A fire broke in a RV dwelling in a commercial parking lot adjacent to residential homes in Alameda. View of the fire from Sunol Street.
A fire started at an RV in a commercial parking lot adjacent to homes off The Alameda in San Jose. The fire is seen here from Sunol Street. Photo courtesy of Alma Castillo.

Residents in San Jose’s Alameda neighborhood have concerns over the growing number of people living in vehicles, after an RV fire damaged property.

While there are time limits for vehicles, including RVs, parking on a public street—no more than 72 hours—residents and business owners say these rules are not being enforced.

The Nov. 26 RV fire that burned in a parking lot next to Alma Castillo’s home set her fence ablaze. Together with other neighbors, Castillo said she’s contacted her San Jose City Council representative, city code enforcement and the police and fire departments for a year to have the RV removed, but nothing was done.

“It was very frightening,” Castillo told San José Spotlight. “My poor son was very scared, and I just told him that what mattered the most was that we were safe. Meanwhile we were watching the fire getting close to hitting our house.”

Castillo said she didn’t mind RVs parking in the lot at first because she’s aware of the city’s homeless crisis and is “not heartless” to the plight of the unhoused. The city has approximately 6,340 unhoused residents.

But after a few months, Castillo began to see fires reaching her fence line. She reported it to the city and said an inspector gave the people living in their vehicles a 48-hour warning. Campers picked up everything and left, but returned a week later.

There are limited places where people living in their vehicles can stay for long. San Jose opened a safe parking site in July, offering extended parking options to unhoused people. However, there are few people using the site due to city-imposed restrictions.

The city’s code enforcement spokesperson deferred questions to the transportation department, which then deferred to the mayor’s office.

“The free-for-all we are witnessing on our streets today is inhumane and unsafe for the entire community,” Mayor Matt Mahan told San José Spotlight. “I’m going to continue to push for faster and more cost-effective alternatives to unsheltered conditions until no one lives in the instability and insecurity of the streets.”

Mahan said in September that unlike street homelessness, the city lacks a comprehensive approach to assisting people living in their vehicles. Weeks after, Mahan and other city leaders unveiled plans to declare a shelter crisis and homelessness emergency.

Local authorities said the city needs regulated outdoor living areas with essential support services for homeless residents. With successful implementations in San Diego and San Antonio, Texas, Mahan believes such strategies could assist in transitioning San Jose’s homeless residents off the streets.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan speaks with Scott Howell (right) at his business, Red Dot Fitness, on The Alameda. Photo courtesy of Scott Howell.

Scott Howell, owner of Red Dot Fitness on The Alameda next to Castillo’s house, lost a van in the fire. He said the RVs had been there for over a year before the fire.

Howell said the rise in downtown homeless encampments and RVs along streets off The Alameda have led to more loitering and public safety issues, negatively affecting his business. He linked the surge of more homeless people in the neighborhood to the opening of new shelters nearby, such as the Arena Hotel in September, and a lack of enforcement requiring people living in their vehicles to move. Howell’s family recently moved out of the city’s Alameda neighborhood.

“I fear if the city doesn’t do anything soon, we’re definitely going to lose this neighborhood,” Howell told San José Spotlight. “That seems like something that a city council, a mayor and their constituents should be working on. We’re not getting any of that. We really felt like we’d been betrayed and abandoned.”

Homeless advocate Richard Scott said there seems to be a lack of political will to enforce the necessary rules, and a struggle to set up safe parking and camping areas that require monitoring and organization.

“The problem is that there are just no places for people to go,” Scott told  San José Spotlight. “People are forced to park anywhere they can. Of course, when they do, they get designated as bad actors.”

Contact Gabriela Lopez at [email protected] or follow @byGabiLopez on Twitter.

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