Palo Alto took a small step toward tackling a colossal problem Monday night when officials agreed to spend $250,000 on shelter and case managers for 20 homeless individuals.
By an 8-0 vote, with Mayor Greg Scharff absent, the City Council approved a staff recommendation to partner with the Santa Clara County on a "housing first" approach toward the local homeless population. Council members agreed that this two-year pilot program will, at best, put only a small dent on the problem of homeless. But given the city's lack of experience as a homeless-service provider, they stopped short of making any other further commitments in this effort.
"The message is: This is a one-time thing. We'll see where we go from here," Councilman Larry Klein said during the Monday discussion.
The initiative was triggered by a recent council decisions to ban vehicle dwelling throughout the city and to keep Cubberley Community Center closed at night. The center had become what officials refer to as a "de facto homeless shelter," prompting complaints from area residents about an increase in crime and a lack of real services to serve the homeless population. In September, when the council voted to keep Cubberley and other community centers closed after 10:30 p.m., members coupled the restriction with a pledge to spend $250,000 on homeless services.
They proceeded to do so Monday, pledging to work with Santa Clara County on getting the most at-risk homeless individuals off the streets. The targets of the program, according to a staff report, include people who have had contact with the criminal-justice system, who have a high chance of recidivism and who "significantly impact county, state or local resources." The partnership would allow the city to tap into a $518,400 county fund aimed at providing long-term transitional housing.
"It is hoped, with assistance of a housing subsidy and the assistance of an intensive case manager, they'll be able to reach the point of stability to be able to transfer off the subsidy to a non-subsidized unit in the future," van der Zwagg said.
The intensive case manager will be tasked with locating new clients, arranging for housing vouchers, preparing the client for housing, finding a landlord willing to rent and help the clients deal with their particular barriers, which could include substance abuse, mental-health problems or criminal history.
This approach was proposed by the Homeless Services Task Force, a coalition of nonprofit groups that has been meeting in recent months to consider a response to Cubberley's closure and the vehicle-dwelling ban. Chris Richardson, director of program operations at Downtown Streets Team, said the group felt it was "a plan that we could all agree was the best course of actions under the current circumstances." But Richardson, whose nonprofit provides jobs to homeless individuals, also stressed that this program would just be the "tip of an iceberg" in addressing what he called a "short-term crisis" spurred by the recent bans.
The program, he said, would move about 15 percent of the city's estimated homeless population into housing.
"Most importantly, we'll work on successful housing-retention strategies so that these clients remain in housing," Richardson said.
Council members all agreed to follow this approach, though there was some debate over whether they should specify that the $250,000 allocation would be a one-time expense. Councilman Greg Schmid and Councilwoman Karen Holman argued that they shouldn't. Schmid said leaving the word "one-time" in the resolution effectively says to the public that the city is "buying its way" out of dealing with the issues related to Cubberley's closure. Holman made a similar point.
"If we leave it in, it gives the indication that we're done," Holman said. "I don't want to send this message."
But the majority urged caution. Councilwoman Gail Price and Klein said the city should provide the funding without future commitments and then proceed with a longer debate on finding sustainable funding sources. This approach, she said, makes sense for a city of Palo Alto's size.
"In this social and economic environment, it's extremely difficult to really thrive and survive for many people," Price said. "This is a very, very important, critical service."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a former county supervisor, agreed and stressed the importance of having the city leverage county resources and proceeding with the "housing first" approach urged by staff. She called homelessness an "intractable problem."
"I think having the county involved in this is extremely important," Kniss said.