A family starts anew amid COVID-19

Mountain View, California, offers a ‘safe lot’ for RV dwellers.

  • Six-year-old Diego and five-year-old TJ spend the morning playing in their grandfather’s truck bed with wood blocks leftover from a project.

  • TJ embraces his mother, Anna, after she gets home late from work. Anna is completing her bachelor’s degree while working full time at Stanford University Hospital as a medical assistant and caring for her two boys and her parents.

  • Brenda helps her grandson Diego stay focused during a Zoom call with his first-grade class in which they did show and tell of their favorite stuffed animals. Their internet connection is not very stable, but when he can, Diego has fun seeing all his classmates.

  • On the tablet that the family shares, Diego works on his math homework.

  • The kids take a nightly walk with their grandpa, Abraham, around the Googleplex headquarters. Before the safe lot opened up, the family parked at Stanford University on a main road for three years. When cars would pass by, the whole RV moved at night and wake them up. The safe lot may not have much shade to shelter them from the heat during the day, but they can sleep better, and there’s a lot of room to play.

  • Anna holds her two boys after she gets back from a shift working at Stanford University Hospital and before she starts her classes, which have moved online since the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • Brenda shuffles through the family’s supplies to find bottled water for the kids. Three generations living in one RV can pose a lot of issues with storage, but the family makes it work by keeping their space orderly.

  • As she walks to her car, TJ and Diego hold onto their mother, Anna, to keep her from leaving.

  • Diego does a headstand in the safe lot. With no school to attend, the many kids at the lot spend their time outside on the crumbly asphalt and bit of grass in view of their parents or grandparents.

  • The safe lot where the family lives is situated between the new Google campus under construction and the current Googleplex headquarters. The kids spend their weekends exploring the 2.8 million square feet of Google Space and the many parking lots around the 20 buildings.

  • The city-sanctioned safe lot was established due to the increase in RV-dwellers and homeless persons over the last few years in Silicon Valley. Santa Clara County’s homeless population rose from 7,394 people in 2017 to 9,706 in 2019, mirroring a regional trend in the Bay Area.

  • RVs line up on El Camino Real, adjacent to the Stanford University campus. Mountain View banned RVs from parking in their streets, leaving Camino Real as one of the only options for an extended stay.

  • After finishing his homework, Diego rests his head on his grandfather and asks to play on his scooter.

  • Abraham takes a moment to collect his thoughts while he measures and cuts a piece of wood to make a new set of stairs for a family in the safe lot who has a disabled child. The safe lot program has allowed for RV dwellers who may have experienced loneliness in the past to come together and create a space for community.

  • Under a rising supermoon, Brenda and Abraham watch Diego and TJ play a huge game of hopscotch across the lot with their neighbor.

  • Diego climbs across a branch above the city-sanctioned safe lot on a hot day in May. He will be finished with his online school year shortly, but his family makes sure he is always studying, whether it’s math or learning a few words in Italian.

  • TJ and Diego ride their scooters across the parking lot of a nearby park.

  • The park above the safe lot provides for a great space to play in at dusk when it has cooled off. The boys and their mother Anna usually take a walk after she returns from her shift at the hospital and before she starts her online classes.


Some names have been changed in order to protect the identity of the family.  

Almost every day, Anna* wakes up just before sunrise to go to work at the Stanford University Hospital. Three days a week, online classes for her bachelor’s degree keep her working deep into the evening. But on Thursdays and Fridays, with the last of daylight still to burn, she goes home to the parking lot in nearby Mountain View, where she, her two sons, her parents and an 80-pound German shepherd named Max live in a Jayco RV.

In March, as Californians sheltered in place, the family moved here from a nearby street bordering the Stanford campus, where cars speeding down the main thoroughfare shook their RV. Now, their home is parked in the Shoreline Amphitheater parking lot, within walking distance of nature trails, the Google Campus in Silicon Valley and a park where people still fly kites every day.

 While others wait out COVID-19 in their homes, limiting their interactions with the outside world, in some ways, the pandemic has barely penetrated the family’s lives. The Shoreline lot is safe, beautiful and closer to shady escapes — a substantial upgrade from their former street-side homesite. Best of all, they live in a place that works for the children, where the stay-at-home orders have given Anna’s boys even more time to explore their new backyard.

On one recent afternoon, Anna walked the sinuous gravel-path trails on the Google campus with her sons, TJ*, 6, and Diego*, 7, who are both fascinated by the natural world. “Guys! There’s a lizard!” she told them. The boys went wild and searched for it, even though the reptile had already disappeared into a rocky hiding place.

“We are just so happy to have a place we can go right now, and the kids can play outside.”

The “safe lot” was planned before the pandemic, on space the city of Mountain View leased from the county. When California’s shelter-in-place order went into effect in mid-March, the county allowed RV dwellers to stay at the lot. According to the latest count, there are 38 vehicles; 15 vehicles house families with multiple children, and nine are home to senior citizens. The residents mostly stay tethered to their campers, practice social-distancing and are cautious about spreading the virus. Still, the lot feels like an island insulated from many of the pandemic’s realities. By the end of May, none of its residents had tested positive for COVID-19.

TJ and Diego play outside everyday. They pass the hours watching the kites sway on the breeze, dipping plastic wands into soapy water to blow bubbles and playing tag on a strip of grass within shouting distance of the Jayco. “We are just so happy to have a place we can go right now, and the kids can play outside,” said Abraham, Anna’s father. —Paige Blankenbuehler, associate editor

Nina Riggio is a visual journalist based in San Francisco, California, and Reno, Nevada. Follow her on Instagram @ninareegEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.