The ordinance would abolish Palo Alto's status as one of the few cities in the region that does not have any laws on the books barring vehicle habitation. Monte Sereno is currently the only city in Santa Clara County that does not have such a ban. In San Mateo County, only Colma, East Palo Alto and Portola Valley don't prohibit people from living in their cars.
The proposal follows years of complaints from residents of College Terrace and other neighborhoods about car dwellers parking their vehicles on residential streets for extended periods of time. At the same time, Cubberley Community Center, on the southern edge of the city, has recently become what City Manager James Keene described as a "de facto homeless shelter" at night. The number of complaints involving vehicle dwellers spiked from 10 in 2010 to 39 last year, according to Police Chief Dennis Burns. In early June, a homeless man was arrested in Cubberley for beating another man until the latter lost consciousness.
Some area residents have complained that the situation is becoming increasingly unsafe for their families. Mary Anne Deierlein, a resident of Parkside Drive near Cubberley, said she doesn't feel safe walking with her dog anymore because of "too many weird encounters with people in bushes and behind trees, and a strong urine stench with toilet paper strewn about." On several occasions, she said, she has been yelled at by two people regularly seen at Cubberley.
"We are being impacted," Deierlein wrote to the council in June. "Our daily lives as tax-paying citizens are being modified because of this unsafe situation. This is a significant character change for this site and the surrounding services, shops and residential areas."
At the same time, dozens have come out against the proposed ban, calling it inhumane and insensitive to some of the city's neediest residents. Many have equated it to an attempt to criminalize homelessness. Cybele LoVuolo-Bhushan urged the council in a letter to give the homeless community more time to find an alternative solution.
"It is terrible to ask people to 'just move on' when there is really no place for them to go and no real options for them to sustain their lives," LoVuolo-Bhushan wrote. "Please do not take any action yet to ban people (the poorest of the poor) from sleeping in their cars."
If the council adopts the ban, which has already been endorsed by its Policy and Services Committee, the decision will not have come lightly. Since 2011, officials and community members have explored other options, including the possibility of having churches provide parking for car campers, similar to a program in Eugene, Ore. Despite extensive outreach to the faith community, the proposal fizzled because of lack of interest. Staff has also been working with local nonprofits, most notably the Downtown Streets Team, to refer vehicle dwellers to social-service providers.
With little progress on the proposed alternatives, the council's Policy and Services Committee voted 3-0 on June 25 to endorse the ban. Councilman Larry Klein noted that the city is merely "plugging a hole" with this ordinance and argued that Palo Alto wouldn't be "striking into new territory" by banning vehicle habitation.
If the City Council follows suit, the ordinance would take effect in September — 31 days after a second, formal vote that would take place within 11 days of Monday's meeting. After this period, the city will conduct outreach for 60 days before enforcement begins. Even after this 60-day period, the city would give warnings for 30 additional days. After that, police would begin enforcing the ban primarily on a complaint basis, with citations issued "only as needed," according to a new report from the Planning and Community Environment Department.
The ordinance would not apply to mobile homes or guests of city residents who park adjacent to the resident's dwelling for up to 48 consecutive hours, according to the proposed ordinance.
"Recognizing the sensitivity of the issue, the proposed ordinance will be accompanied by enforcement procedures based on an outreach, social service, and incremental enforcement approach," the report states. "Staff is aware that for many individuals living in vehicles there may be extenuating economic, mental, or physical health issues that are difficult to overcome and that may be best addressed by one or more of the local social service providers."
TALK ABOUT IT
What can be done to help people who live in their cars, and whose primary responsibility is it? Share your ideas on Town Square, the discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.