Life Inside the RVs of Silicon Valley
At quitting time on a weekday afternoon, a woman with a Stanford ID badge dangling from a lanyard arrives at her Palo Alto home—though it doesn’t seem like this particular home would be hers.
“Karen,” who prefers that we don’t use her last name, lives in a Silicon Valley Hooverville: a line of Jaycos and Winnebagos, Pace Arrows and Tiogas, parked along the side of El Camino Real. Spanish explorers blazed the trail (its name translates to “the royal highway”) to connect their missions as they were colonizing early Alta California; now the road runs amid the luxe campuses of tech companies, spreading their own kind of cultural hegemony.
In this stretch through Palo Alto, six lanes of suburban traffic whizz by Stanford’s manicured soccer fields, stadium, and wooded jogging paths. Like much of Silicon Valley, the area somehow feels both harried and tranquil, a pastoral pressure cooker that squeezes out anyone who can’t keep pace with its strangulating cost of living. Those inside the RVs are reminded of how they’re being left behind by each passing car that oh-so-slightly jars their home. Whoosh. Whoosh. “It’s like getting hit in the head,” as one resident puts it. “Not real hard—but just hard enough, to where you just want it to stop.”
Karen says she is a third-generation Palo Altan. She grew up in the same subdivisions where, now, developers have razed the original tract homes to build two-story houses that crowd right up to the property lines, with a median sale price of $2.6 million. Shuttle buses largely filled with Chinese nationals looking for property spin through on house-hunting sprees, bragging about the proximity to Steve Jobs’s manse and Facebook and Google. Karen went to Palo Alto High—which sits directly across the street from her RV—and for a decade lived in an apartment near El Camino Real while working as an admin in a Stanford lab. Her rent doubled—going from $895 to $1,695—in the time that her Stanford wages only increased by $4 an hour. When she heard that more rent increases were incoming, “I just couldn’t do it,” she says. Now in her 60s, Karen wanted to keep working to save for retirement.
Three years ago, she bought her first camper van, allowing her to—technically—stay in her hometown.
Karen says she was among the first to park on this strip. She’s a pioneer, of sorts, in what’s now a long line of 21st-century covered wagons, all of which are symptoms of some sort of dysfunction: decades of shortsighted NIMBY housing policy in the Bay Area, the long tail of the recession, personal battles, or wages too low to buy space indoors. The innovation capital of the world hasn’t yet solved how to build affordable housing.
The trailer dwellers are diverse. Sure, there’s the tweakers, those who dump piss out at the curb; but there are also lovebirds on an adventure, and many working people. One is a cashier at a burger joint across the street, another installs tile, and yet another commutes to the San Francisco International Airport, prepping the meals that are loaded onto planes. Karen’s RV is immaculate inside, a floral bouquet perched on the table. Years ago, she lived in tents while working as a ranger at Yosemite National Park, part of the outdoor adventure. Sleeping in a vehicle on the side of a busy artery doesn’t feel quite as liberating. "They're all adventures—it's just some are more likable than others," she says. Still, she's grown used to her current dwelling. Her coworkers didn’t know about her living situation until the time when she brought in dishes to wash at work. “They say, ‘Where are you parked?’ I’m like, ‘On El Camino,’ and they’re like, ‘Is there an RV park?’ And I’m like, ‘Nope, I’m just on the side of the road.’”
When the line of trailers started to draw complaints earlier this year, the police started enforcing a 72-hour parking limit. Now, the RVs and trucks just move to another spot in the lineup and park again. Tesla’s headquarters are a ten-minute drive away, but for now, the RVs are just as much a part of the town’s landscape.
“SILVIA” and ISIDORO SANCHEZ
Silvia—as we’ll call her—moved back from Texas in 2014 to the Bay Area, where she’d grown up and her mom still lived. Back in Texas, Silvia, 59, had been a teacher’s assistant and Isidoro, 67, delivered meals to schools, but the couple left the Texas ranch where they’d been living when relations with their family there frayed. Once in the Bay Area, Silvia started caring for her mom, and she and Isidoro lived for a year in a Dodge Durango parked in the street outside her mom’s house. When the transmission broke down and the windows got smashed out, the couple started to live in another vehicle that a local mechanic had given them the title to in 2015. It was a truck—not one meant for humans to dwell inside, but the mid-size type you’d normally see making mattress deliveries. He said to pay him back when they had the money.
But at the beginning of 2016, Isidoro became ill, and was diagnosed by Stanford hospital for cirrhosis of the liver. He was put on the liver transplant list. The couple was required to live close to the hospital in case they’d get a call for an organ that had become ready. With the high rent, the only way to get close enough to the hospital was to park their truck near El Camino. Over time, the couple outfitted the van with windows, a toilet, and a cooking stove, which they’d light for warmth at night. Still, hygiene was a challenge: She and Isidoro had to brush their teeth and sponge bath from the bathroom sinks at a nearby McDonalds.
Six months ago, Silvia got a job at the Stanford, first housekeeping at a guest house for visitors to the university, and then at the hospitals as a contract janitor—working 4:00 p.m. to 12:30 am for $23 an hour, and escorting Isidoro to his appointments on her days off. Once she started working at Stanford, their bathing situation improved. Silvia could sneak Isidoro into the university’s rec center showers.
Their precarious living situation became a catch 22: while the truck allowed them to live near the hospital, when the social worker found out Isidoro was living in a truck, the hospital kicked Isidoro off the transplant list: he needed to live indoors to recover from a potential surgery to be eligible for a transplant. Luckily, after weeks of looking, Silvia’s sister in nearby Milpitas rented her a bedroom for $700/month this fall, where they’ve been staying since. The last she heard, they had to stay inside for a year for Isidoro to get back on the list.
Darnell Kennon, 55, sits on a bench across from Palo Alto High, where he says he traveled to attend school while growing up in East Palo Alto. While the area was gaining its national reputation for innovation after WWII, it also—more quietly—had many of the same racial scars as other parts of the country, as was chronicled in a TechCrunch piece. In mid-century Palo Alto, black people were either overtly or covertly dissuaded by realtors or neighborhood associations from buying houses. When they started moving into East Palo Alto instead, the whites there fled, a division furthered by the construction of highway 101 between the two. When Darnell was a kid in 1970, Palo Alto was 92 percent white, and East Palo Alto 60 percent black.
East Palo Alto turned into a racially segregated town with high levels of poverty and crime, whose teens were depicted in the 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer flick, Dangerous Minds. The towns remain stratified. East Palo Alto has become more evenly mixed between white, black and Pacific Islanders—a median household income of $52,000. Palo Alto’s white population has gone down to 64 percent, the difference is from an influx of Asians, who now make up more than one in four of the city’s residents. Palo Alto’s median income is more than twice that of its neighbor: $137,000.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, “when I grew up, there were no roads,” Kennon says. For 22 years, Kennon worked as a manager at a county probation department. Kennon retired, and has been sleeping in his black GMC SUV, while looking for an apartment.
Kennon seemed uncomfortable with the living situation, but admits one upside: “I can go anywhere, I’m like a gypsy.”
ABRAHAM, BRENDA, and their dog, MAX
Abraham Espinoza steps down from his Tioga RV, parked on El Camino, his home for the past year. He, too, is a local. For a decade, he says he paid a $2,900 mortgage for a house in East Palo Alto. He was earning good money then, laying tile in the homes going up in the Central Valley towns of Modesto, Stockton, Lodi, Livermore, and Oakley. But once the recession hit, work dried up, and he had no one to lean on. “I don’t have Mama and Papa here,” he says, wryly. (Originally from Mexico City, he’s been in the States for 36 years.) So Espinoza started hunting for scrap metal to sell. It was enough to keep up on payments for his truck, but not his mortgage. After he had missed house payments for two years, the bank foreclosed in 2011.
While Silicon Valley around him not only rebounded from the recession, but boomed, Espinoza embarked on a housing saga.
First, he headed to a homeless shelter. Then he and his wife, Brenda, rented a room for a few months. Then they found an in-law unit in a house’s backyard, where they lived for five years, and where they could let their German shepherd, Max, roam. But city inspectors discovered the unit—which was illegal—and they had to move out. Espinoza didn’t want the headache of rental situations anymore, so he saved up money from his freelance construction jobs to pay $8,000 dollars for his motor home. “I said, ‘No more rent!’” Espinoza remembers. He now walks Max on the Stanford nearby trails before pushing off for work.
While it’s a liberation of a sort, Espinoza says he certainly wouldn’t turn down an affordable apartment. “What I don’t like is how people stopped during rush hour stare inside my van,” he says. He’s also in an ongoing lawsuit against the bank over his foreclosure—part of a class-action, he says, with some 3,000 plaintiffs. “Of course, I won’t get the house back,” he concedes. “But if I get money, I’m going to buy one of those bigger motor homes. Super C class.”
His sense of what’s possible has been constricted.
COURTNEY MARLOTT and TREGG CONAWAY
Tregg Conaway worked as a handyman at a bar in Seattle, where he met Courtney Marlott—who is at least two decades his junior, maybe three—last year, and where, they say, they fell in love. Marlott says people confuse them for father and daughter all the time, which they laugh about. “She's 21 Tregg!!!” reads one comment on the Facebook post in which Conaway announced their relationship status. Marlott wrote back, “It makes me laugh that some of you take such issue with my age, but you’re spending your time making negative, juvenile comments about my relationship. I genuinely care about Tregg and that’s all that matters.”
“HEATHER” and her dog, TSUNAMI
“Heather,” as we’ll call her, has one of the area’s toughest stories. She’s middle-aged now, but she first left her San Francisco home at 11 years old and has been homeless off and on ever since, with all the stresses that might befall a woman on the streets—including, she says, sexual assault. She moved indoors when she wed the first time, but her husband died. Her second husband was abusive, and she left him.
She lived in an RV out on the coast in Half Moon Bay for four years. That’s where she got her dog and best friend, Tsunami. She moved to Palo Alto to get treatment at Stanford’s hospital for diabetes, as well as issues with her liver and pancreas. Heather doesn’t work, but she says she pays out of pocket for therapy to help her with all her trauma. She parks her beat-up RV on El Camino because “it’s safe, there’s lots of police, and the hospital is right there.”
Her most valuable possession? Heather points to a gold-framed portrait of her late great-grandmother, Maggie, by her bed. Maggie lived to be 102, and, Heather says, was once written about by San Francisco’s iconic urban chronicler, Herb Caen. “She was the only one there for me,” she explains. “It’s 100 percent why I’m still here today. Her strength—she passed it on to me.”
Cindy Rudd is on the clock at a burger joint in an upscale shopping plaza on El Camino. She wipes down fast-food trays, her tanned hands decked out with fire-engine-red nails. A golden-cross locket hangs from her neck, and her wavy hair is pulled back into a ponytail worn girlishly high, lending youthful swing to her 60 years. “This is temporary—this is not going to be a forever deal,” she says, upbeat.
By “this,” Rudd means living across the street in a Ford Transit Connect van parked on the side of the road. Rudd and her boyfriend bought it with $14,000 cash so that they could stay close to Stanford Medical Center, where her boyfriend is putting in the electrical system in a new hospital wing.
After “30 years of abusive relationships,” Rudd met her electrician boyfriend three years ago. He was different. “I wanted this man so bad, and I got him, and I’m so happy. He keeps me grounded. He’s my world. We’re in love,” she says. So when her boyfriend moved here for the job from Ventura, Southern California, a year ago, Rudd decided to take a leap: she quit her job as an in-home caretaker in San Luis Obispo, and followed him north to Palo Alto.
“I can’t stand it on El Camino because of the traffic—especially when I’m trying to watch General Hospital on my cell phone,” says Rudd. “But we haven’t had time to look elsewhere.”