Sidewalk standoff: a roundtable debateSix community members square off in a discussion of the 'sit-lie' ban and homelessness in the Palo Alto area
Transcribed by Peter Gauvin
This is the third in a four-part joint Civic Journalism project presented by the Palo Alto Weekly and students of the spring Political Communication class at Stanford. Later this month, the series will conclude with a look at the results of a survey of Palo Alto residents conducted by the students. As with this entire series, the survey focused on the sit-lie ban and issues of homelessness within the Palo Alto area.
Few actions in recent years have sparked as much public debate in Palo Alto as the City Council's vote on March 10 to enact a ban on sitting and lying on University Avenue from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The so-called "sit-lie" ban also prohibits sitting on milk crates and anything else that is not a fixed piece of furniture or a chair provided by a business establishment.
The ordinance generated a stream of angry letters to the Weekly and to City Hall, a failed referendum attempt and several protests including one April 24 that attracted nearly 200 people, many of whom staged a sit-in downtown. No one was arrested. Most agree it is a law that is simple in wording but complex in perception and, perhaps, symbolism. Because of that, the Weekly invited six community members to come together to discuss the sit-lie ban and issues related to homeless services in our area. Our goal was to get at the heart of the recent debate, explore the facts and the emotions, and ferret out solutions that may have been lost in the debate so far.
The roundtable discussion was moderated by Weekly Editor Paul Gullixson. Other participants included (in alphabetical order):
Joe Baldwin, president of the board of the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto, the primary local service agency on the Midpeninsula for homeless and very low-income people.
Larry Duncan, who has been homeless for about 17 years. He was one of four homeless activists who started the group CALM, Citizens Against Legislated Meanness, to gather signatures to put a referendum of the sit-lie ordinance on the fall ballot. That effort failed. But Duncan says CALM is considering trying to put an initiative on the ballot.
Gary Fazzino, a member of the City Council for nearly 14 years (nonconsecutive). Fazzino is a native Palo Altan who works for Hewlett-Packard as manager of state government affairs.
Susan Frank, executive director of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce for more than five years, she frequently comments on community issues. The Chamber is also one of the chief sponsors of the Another Way campaign, which aims to give people an alternative to giving to panhandlers by placing canisters in local stores. Since its inception in 1992, it has raised more than $36,000.
Lynne Johnson, Palo Alto's assistant police chief since 1988. A member of the Palo Alto Police Department for nearly 23 years, Johnson is a member of the Urban Ministry's Advisory Board.
Trina Lovercheck, a nine-year member of Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission before her third term ended in April. She spoke out against the sit-lie ordinance on behalf of the HRC and was the primary organizer of the sit-in demonstration that drew an estimated 200 people April 24, the day the law took effect.
Moderator: What is broken that the sit-lie ban is fixing?
Gary Fazzino: First of all, I thought we were going to address the broader issue of homelessness, but I'm happy to address this. I say that at the outset because I don't view sit-lie as purely and simply a homelessness issue. I think they're separate issues. I think there are larger issues of homelessness that the city has been addressing, and I'll get into that later.
With respect to the sit-lie issue: Over the last few years downtown Palo Alto has become much busier. We have many more people in the downtown area largely as a result of our economic success. We have some homeless people there, we have a significant number of street people there who aren't homeless. . . We had received a number of complaints, from seniors in particular, that it was becoming more and more difficult to navigate downtown streets because of people sitting on sidewalks, also because of tables on sidewalks, newsracks and other obstacles. So we felt it was entirely appropriate to take action which regulated behavior, established certain standards of behavior in the downtown area.
Moderator: So much of the emotion behind this issue is focused on the intent of this law. Much has been made of the fact that there has never been a single documented incident of somebody tripping over a person on the sidewalk downtown. How do you respond to that?
Lynne Johnson: Probably the most succinct response is if you take a look at a lot of our code books--our municipal code, our penal code, the vehicle code--a lot of those laws were implemented before a situation actually occurred. They were done in a preventative vain, so to speak, and that's (how) I look at sit-lie. The statement that we have not had any documented incidents is absolutely correct. We have had reports of near misses, we've had complaints as Gary mentioned before, so we look at this as a preventative measure in hopes that somebody won't get hurt.
Moderator: Joe, how do you respond to that?
Joe Baldwin: Well, I'd be interested in some examples of the many, many laws on the books that are preventative in nature. What criminal behavior is on the books in Palo Alto for which a law exists for which there was never a recorded case of that law having been broken?
Johnson: In the municipal code, it's hard to think of off the top of my head. There are some in the vehicle code, as far as turning movements and similar type infractions. In the penal code there is new legislation coming out annually having to do with things in a preventative vain.
Fazzino: Well, certainly in the 1970s we established a number of bike laws in this city largely in an attempt to preserve the safety of bicyclists. And at the time I don't recall any fatal incidents or near fatal incidents which led us to take actions to make the streets safer.
Moderator: But clearly this was packaged with other laws targeting the behavior of panhandlers. It's a law that is impacting mostly panhandlers and homeless people downtown. And many merchants clearly favor this because it will address the issue of panhandlers and street people downtown. So my question is, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, why are we debating what it is?
Susan Frank: I disagree with the notion that this is aimed at panhandlers. First of all, this is affecting a limited number of blocks on University Avenue only. If this were aimed at panhandlers it would have been on every side street, on every cross street, and on every street probably citywide. Second of all, this does not prevent a panhandler from sitting on a bench and panhandling. . . If this were packaged that way, I'm not sure the Chamber of Commerce would have gotten behind it. This does not prevent individuals from continuing certain types of behavior. It just prevents them from lying and sitting on the sidewalk.
Fazzino: If we were truly interested in driving panhandlers and street people out of downtown Palo Alto we wouldn't be spending $200,000 a year on homeless programs in Palo Alto, more than any other city between, I would say, San Francisco and San Jose. Second, we would eliminate the benches. This is focused on a particular kind of behavior, behavior which impacts people's ability to use public sidewalks in the way in which they were intended. And it will be applied fairly and equitably to all groups of people regardless of their economic status.
Moderator: But the people who are sitting on the sidewalks, who are they?
Johnson: Prior to the ordinance, it was a combination. We had reports from our officers who work downtown that young people would sit down in the evenings. We got complaints from some of the merchants that young people were sitting on the sidewalks, literally blocking the sidewalks. We probably had as many complaints about young people as we did about people who were panhandling.
Trina Lovercheck: It seems to me that we are trying to cleanup the major downtown thoroughfare. And yes, we're not restricting people from going around the corner and sitting on the side streets or going to California Avenue. But the main street of Palo Alto is University Avenue. That's where the major businesses are and where the most activity is. And that's what this is trying to do--to clean that up. And it restricts everybody. It restricts me from going downtown and grabbing an ice cream cone and deciding, "Gee, it's nice out. There's no room on the bench. I'll just sit down on the curb." . . . I have my doubts as to whether it's going to be (enforced) fairly.
Moderator: Joe, why do you think this is such an emotionally charged issue, if it really is so simple? There were about 200 people out at the (April 24 sit-in) protest.
Baldwin: I think it may be because of the connection which the proponents of the ordinance say doesn't exist . . . (to) homelessness. I would remind us all that the hearings on sit-lie started in July. And because of a large degree of public interest, at least as much public testimony as I've seen in 23 years in Palo Alto, save the Sand Hill Road projects, those public hearings were continued from July to September, continued again to January, and because of a surfeit of speakers continued over until March. Perhaps ironically or coincidentally, last August 5, 72 hours after the Homelessness Task Force rendered its report to the city, Council members (Ron) Andersen, Fazzino and (Liz) Kniss put in a very positive one-page memorandum to colleagues expressing their belief in the need to do some positive things for the downtown community, including people living in poverty, and including one of my personal favorites, (providing) public restrooms. For whatever reasons that memorandum is and has been in limbo ever since. . . So I think part of the emotion may have to do with that.
Moderator: So you see it as an issue directly concerning homelessness and an effort to cleanse downtown?
Baldwin: Well, I said so at the time simply because of all the parallels that were being made to Seattle and Berkeley (laws). . . Seattle's sit-lie ordinance was passed as part of a $20 million municipal package of increased public services in their downtown area. Berkeley's sit-lie ordinance was specifically conditioned so that the prohibition against sitting on the sidewalk could not take effect until after four new categories of public service for people living in poverty had been put in place. Seattle was carrot and stick. Berkeley was carrots and then the stick. Palo Alto's being asked to pass the stick and maybe refer the carrots to a committee later on.
Fazzino: I argue the carrots are already there, relative to other communities, and we certainly need to do more. (But) we obviously don't have the resources of a Seattle or King County. One of our great frustrations here, and every council member feels it, is that we're at the end of a government pipeline and we only have so many resources. And the fundamental issues of homelessness have much more to do with actions that could be taken by state and federal government than local government. Certainly there are some things we can do. But we can't be expected to resolve the homelessness problem in and of ourselves in Palo Alto. . . I know an issue coming before us very soon is the Menlo Park VA shelter. I am supportive of Palo Alto's participation in that to provide (52) beds for shelter. We certainly contribute support to the Emergency Housing Consortium of Santa Clara County. I think that is the wave of the future: the Midpeninsula's communities need to work together to address some of the more fundamental issues.
Moderator: Trina, do you agree with Joe that this might have been more palatable if it had been presented with more to help the homeless, instead of, as he said, 'the stick and then maybe the carrot?'
Lovercheck: Last year's Homelessness Task Force was a group of people who met for several months and came up with a report that had several recommendations. That was delivered to the Human Relations Commission which in turn gave it to the City Council. The HRC's position, which I agree with and I was part of it at the time, was, 'Don't pass this ordinance. Let's see what these recommendations are. Let's see what we can put in place from these recommendations and how these play out and help the situation. Maybe we don't need an ordinance like this that restricts everybody's rights and is punitive. Let's do some positive things first.'
You're right Gary, this isn't Seattle. We don't have a problem like Seattle. It's not Berkeley either. I'm not saying that there aren't any problems downtown. But I don't think the problems that we have are anywhere of the magnitude, even relative to our size, of places like Berkeley and Seattle.
Fazzino: In 1995, you may recall that I was the author of an aggressive panhandling proposal. We had an Aggressive Panhandling Task Force meet. Trina was part of that. We backed away from an aggressive panhandling ordinance largely because we were promised that many of the concerns we had in the downtown area would be addressed voluntarily. That didn't happen . . .
Lovercheck: There were recommendations from that report, too.
Fazzino: In terms of (additional) services you're right. But in terms of self-policing there was a commitment made on the part of the homeless community that behaviors would be controlled. And the fact of the matter is it didn't happen. The situation got much worse in the downtown area and to a significant degree the sit-lie ordinance came out as a result of citizen complaints having to do with what was occurring in the downtown area in 1996.
Moderator: But Gary, to be fair, there were a lot of concerns about the constitutionality of an aggressive panhandling law.
Fazzino: True. We didn't pursue anything at that point. (City Attorney Ariel Calonne) indicated that we could pursue certain actions, but we didn't.
Lovercheck: Another recommendation from the Aggressive Panhandling Task Force was that there be another group or committee set up to further discuss issues in the downtown area and that never happened. And that's why the HRC a year or so later established the Homelessness Task Force. So that's part of why nothing ever happened back then.
Larry Duncan: I have to disagree with Gary because in '96 for a while things were better. The characteristic, so-called aggressive panhandler did leave town if you recall. On the other side of this issue, we didn't see, as Trina says, the continuing community dialogue. It never happened.
Moderator: Larry, you raise a great point: How much of this in your mind is really related to the actions of one or a few people whose panhandling in 1995 or last year really put some people off?
Duncan: The sit-lie ordinance--and I don't like that 'lie' part because that's a lie, people don't lie on University Avenue unless it's a medical emergency--was directed at one person (who was usually) in front of Walgreens. He's currently in the VA with some very serious problems.
Moderator: Lynne, do you agree?
Johnson: No, I don't think so. From our standpoint, and I'll let Gary speak for himself and the council, it was definitely not for one person. If it were one person we would have found other ways to deal with it. But as we said, we got complaints about young people at night as well as some panhandling, but it was more than one person. I do agree with Larry that for a period of time in 1996 it did improve and has improved. We have not over the last six to nine months received nearly the reports of what I call aggressive panhandling that we have in the past.
Moderator: And how much of that is the result of the downtown patrols that we have now and some of the new tools we've given police like the ban on drinking alcohol next to liquor stores and soliciting in parking lots?
Johnson: I think that's part of it. But I also don't want to underestimate the rapport that the officers working downtown have developed with the people downtown.
Fazzino: I want to acknowledge Larry's comment. I do think that things did improve right after the Task Force met. And then we did . . . reinstate the downtown patrols, and I think the situation did improve after that. But in response to Larry's comment about the one person: I had a visitor in town from Toronto with me one day last spring. We walked downtown near Walgreens. There were two people literally lying in front of Walgreens and three or four people sitting closer to the middle of the sidewalk. My visitor said, 'Gee, Toronto is a pretty tolerant city, but you never see this kind of activity on downtown streets.'"
Lovercheck: Isn't there already some law on the books that you can't obstruct the sidewalk?
Johnson: There is. It is 647c of the penal code. However, the way it is written, it is almost impossible to enforce. And in fact we have only used it, and the District Attorney has only allowed us to use it, on one occasion in the last several years that I know about. And that's when a person literally laid down and blocked the sidewalk and people had to go into the roadway to get around him.
Moderator: Gary, if this really is an issue of sidewalk safety, why is it that the city has expanded the sidewalk encroachments of restaurants?
Fazzino: I think that's a very legitimate concern that you raise. I am very troubled by the additional encroachment of tables onto downtown streets. I think we have to take action to control those tables. I'm interested in what some cities have done. They've actually put fences up around table areas to isolate the table area from the sidewalk, and I think we may well need to take that kind of action. As you know we are taking action through the Urban Design review process to address the issue of out-of-control newsracks, which is also a significant concern. But I completely concur with your point that we have to address the issues of tables as well. And I'd be very supportive of putting additional benches in the downtown area so people have other places to sit.
Moderator: Larry, is it your impression that Palo Alto is becoming less tolerant?
Moderator: Why do you feel that way?
Duncan: This entire thing about the sit-lie ordinance. Overall, it's not going to have any effect. It's a waste of time and energy. I think it'll have about as much effect as the 20-feet from the doorway smoking ordinance . . .
Fazzino: It's entirely reasonable to expect people to sit on benches instead of the sidewalk. I think this issue has been magnified far beyond its importance. I think unfortunately it has become a symbol of another issue, which is a legitimate issue, and that is how we address homelessness. But in and of itself it is not a major issue. It is entirely appropriate for cities to regulate the behavior of the larger community, in essence to ask people to act with some dignity and respect. That's really what we're doing. And frankly, one of my concerns is that we not develop the same situations that Berkeley's and Santa Cruz's downtowns have. I don't want University Avenue to become a Telegraph Avenue. I've been to Telegraph Avenue recently and it is a very frightening place. I want University Avenue to continue to be a wonderful destination for families and children.
Baldwin: I still have difficulty with the concept that if I sit on the sidewalk on University Avenue I'm being undignified and disrespectful. But if I move eight or 10 feet in a button-hook maneuver around the corner to do the same thing on a side street I'm being dignified and respectful . . .
Moderator: Susan, how much is economic vitality downtown (an issue)?
Frank: I don't think the economic vitality of downtown Palo Alto is at risk without this ordinance. You mentioned the notion of tolerance . . . I've said this before, (the business community) has time and time again proven itself (by giving either financially or volunteering one's time) for various causes in the community. I look at the Another Way campaign, a politically neutral campaign that has been in place for five years that's raising money directly for homeless services and programs. And this is a campaign that is run by, for the most part, the merchant community. . . I think that the issue here that often gets brought up is one of civil rights. . . I don't believe that someone sitting in front of a storefront blocking the entrance to a shopper has any more right to be there than the person does to run their business. . .
Lovercheck: I agree, Susan, that no one should be allowed to sit and block the entry to a store. I would definitely agree with that. And if someone is doing that I think they should be told to move. But this says you can't sit anywhere . . .
Frank: On seven blocks of University Avenue on the sidewalk that is used for walking. I don't believe there's a way for the City Council to create a law that says you can't block a storefront. I think this was the best way to address a myriad of different issues that again aren't just focused on the issue of homelessness and panhandling. It's focused on the young people that do gather and block sidewalks and prevent people from being able to walk on University Avenue.
Johnson: I was just going to dovetail on to what Susan was saying . . . I think there's also a lot of frustration among people in the community that there isn't an easy fix, that they can't just do something--pass an ordinance or pass a law that would help homeless and street people. It's much too complicated. There's a lot of costs involved. But I've heard a lot of people say, 'You know, I'd very strongly come out in support of the (sit-lie) ordinance, but I'm afraid to come out and say so publicly because than I'll be labeled as anti-homeless, and I volunteer at the (Urban Ministry's) Food Closet."
Fazzino: Or a fascist or worse.
Johnson: And so I think that adds to the emotion--there's a frustration that there's not an easy fix. . .
Moderator: Larry, CALM (Citizens Against Legislated Meanness) failed in its effort to get a referendum on the November ballot concerning sit-lie. Do you think this is a reflection of how the registered voters in Palo Alto feel about the sit-lie ban?
Duncan: No. The failure was ours. There was only a handful of us and we had a very short time (to qualify it for the ballot), so now we're working on an initiative. . . I do think there's a change of mood in Palo Alto. As the housing prices get ever higher people seem to have a more intense sense of ownership of the surrounding area: "I paid a million dollars for my house, why should I have to put up with this?"
Fazzino: I'd agree with that.
Frank: . . . I don't believe this issue is about the "Haves versus the Have Nots." I cannot tell you the number of calls and letters that I've have gotten from residents (who support sit-lie.) . . . These are the same people who make contributions to the Urban Ministry and volunteer their time at the Food Closet and donate their clothes to the Goodwill and so on . . . This is a community that cares very deeply about all of its residents, including the unhoused, and this is not about getting them out of view. I fundamentally don't believe that. I have had the pleasure of getting to know people like Larry over the last year or so and I hope to get to know them better.
Moderator: Joe, how do you think this referendum would have fared if it had made the ballot?
Baldwin: I think it would have been a close race. One fellow who is a board member of the Urban Ministry and a native Palo Altan and a Palo Alto High School graduate, well known to folks here, who panhandles every day on University Avenue--always in a standing position, never sitting down--and he was lamenting a few weeks ago about how much Palo Alto has changed in the last 20 years. Then. it was more of a community and had more of a town flavor, with people who cared for each other and all that. And now, it's more dog-eat-dog, it's more what (someone) described in conversation a couple weeks ago--he said, "a thin veneer of liberalism over an ugly, hard-core, greedy conservatism."
Fazzino: That's pretty damning. I'm not sure I'd go that far. I've been here for over 30 years, spent my junior high and high school years here, and there's no question it was much more of an economically diverse community. . . . My father, a blue-collar worker, was able to afford a house here. I'm not completely happy with the changes in this community. Ten or 15 years ago the greedy, high-tech or other vice presidents or entrepreneurs tended to build their Taj Mahals in Atherton and Los Altos Hills, and not in Palo Alto. Now we're seeing more of the greedy types building their Taj Mahals here in Palo Alto. And that is a disturbing development.
But with respect to the campaign, I think it would be defeated overwhelmingly. I truly believe that. I respect your desire and ability to use the democratic process, to use the initiative process, but I truly believe based upon my conversations in this community that sit-lie would (have been) upheld overwhelmingly.
Lovercheck: I think the community has changed enough that it's more conservative than a lot of people think it is, and more conservative than a lot of us would like it to be or believe it is. I agree. I think it would have passed.
Baldwin: I'm inclined to agree with how this hypothetical election might have come out, but interestingly enough I think it's because it would have been perceived by that majority as something that would have effectively, "Gotten the bums out of town." That's why they would have voted for it, not because they intellectually really feared that there was a high, significant, substantial hazard to the public's safety . . .
Moderator: Would you agree with that Gary?
Fazzino: I think there would be some of that, no question about it . . .
Baldwin: I want to reach way back and just disagree with one thing that Gary said earlier and that is: Palo Alto can't be expected to solve the problem of homelessness. I'm doing what I've been doing for the last five years precisely because I think Palo Alto has a better shot at solving the problem of its homeless than any community I know of on the planet. We have perhaps as many as 150 unhoused people in this city of now 60,000, with $1.5 billion in sales according to the (city's) report yesterday. No city this size has that kind of retail sales or base, (and an) $85 million budget. . . If Palo Alto can't solve or at least go a long way toward ameliorating its homelessness problem than there's not a lot of hope for Western civilization.
Moderator: Joe, you've led us in the direction we want to go, which is more toward solutions and what more could be done. Trina, I ask you, is Palo Alto doing enough to deal with the homelessness issue right now?
Lovercheck: From my standpoint, no. And I think probably everybody here would agree with me, including Gary. There's always more that we can do and we are in a fortunate economic position where I believe the city can put more money into programs that will really help people.
One that Gary touched on is the regional VA shelter. David Martin (the city's administrator of human services) has done a fantastic job of getting $280,000 out of the $350,000 needed for that. We are hoping that the council is going to approve the $25,000 out of that that Palo Alto's share would be. He's got a proposal going forward for the next phase of the jobs program, and I think that was very successful. . . I think we need to discuss providing public toilets, which are not just for homeless people. I'm downtown, I need a bathroom sometimes. I'd really like to see that move along as part of the downtown improvement project, and hopefully it won't wait two or three years until a parking garage is built. I also think we need to provide some kind of a multi-service center, expand what the Urban Ministry does.
Moderator: Trina, if we do provide all these services, won't our homelessness problem get worse? What happens when the shelter is full and the showers are taken?
Lovercheck: I hear that from lots of people that we'll become a beacon or a Mecca and attract more people. . . I think the majority of people who hang out on the streets are Palo Alto people.
Moderator: In fact, I want to share something. Stanford students as part of this Civic Journalism project surveyed 33 Urban Ministry visitors. The results, though not scientific, were interesting: 39 percent said they grew up in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, 55 percent said they have relatives still living in the Bay Area, and the average number of years they have been in Palo Alto is 15. Does that surprise you?
Fazzino: No, it doesn't.
Baldwin: (That's) as long as the average housed Palo Alto resident.
Fazzino: But actually 80 percent of those who own a home in Palo Alto now owned them in 1980 (according to city Planning Director Ken Schreiber). So that's really interesting.
A couple of quick responses: First of all, I agree with everything Trina said regarding the need to expand services. I am very excited about the (homeless) worker program. I know that Susan Frank has been a real leader working with (City Manager June Fleming) looking at the possibility expanding the worker program to the private sector. I think that has great potential. I certainly support the (VA) shelter . . . I am very supportive of the idea of a multi-service center. Certainly, homeless should have a place to go on a regular basis. If we can provide a teen center, I think we can certainly provide a center like this.
Sure, I'm concerned, a little nervous, about becoming a magnet for homeless people, but not so much for street people. And frankly it's one of the reasons I endorse some measures related to kinds of behavior. Even though it's important for us to provide programs for those who are truly in need, at the same time we need to make it very clear to people that we will not tolerate certain kinds of behavior, that we do not intend to become a Santa Cruz or a Berkeley.
Duncan: At the annual Human Relations Commission-City Council meeting in September, (former Council member) Joe Simitian last time around mentioned that the magnet problem is the least talked about publicly, the most talked about privately . . . Why isn't the magnet problem being addressed? . . . I have suspicions why it's not being addressed, because I don't think it exists to any significant degree.
Moderator: You don't think if we expanded the services, created showers, bathrooms, more beds . . .
Duncan: Jacuzzis, large-screen TVs . . . (laughs)
Moderator: . . . You don't think it would attract more people to this area?
Duncan: All I have is anecdotal evidence. Two or three years ago, a friend of ours who's still around, found out about the Concord shelter. It was everything you could want--multiple showers, bus passes to everywhere in the East Bay, you could get on the work list and hang out all day watching TV. Not one of us went to check it out.
Duncan: (It's like) what that survey revealed: this is our home area, and the same with other people in other places. As far as people prospecting Palo Alto for its great panhandling opportunities, a really aggressive panhandler doesn't last a week in this town. And Lynne's associates have something to do with that. There are things you can get away with in the Tenderloin that would instantly get you in very serious trouble here. And they know that. So yeah, I really want that magnet problem addressed as soon as possible.
Baldwin: My personal opinion is that the magnet issue is a straw man. It's what people of good will or otherwise in communities all over this nation always cite, and it's why they're not doing more. That's why there's so many homeless people, so many people in poverty. (If) Gary's thesis is true, that Palo Alto is presently and has historically been doing more for homeless or people in poverty than any place between San Jose and San Francisco, than it follows that the majority of unhoused people between San Jose and San Francisco should all be here in Palo Alto. Guess what? They're not. . .
Fazzino: You don't think we have more homeless people here than other communities on the Peninsula? I certainly do.
Johnson: Oh, I do too. In talking to my colleagues throughout this county, without a doubt.
Moderator: When Gary was a kid and the only thing open at night in downtown Palo Alto was Baskin-Robbins, there were no homeless people downtown. Are there more street people now because there's more vitality and it's better hunting grounds for panhandlers, or is it because there's greater poverty today?
Johnson: All of the above.
Baldwin: A large percentage are mentally disabled--I would say 30 percent or more in this town. When Gary was a boy, they were in Napa State Hospital. And society has since decided, "Well no, communities will take care of them." And so for 20 years we have not taken care of them and they are all out here on the street. And they're not too employable.
Frank: You know also, certain types of folks are going to seek out locations. Maybe the homeless of Palo Alto are here because they grew up here. But certainly the panhandling community, I imagine, will choose locations where they feel their business is the most lucrative. And so if Larry's right, they only last a week and they move on, I suppose that's true.
Baldwin: It's like the Willie Sutton adage: "Why do you rob banks? Well that's where the money is." The merchants and the panhandlers are in that seven-block stretch of University Avenue because that's where the money is. . .
Johnson: I was just talking to one of our officers yesterday and there is actually a newcomer to town who said, "I came to Palo Alto because I heard I could get $100 to $150 a day easily (panhandling)."
Duncan: Is that person still here?
Johnson: That I don't know.
Lovercheck: By the end of the week they might not be, right?
Moderator: There was a study in the New England Journal of Public Policy that found that only 17 percent of the homeless actually panhandle. Do you think that's about the same for Palo Alto?
Baldwin: Good lord, everybody knows there's not 150 panhandlers in town. Not by a long shot. I've stood up at City Council and church and named the people who panhandle on University Avenue. There are six or eight that you can name and that's about it.
Duncan: Gary, you mentioned two individuals that were lying in front of Walgreens, I think I know who you were talking about. One was female and one was male?
Duncan: The female has an interesting story. She was living at the Barker Hotel, paying $300-a-month rent. She was . . . evicted. She moved to the Palo Alto Hotel where her rent doubled. She was on a fixed income, for I think obvious reasons. That is when she turned to panhandling.
Moderator: Gary, what did happen to the Homelessness Task Force recommendations?
Fazzino: Well, they're going to the (council's) Policy and Services Committee. Trina and I have talked about this issue. In retrospect, it probably would have been better if the HRC had found a way of making the council a part of this whole effort . . .
Lovercheck: We tried.
Fazzino: Whatever. I think there have been some political obstacles to getting this report moved quickly. And I also think there was some nervousness about some of the more radical suggestions.
Moderator: Political obstacles? What do you mean?
Fazzino: Well this was the HRC's project and not the council's. We were not brought into it early enough. Again, I'm simply providing a perspective of where my colleagues are because I've heard them talk about it. It was not viewed to be a council priority. I don't know what needed to be changed, how the process should have been changed. But I think if the process had been changed in some way to involve the council earlier on, to make us buy into this process, it probably would have been on a faster track.
Moderator: So the council in a sense feels that this was sort of a package that was presented as, 'Take it or leave it'?
Fazzino: No, I don't think that's the case. But I think there was a feeling that we weren't part of this process. I also think that if we had been part of the process earlier on--and I know Trina says the HRC tried to make that happen. For whatever reason it didn't happen. I think if we had been involved from the get-go, if this had truly been a council priority, a council project, I think the council would have bought into a number of the recommendations.
Lovercheck: You're right, I agree, that if the council had done it, it would have been on a faster track. The HRC asked the council to set up a committee to have further community dialogue, which was one of the recommendations of the Aggressive Panhandling Task Force. I myself went to the council one night and asked for that. And nothing ever happened. So finally, out of sheer frustration, we, the HRC, set up a task force to take a look at it and come up with recommendations. And, we did. The report came from that and then we immediately passed it onto you. So, to say that you weren't in on it from the get-go is technically true but it's because the council chose not to.
Fazzino: . . . My point, is that for whatever reason, we didn't move forward in lock step on this and I think that slowed the process down. I think we're on track now.
Moderator: I want to wrap this up, but I want to wrap it up on a very solution-oriented note. I'd like to go around and give people an opportunity to throw out what they think is a solution or would help this issue.
Fazzino: I've mentioned some specific suggestions already, such as additional shelters, expanding the worker program to the private sector. I'm supportive of doing what we can to create a homeless center in the downtown area. Another area that is very important to me is to create a interagency, multi-jurisdictional homelessness group to address regional homeless issues that cut across county lines.
Johnson: In addition to what Gary mentioned, I think there's also a need to work with counties, cities and federal governments as far as funding. As Joe mentioned, there are a number of homeless people who suffer from certain disabilities (or) mental handicaps. Those people need some assistance. Counties have been cutting back their funding for those. Programs for people with substance abuse are starting to dry up for lack of funding. And cities aren't going to be able to support full-fledged programs like that. But I agree with Gary. There has to be a regional cooperative with some participation from the state and federal government.
Duncan: I can't say it enough times: Deal with the magnet problem. Look at it. See if it really exists to any significant degree. If that isn't done none of the other things that we're going to be talking about from the Homelessness Task Force are going to get done. Or by the time it gets done there aren't going to be any unhoused people to benefit from that.
Baldwin: Well, I'm going to dust off a couple of Homelessness Task Force recommendations. I was struck by what Gary said at last night's council meeting about the unique relationship between the city of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Housing Corporation. I'm still very hopeful that the city will work with the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, its non-profit hand maiden, to see that some of Palo Alto's presently unhoused citizens wind up living in Alma Place on Alma Street, now under construction. . .
And finally, I am delighted that Gary is very supportive of a multi-service center. I really think that'll go a long way. That's where people can be guided to get mental health counseling and where we can guide people who are ready to try to get clean and sober from substance addictions, which is another high percentage of the population we talk about. . . Right now, as the task force report says, we scream at people, "You don't deserve to be indoors. Kids do, children do, teenagers do, old people do. But the best we got for you is outside in the rain in February in the wind in the yard behind the Red Cross building. That's it. That's the drop-in center. That's the place for homeless people--outdoors." We can do better than that.
Frank: The Chamber has already gone on record in support of the jobs program and doing what we can to get the merchant community to support that by providing not just temporary jobs, but longterm jobs as well. We support the shelter concept on a regional basis and agree with Gary's approach. While the magnet problem hasn't been necessarily defined I think there are other issues related to being a magnet, if that's what we become. . . We also support public restrooms as well and hope that we don't have to wait for parking structures (to be built). I want to mention two other things. One is the Another Way program. If in fact 10 percent of the (street) population out there are the aggressive panhandlers and the rest aren't necessarily panhandlers or are homeless, than Another Way is a fabulous program because what it's saying is: Do not give money to the people who are panhandling, put money into the cans, which is going to go directly toward the programs that the Urban Ministry and other community programs are providing." . . . And lastly, (having) conversations like this. I know we have a dialogue in this community and we create a lot of committees. But I think we have benefitted from the opportunity to sit in the same room and converse . . .
Lovercheck: I've already mentioned many of the things that would help the situation. But I want to tag on to what (Susan) was saying about the Another Way campaign. I think that's a very good way to try to involve the community's help. But I think it needs to be more visible. And maybe that's something that the city can do--put a little more funding into it so that we can make it more visible. I know I talk to people and they say, "What's that?" They're not aware of it. We need to make the whole community aware of it. Perhaps that's a way the city can help--by funding an advertising campaign. I know the group has tried over the years.
Frank: I think it's getting out there now. They've just hired a part-time coordinator, they're in the process of becoming a 501c3 (non-profit organization), there's a board of directors, so there's movement. But you're right--I think a little more support from the city, funding or otherwise, could really get it to the next level.