When Boulders Replace People: RV Residents Near Tesla Ordered To Leave
In Fremont, an industrial road near Tesla has become home to a large number of people living in RVs. In February, the city ordered them to leave and began placing boulders in their place. We followed one resident as she struggled with her next move.
Lynn Shipman and her boyfriend live in their RV along Kato Road in Fremont. When I meet her, she immediately invites me in.
Inside, the RV looks like a miniature botanical garden.
“I'm a plant lover,” Lynn explains. “I just love them. They're beautiful. They make great air! And it keeps any building or house from smelling.”
Lynn is in her 40s. She’s sharp and quick to laugh. She and her boyfriend have called this area home for the past three months.
“I thought it’s been going pretty good. I mean, everybody minds their own business.”
They’re surrounded by other RVs, semi-trucks, and cars that stretch out in a long, haphazard line. A nearby chain link fence is the only thing separating them from the traffic of 880. Across the street stands Tesla’s corporate office building.
Searching For Stability
Fremont’s plan — to move people out while moving boulders in — comes as a big emotional blow. Only a few years ago, Lynn was living under a broken-down school bus.
“...And then we graduated to a broken down taco truck,” she explains, “then we bought our first camper, and now we have this camper.”
Once they made it out here, it felt like their hard work had paid off. Lynn got a job as a painter’s assistant, making $15 an hour. She says they were finally starting to feel stable.
"We only need, what, 22 feet?"
Lynn and I step outside and I ask her what she thinks about Fremont’s new policy.
“We only need, what, 22 feet?” she says in frustration. “Good grief.”
Adding to the frustration, she says they haven’t heard from the city directly.
“That blinking sign right down the road… That's all we know. It's all we know.”
Lynn’s talking about an electronic traffic sign, which she says appeared about a week earlier. It’s a giant flashing reminder that their time is almost up.
“We're supposed to be gone by tomorrow. I’m guessing I’m going to go farther up 880 and pick an exit… and try someplace else. But I’m waiting til the very last minute, as you’ve noticed.”
Lynn offers to introduce me to some other folks who live along Kato Road. We walk to another RV with an oversized American Flag hung from its side. A young guy in his 30s named Mike-The-Kid lives here. As we walk up, he’s squatting over a white-colored board, applying paint with a rubber spatula. All around him are pieces of abstract art leaning up against the side of his RV.
He says art has been a constant in his life. Regardless of what else is going on, it’s always there for him.
As Mike and I talk, two employees from Abode Services — a homeless outreach organization — walk up and ask Mike how he’s doing. They give him a bag of items before moving on to the next vehicle.
Mike digs through the bag, listing its contents: socks, beef jerky, toiletries.
I say goodbye to him and Lynn. I let them know I’ll follow up with them next week.
A City In Conflict
Organizations like Abode Services — the one that stopped by Mike’s RV — are working on building affordable housing, but most of those projects are years away.
There are of course immediate services for people living on the street. But people like Lynn and Mike don’t really fall into either category. They’re finding a way to make it work. What they’re missing is a place to park.
Fremont says parking there is a problem though. And it doesn’t have to do with people being homeless.
At a city council meeting in mid-February, Fremont Mayor Lily Mei addressed the public about the issue. She said that she felt that the coverage of the issue hadn’t been clear about the reasons for the restrictions in the first place.
Mei said the biggest concern is safety. High speed traffic is a consistent factor on Kato Road and the freeway — right next to Lynn’s RV.
She also said that the land along Kato Road is zoned as industrial, which means there could be hazardous materials present.
Fremont wouldn’t return my calls for this story. When news broke about this so-called “Boulder Policy,” the outcry against it was loud and immediate. Online groups began posting, and people showed up at city council meetings to protest.
Denise Boland was one of many passionate residents who spoke to the council. “We say ‘well we put the boulders there to keep people safe.’ But that’s not the truth. The truth is we moved people before we had a solution.”
For many, the city's response symbolizes a struggle with its collective conscience. In 2016, Fremont voted to sign something called the Compassionate Cities Charter. Among other things, the charter calls for the city to “treat every human being with justice, equity and respect.” The council cited it when they approved a homeless navigation center last year.
But residents say it feels decidedly uncompassionate to force homeless residents of the Kato Road area out, especially when Fremont has no safe parking locations available.
And then there are the boulders themselves. Fremont says boulders are cost effective, and with a starting price tag of $2500, that's true. But boulders act as a symbol of callousness for many community members. Using them to deter the homeless leads to controversy regardless of the city.
Similar situations have happened in Los Angeles, Portland, and most recently in San Francisco. The boulders are a flashpoint for tensions that simmer under the surface. Perhaps it’s how visible they are, or that there’s something which feels primitive about blocking people’s movement with rocks.
In response to this reaction, Fremont put out a press release. It turns out the city is moving forward in phases, and Lynn’s area is Phase Two, which means she has some extra time before she’s forced to move.
Not Leaving Quietly
I want to catch her before she leaves, so I go back to visit Lynn the following week.
When I see her this time, she has the attitude and countenance of a resistance fighter. The Phase One boulders are already in place in a section near where she lives. My first thought is that I’m not even sure I’d call them boulders.
“They’re tiny little things,” Lynn exclaims. “You and I could probably just roll them out of the way!”
She shows me what she’s been up to: making protest signs. Five or six of them are sitting around her little front yard area. They’re lettered in bright blue and white, and painted on big pieces of cardboard. The one she’s just finishing says “Love your neighbor, Tesla.”
“If they can hang a sign I can do a sign,” she says.
She tells me that she hangs from the same big blinking sign that’s telling them to move. She says they keep getting taken down but she keeps putting them back up.
Even though it’s the city of Fremont requiring them to leave, Lynn still places much of the blame on Tesla. She says employees sometimes watch her while she hangs her signs. Tesla also did not return my requests for comment.
Lynn puts the final touches on her sign and I follow her as she goes to hang it on the electronic traffic sign. As we walk a car honks from the freeway, which she says happens a lot. I ask her what she thinks that means.
“Hello,” she replies. “We hear you.”
When we reach the big sign, Lynn pulls out the supplies she’s brought. She has an assortment of telephone cable, rubber bands, and clips. She looks like the MacGyver of protesters.
She manages to punch two holes in the corners of her cardboard sign and then strings it up from the large metal one using the cable.
After she finishes, we step back to take in her handiwork. I ask her what she thinks.
“I wish it were bigger,” she tells me.
“What size would you make it?”
“Same size as theirs!”
She says seeing her sign waving in the wind makes her feel “a little better, because then I’m not just a pansy.”
"I stand resolute. I'm not gonna -- I have to say something back to them."
For now, Lynn says she’ll comply with whatever orders the city gives, but she’ll continue doing what she can to be heard.
“I stand resolute. I'm not gonna — I have to say something back to them.”
As we turn to walk back to her RV, Lynn looks defiant. But I can see the weight of this daily struggle play across her face.
In A Holding Pattern
For now, Lynn is still parked along Kato Road. Fremont changed its position shortly after the backlash and is holding off on placing more boulders. The council plans to look at safe parking sites in the city before moving forward. The effects of phase one are currently under review.
So much has happened in the last month with the coronavirus and our unhoused population. I reached out to Lynn recently by phone to see how she’s doing. She sounded hopeful. She’s still parked on Kato Road and says she hasn’t heard from the city since the shelter in place orders began. She’s since lost her job as a painter’s assistant but says she’s all stocked up on food and supplies.