Palo Alto's deeply divisive debate over whether to ban vehicle dwelling could get closer to resolution Tuesday evening, Nov. 20, when a City Council committee considers the staff's latest proposal for dealing with the topic.
Unlike neighboring jurisdictions, Palo Alto currently doesn't have a law banning people from living and sleeping in their cars. Residents in some neighborhoods, particularly College Terrace, have complained in recent years about the safety and sanitation issues created by vehicle dwellers in their neighborhoods. City officials had initially proposed a law that would prohibit vehicle dwelling but backed off after intense opposition from homeless residents and their advocates.
Now, staff is considering softer approaches. One would involve a three-month pilot program under which vehicle dwelling would be allowed within certain parking lots, generally at churches or businesses. The program would be modeled after the one in Eugene, Ore., which includes 31 sites that serve 62 people.
For outreach, Palo Alto's proposed program would lean heavily on the Downtown Streets Team, which provides work opportunities to homeless people. According to a new city report, the organization has volunteered to administer the program during the three-month pilot program at no cost.
Among the top challenges will be finding churches and businesses willing to offer space to vehicle dwellers. Despite months of outreach, only one church, First Presbyterian Church, has so far committed to participating.
Another option that the council's Policy and Services Committee is scheduled to weigh Tuesday is the "do nothing" option that is, keeping laws as is but enhancing outreach to the homeless community.
"This approach may help to target the relatively few instances of concern without imposing an ordinance and could be implemented on a trial basis for several months," the report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment states.
The staff report points to a variety of opinions in the community when it comes to banning vehicle habitation. Members from the planning department have been meeting periodically with a working group of homeless advocates and neighborhood leaders to come up with a mutually acceptable solution. The overall perception, according to the report, "is that an ordinance to prohibit the human habitation of vehicles is not necessary."
"Some contend that adopting the proposed ordinance would criminalize the poor," the report states. "Others, however, particularly neighborhood and commercial representatives, feel that an ordinance is needed to police the vehicle dwellers of concern and spur them to seek help from social service providers."