Ruben is unassuming, stout, and holds an expression of contemplation on his face. Ruben’s rough hands give their own account of his life, one in which nothing was given and everything was earned. He works as a dishwasher; nevertheless, he's tireless, bursting with energy. When you meet him, his humor breaks the language barrier. Our relationship transcends the English-Spanish divide that separates us; it's a deeper bond – one forged through mornings spent canvassing and nights spent strategizing.
Ruben morphs into sharp working class revolutionary orator when he steps in front of the podium and addresses the East Palo Alto City Council. Ruben's speeches have become the bright spot of Council meetings that often drag on into the late hours of the night and are filled with procedural business that few can truly understand. Ruben appeals to the humanity in all of us; only a few nights ago Ruben's speech brought the City Council to tears with his impassioned, fiery plea for an end to police harassment and decide on solutions to end this persecution of the poor.
Ruben near his RV. (Image by JT Faraji)
After he thinks the Council has gotten their fill, Ruben returns to Bay Road and enters his RV. Despite his hard work, the rents in Silicon Valley are simply too high for him. I tell you this story of Ruben not because he is remarkable, which he most certainly is, but because he is not unique; his is a story that exists in many different forms and permutations across the Valley.
The influx of tech and capital into the Valley, while creating prosperity and opportunity for some, has produced a troubling situation: one in which jobs are plentiful, but permanent housing is nearly impossible to find on a working class income. The solution for Ruben and hundreds of others was to purchase RVs to live in with what little disposable income they had.
This unique phenomena has led the creation of a new term, now common in Silicon Valley, "the working homeless." Initially, the phrase seems to be an oxymoron. Yet the stark reality that has emerged from hours spent canvassing and gathering stories from these RV residents is that the American Dream that promises of a white picket fence and full belly for all willing to work for it is, in fact, the greatest American Myth. Fiscal trouble has accelerated gentrification. Cities that were predicated on the uplift of the working class, including East Palo Alto, are running into the arms of moneyed corporations who offer a large tax base, but bring a form of gentrification that is devastating to working class because it criminalizes their poverty.
Previously, the policy of East Palo Alto towards RV residents was one of "live and let live." But during the afternoon of November 14th, in East Palo Alto, a city historically in tune with working class people, City Staff placed "No Parking" placards on the 1100 block of Weeks Street. Threatening to tow all vehicles who remained, City Staff declared a hard deadline of 8am on November 15. This gave RV residents less than 16 hours to relocate, effectively evicting 50-75 from a street that many of the RVs had parked on for years.
Rising early the next morning, all of the RVs but one — unable to move and its owners unable to muster the funds to repair it — fled to adjacent streets. At 8am on November 15, Weeks Street flooded with community members, local organizers, and concerned Stanford students, over fifty in number. National and international media covered what happened next. The motley group, full of righteous anger, linked arms and refused to let police cars and tow trucks pass.
An overhead image of RVs parked in East Palo Alto. (Image by JT Faraji)
This same anger, which has led to a resurgence of grassroots activism in East Palo Alto, was expressed when City Staff decided that a parking ban targeting RV owners on Weeks Street was not nearly enough. Rather, City Staff proposed a city-wide overnight parking ban on Oversized Vehicles, a clear escalation. The proposed ordinance would ban RV vehicles, evicting possibly hundreds of citizens of East Palo Alto from their own city. Many RV residents, a number of whom are children, formerly rented in East Palo Alto were evicted by landlords to make room for new developments, or were simply put out on the streets by the unbelievably high rents. Further, the splash effect of targeting RVs using the phrase "Oversized Vehicles" would devastate working people who depend on vehicles for their livelihood. Plumbers, long-haul truckers, and contractors, all of whom are plentiful in East Palo Alto, would be unable to operate their businesses if this ban was approved by City Staff.
To be fair, the City Staff is not seeking the ban without reason. The concern cited by City Staff for the parking ban on Weeks Street and the city-wide oversized vehicle ban is one of public health and environmental safety. Some residents of Weeks Street and other EPA residents complain of RVs directly dumping sewage on the street, a practice whose existence some question, but all agree is only done by a few people.
Yet, let’s assume all of the RVs in East Palo Alto were dumping their sewage directly into storm drains and gutters. A City Staff truly concerned with the potential environmental and public health impact would provide alternatives. Irrespective of the camp they fall in, pro-RV or anti-RV, citizens have called for a temporary sewage depository, a request which has been met with silence and inaction by the City Council. Thus, the environmental and public concerns of the City Staff are just pretense for evicting RV residents from East Palo Alto.
In the divisiveness, the humanity of it all is forgotten. Lives and livelihoods are at risk. While the City debates the ordinance, hundreds of lives hang in the balance not knowing whether their humanity will be confirmed or whether their existence will be criminalized. I have the utmost faith in RV residents like Ruben who are in a fight for their survival.
It is too early to tell where the Council will fall on the RV Ordinance. But I give the slight edge to the RV residents; for I know that the weight of Ruben's truth, his searing prophetic fire, and the movement he is a part of, will overcome apathy any day. Even in Silicon Valley.
For more information on this issue:
Real Community Coalition email: [email protected]