Spurred by a growing number of homeless people congregating overnight at Cubberley Community Center and insufficient support from the faith-based community, a committee of the City Council directed staff Tuesday, May 14, to draft an ordinance banning vehicle dwelling and to pursue various outreach options to help homeless people get the social services they need.
The Policy and Services Committee voted 2-1, with Chair Liz Kniss and Councilman Larry Klein supporting, Councilwoman Gail Price dissenting and Councilwoman Karen Holman absent, to resurrect the controversial vehicle-dwelling ban, which appeared to have been put to bed just last November.
With only three council members present and only two voting in support of the ban, the new prohibition is still far from a sure thing. But with complaints about vehicle dwellers on the rise, Kniss and Klein both argued that it's time for Palo Alto to join most other cities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in adopting the ban.
Staff had first proposed a prohibition on vehicle dwelling about two years ago, though officials halted the effort after a community outcry and formed a community working group to further study the issue. One idea that gained traction from the exercise was creating a program like one in Eugene, Ore., where churches let vehicle dwellers use their parking lots for shelter. But staff efforts to create a similar system in Palo Alto has fallen flat, with only one local church — the University Lutheran Church in College Terrace — agreeing to participate in such a program.
Palo Alto Friends Meeting, a Quaker congregation on Colorado Avenue, also expressed interest but then changed its mind after dozens of neighborhood residents submitted a petition protesting the idea of having homeless dwellers at a nearby lot. George Mills, a member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting, said the congregation "immediately felt compassionate" when the city reached out about participating in the program.
"It seemed obvious for us that living without a home should not be criminalized," Mills said.
Mills said the church had sent out notices to about 120 area residents stating its intention to participate in the process. But after a signed petition and two community meetings, the congregation decided not to follow through, he said. Residents cited everything from potential drug use to violence and mental health issues in explaining their opposition, Mills said.
"In the meetings, there was a lot of praise for our good intentions, but almost everyone who spoke thought that unfortunately our site wasn't the right one for this project," Mills said. "In short, it was NIMBY. Not here but some place else."
While the city's inability to recruit churches was one factor in reviving the ban, the evolving situation at Cubberley was another. According to staff from the Community Services, Police and Planning departments, the community center has been attracting a growing number of homeless dwellers, some of whom have been causing disturbances.
Planning Director Curtis Williams said the city has seen a "fairly significant increase in homeless dwelling in Cubberley." There are now about 20 to 30 people there every evening, he said, about five to 10 of whom are in vehicles.
"There have been more activities of concerns that have drawn police attention and required more of a police presence in Cubberley," Williams said.
Police Chief Dennis Burns said that in 2010, police had been summoned to Cubberley for complaints involving vehicle dwellers 10 times. The number went up to 16 in 2011 and to 39 last year. So far this year, police have made nine contacts with homeless dwellers at Cubberley.
Minka van der Zwaag, a manager in the city's Community Services Department, said there have been numerous incidents of drug use and fights on campus. At times, custodians had arrived to lock up rooms at Cubberley and found people inside. The city has been working with social service providers, including the Downtown Streets Team and InnVision, to provide outreach to the homeless dwellers at Cubberley, she said.
An ordinance banning vehicle dwelling would give officers a new tool to use to address complaints about disturbances at the site, Williams said.
"Enforcement is very difficult without having an ordinance," Williams said.
Not everyone was anxious to revisit the ban. Several residents urged the council not to proceed with the new ordinance and to focus instead on giving homeless dwellers the help they need. Mary Klein, a Ramona Street resident, urged the council to consider more creative solutions.
"I don't think we should feel like we're late to the party in passing an ordinance," said Mary Klein (no relation to Larry Klein). "I think we should feel some pride in that we're looking for a less draconian solution than criminalizing some fact of life that some people have been subjected to."
Brent Barker, president of the College Terrace Residents Association and member of the community group working on the issue, said the ordinance is unlikely to change the situation. Enforcement will be based on complaints, much as it is today, he said. He urged the council to consider broader solutions.
"One of the things the city should be thinking about in the long term is what is the carrying capacity that we have for dealing with this kind of a situation," Barker said. "I think the scarce resources we have should go to the bottom and let the solution come from the bottom up."
Kniss and Klein agreed that continuing outreach to the homeless is important. But they also felt it's time to revisit the proposed ban. Klein suggested that the absence of a vehicle-habitation ban may have contributed to making Palo Alto a magnet for homeless dwellers. He and Kniss both stressed that the city will continue to work with its partners in the nonprofit community to deliver services to the homeless.
"This is just one more way of handling the problem," Kniss said. "We're not turning people into criminals. I think we're giving the police a method to use for those few — but not as few as I thought — who are abusing the situation and are troublesome."
Price disagreed and said she's not convinced that the ordinance would accomplish much. The city's emphasis, she said, should be on education, awareness, compassion and support.
"I don't feel the ordinance is going to give us that much leverage," Price said.