Martinez officials may be close to adopting an ordinance that, like Concord's and Pleasant Hill's, restricts people parking RVs on the street and public and private parking lots. The move is an effort to address the growing number of people in town living in their vehicles.
"Right now I'm seeing that there are more people living in their cars and RVs and campers than on the ground," said Doug Stewart, the city's homeless outreach coordinator.
The vehicles aren't hard to find. Visitors to the Waterfront Park and marina parking lots can spot them quickly - at first glance they look like any other RV, but a closer look reveals the age, wear and tear and generally run down condition of the vehicles. Often the cars, campers and RVs park at night between trucks on Howe Road, or in residental areas.
Stewart, who makes daily contact with many Martinez homeless, said these are the only housing options many of these people have left, until they are forced to seek help for drug, alcohol and other problems that are often the root of their homelessness.
Police Chief Gary Peterson said "we need to be sensitive to the fact that people are having a tough time," though he emphasized that the police enforce the existing laws regarding sanitation, safety and current parking restrictions. He told the council at a recent meeting that he is investigating augmenting the city's current ordinance, which prohibits sleeping in vehicles overnight. He noted that it's often difficult, especially in a motor home, to tell if it is being occupied overnight. Concord's ordinance prohibits motor homes on public streets as well as private and public parking lots.
But two homeless men interviewed Thursday night by Martinez Patch said there is nowhere else for them to go.
"We're back in the 1930s," said Tom, who lives in his camper in the Amtrak parking lot."There's a lot of us out here. I don't mind it. I travel to three or four places. You comply with the regulations, you're ok. The house I was living in burned down, and this is all I have now. If they pass a stricter ordinance, it will never survive a court challenge."
"I've lived in this motor home since 2000," said Steve, whose RV is frequently seen in the Waterfront Park parking lot. He lives there with his wife and two rotweillers. "I do shrimping out here and my wife doesn't drive. If they say we can't park here, I don't know what I would do. Neither one of us has enough to live anywhere else. I just don't know what we would do."
"I'd like to help these guys," Stewart said, "but they come out here and get too comfortable, and they don't have to move. People get comfortable and they don't have to get services. I'd like to see them lose their comfortability."
That seems to be in the works. The city council and police chief say they are seeking a solution to the issue through tightening restrictions in the city's current ordinance to bring it more in line with Concord's RV ordinance, which restricts RV parking throughout the city. A recent court challenge to the ordinance was struck down by the Court of Appeal earlier this month.
"People living in RVs has always bothered me," said Mayor Rob Schroder. "It's unfortunate they don’t have homes, but it does impact the community. I’d like to see stepped up enforcement in the downtown and waterfront areas. It's a difficult issue. It has an impact visually, and on the quality of life. These vehicles are usually huge polluters too. There's one leaking fluids all over parking lot. It's not like these people are mom and dad who have lost their jobs. It's like a lifestyle, almost."
"These are not housing units," said Vice Mayor Janet Kennedy. "They're not set up to be housing units. When they’re on the street, they’re dangerous. There's the issue of illegal dumping of sewage. Are they safe? Where do they get their power? A lot of them plug in somewhere else. I certainly understand that people need to live somewhere safe, I just don’t know that this is it. I wouldn’t mind a stronger ordinance."
"It's a problem with many different levels, including waste disposal," said councilman Mark Ross. "Where is that sewage going, where is it being dumped? It's just not good public policy - it's a public safety issue to have RVs randomly parked around city and in the streets. Just not a desirable element of residential life for those areas that have RVs parked in them with strangers camping in their neighborhood. I'm sympathetic to the current economic times, but it's problem that has persisted in good times and bad, and it’s time to address it."
"Some of our 'homeless' citizens who live in cars and RVs do create sanitation issues as well as other concerns," said councilmen Mike Menesini. "We need to address those concerns while not criminalizing true homelessness. It's not going to be easy. The easiest thing to do, of course, would be to just ban folks from sleeping in motor vehicles at night that are not hooked up to water and sewer. A system, though, that presents alternatives and "warnings" would be my preference. However, costs and "unintended consequences" also have to be taken into account."