food, plus transportation,” he said.
While finding work in the Bay Area was easy, Miguel underestimated how difficult it would be to find a place to live.
“I thought it would be easy to come up here and get an apartment. … I didn’t know how high the price of the housing market was,” he said.
He is now among those living along El Camino in an RV while his wife and baby, Mia, remain in the family’s Paso Robles home about 175 miles south, near San Luis Obispo.
He’s been living in his 1991 Holiday Rambler for less than a month. Prior to that, he was renting rooms in homes and hotels while applying for one-bedroom apartments and studios. One studio apartment he found in Mountain View was going for $1,900 a month with a $1,900 security deposit.
“No way could we afford that,” he said. In shared homes, where Miguel found some rooms for about $800-$900 per month, he faced strict rules against cooking, having overnight guests and even making phone calls after 8 p.m.
He finally decided to purchase an RV.
“I’d rather live here than live in the same amount of space in a studio,” Miguel said.
Alex and Mia visit Miguel a few times a month. They are keeping their primary home in Paso Robles so the family can remain close to Miguel’s daughter from a previous relationship.
“We’re not homeless; I have a home. It’s just the situation we’re in right now,” Alex said. “It’s not what you would choose, and we’re trying to get out of where we are, but it takes a while, and we’re dealing with it the best way we can.”
Todd Boyd became a Palo Alto RV dweller about a year ago, one of many construction workers from across the state hired to build Escondido Village graduate housing at Stanford University. The multi-building project, which broke ground in 2017, is set for completion by 2021.
Boyd lives in Martinez but has been living primarily in his RV while working on the project. Every weekend, however, he makes the 65-mile drive to his home in Contra Costa County.
Like Alex and Miguel, he doesn’t consider himself unhoused.
“I’m not homeless. I’m not trying to abuse any system,” he said. “I just don’t want to drive three-and-a-half hours (during rush hour) every day to get to work.”
While being away throughout the week takes a toll on his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, he said he appreciates the convenience of living in his RV — being able to walk back and forth to the job site and relax immediately after getting off work.
“Travelers have a hard time, and we work all day. It’s a physical job. The last thing you want to do is drive three hours to get home,” he said. Boyd added that he’d even be willing to pay to park his RV on Stanford property. “Stanford has such big lots that are empty,” he said. “If they want to make mone, charge me $300 a month. … I mean, even $500 a month, I’d pay it.”
Arturo Torres is another contractor who has made El Camino Real his temporary address. The traveling painter has worked on projects for various Bay Area clients, including Santa Clara University, Facebook and Apple. His homebase is in Fresno, where his wife lives with four of their six children.
Like Boyd, Torres goes home every weekend to spend time with his family and lives in an RV during the week. He parks wherever is close to a given job site.
“I park in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Redwood City. … I’m parking everywhere,” he said. Taking high-paying jobs in the Bay Area allows him to make enough money to pay his mortgage in Fresno and take care of his family.
Ray, who declined to give his last name, is one of the longer-term RV residents who spoke with the Weekly. Another commuter, he’s been living in his RV since 2014. He and his wife own a home in the Central Valley.
“It’s tiring living in the RV for me,” said the 62-year-old, who’s chosen to sacrifice living at home until he reaches retirement. The former Bay Area resident said he didn’t want to resign from his job at a major institution in Menlo Park and risk losing his retirement benefits. So he’s still working at the company, whose name he asked not be disclosed for fear he could be identified.
“My house is out in a place that I will retire to, you know. I don’t need to live here in the Bay Area after I retire.”
While he takes umbrage with trash left behind by other RV dwellers and passersby, and puts up with the difficulty of finding parking when he returns from work and the noise from traffic that shakes his vehicle as it passes by, he maintains that it beats sitting in traffic for several hours, day in and day out.
The individuals: Hanging on and making it work
About the above photo: Michael Reed, 53, a plumber and pipe fitter from San Luis Obispo County, stands at the door of his RV parked along El Camino Real, where has hbeen living for the past year while working at Stanford University’s Escondido Village construction site.
Aleman Cruz Francisco, 57, works part time at Lozano Brushless All Cloth Car Wash in Mountain View operating the vacuums. He said he gets scheduled only a handful of hours each week because the establishment employs so many workers that shifts are spread thin. He said the business also experienced a slow winter because people weren’t getting their cars washed as often due to all the rain. He bought his RV about a year and a half ago. Before moving to Palo Alto and getting hired at the car wash, he parked in Sunnyvale and Mountain View and worked odd jobs. Francisco, who is from Nicaragua and speaks very broken English, said the language barrier has been an obstacle to finding work.
“My problem is my English is no good,” he said.
His brother lives in an RV of his own as well, which is also parked on El Camino Real. Despite facing his own financial obstacles, Francisco was able to help someone else in need. Jacob Tyo was living in a Mini Cooper for a month and a half after moving to Palo Alto from Florida. When Francisco noticed this, he offered to let him stay in his brother’s RV while he’s out of town for a month visiting Nicaragua.
Originally from San Mateo, Tyo said he moved back and forth between the Bay Area and Denver, Colorado, over the years and was incarcerated in prison at 18 after a dispute with a friend over a BB gun before landing in Florida to stay with a friend.
Things eventually went sour in the sunshine state, and a childhood friend who manages the Village Cheese House in Town & Country Village offered him a job. Upon finding out his mother was ill, he decided to return to California and take the job.
“So, I started and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Tyo is an aspiring tattoo artist, but in the meantime, he wants to work his way up to manager at the Cheese House, a position in which he would make more money.
“It’s really a nice little gig,” he said. “And my manager, my owner, I love him. He’s fully supportive of giving people second chances.”
There’s much more to the RV dwellers’ experiences of living on El Camino Real. To hear Weekly journalists Veronica Weber and Cierra Bailey discuss their full interviews, including subjects such as the RV residents’ encounters with police and the general public and how they manage day-to-day life, watch the Weekly’s webcast, “Behind the Headlines,” on our YouTube channel and podcast page.
TALK ABOUT IT
Discuss the stories of the RV dwellers along El Camino Real in Palo Alto on Town Square, the online discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com.