The ban, which the City Council passed after a long and emotional meeting on Aug. 5, primarily targets Cubberley, the south Palo Alto center that over the past two years has evolved into what city officials routinely describe as a "de facto homeless shelter." On Tuesday night, in its first discussion since the ban was adopted, the council's Policy and Services Committee approved a mix of carrots and sticks geared toward pushing car campers out of Cubberley and toward stable housing and other support services.
The full council is scheduled to vote on these recommendations Monday night, Aug.19.
After a long discussion featuring comments from dozens of residents, the committee voted 3-1, with Karen Holman dissenting, to recommend restricting public access to Cubberley and other community centers at night and to allocate $150,000 for homeless services. The committee also recommended spending $100,000 to support subsidized housing — funding to be matched by Santa Clara County.
The stick in the committee's recommendation is the time restriction. The ordinance the committee approved would make it illegal to park at Cubberley and other community centers between 10:30 p.m. and sunrise.
Members agreed that status quo isn't working. Councilman Larry Klein noted that the transformation of Cubberley into a homeless shelter was never approved by Palo Alto citizens or the council. He made the motion to adopt the new ordinance, restricting the hours.
"The homeless in my view have the same rights as other citizens. We do also need to express compassion for citizens — permanent residents of our country who do not have the same abilities to have housing that most of us have," Klein said. "But the homeless do not have more rights than the rest of us. None of us has the right to declare or make Cubberley or any other community center into a homeless shelter and that's precisely what happened here."
Recent crimes have added urgency to the committee's decision. Capt. Ron Watson, who heads the Police Department's patrol division, said crime has gone up at Cubberley over the past year as the number of homeless residents have swelled to more than 20 on some nights. On Aug. 12, officers arrested a homeless woman on a probation violation and found methamphetamine on her along with a large number of small plastic bags, suggesting that she was selling, Watson said. Two weeks before that, police arrested a Cubberley dweller who challenged officers to a fight and who was "so intoxicated that he almost fell into an opened classroom door during an evening session," Watson said.
Penny Ellson, a resident of the adjacent Greenmeadow neighborhood, said her area has been waiting for action for the past two years, only to see the situation get worse. She recommended a series of immediate changes at Cubberley, including turning off electricity to external outlets at the end of the day; increasing police patrols; locking bathrooms every night after closing time; and towing unregistered vehicles.
"Please restore Cubberley to its designated and approved use and the safe healthy environment we all can count on as recently as three years ago," Ellson said.
While imposing the restriction was a relatively simple matter for the committee, finding a new location for the displaced residents is a far trickier challenge. Assistant City Manager Pam Antil acknowledged Tuesday that staff is not qualified to run a homeless shelter. This means that much of the task of forming the new safety net will fall to the nonprofit community, which has already been working over the past two months to propose solutions. The coalition of nonprofits is spearheaded by InnVision Shelter Network and includes Downtown Streets Team, Momentum for Mental Health, and Pastor Paul Bains' Project WeHope, which provides shelter in East Palo Alto.
While the program is still being designed, one of its most prominent components is expected to be the creation of a HOT (homeless outreach team) program in Palo Alto. This will involve case managers who "engage, case manage, transport, and ultimately secure housing for the most difficult-to-serve homeless residents" at Cubberley, according to a white paper that the group wrote.
The HOT program is already in place in Redwood City, East Palo Alto and San Mateo and will soon be adopted in Pacifica, Half Moon Bay and South San Francisco, according to Mila Zeltka of InnVision Shelter Network. On Tuesday, members of the Downtown Streets Team, which has been surveying Cubberley in recent weeks, provided the committee with some signs that the HOT program could work in Palo Alto.
Chris Richardson, director of program operations at the organization, said 11 of the 16 recently surveyed Cubberley dwellers said they would be interested in a transitional emergency shelter. Most promisingly, 14 out of 16 said they would work with a case manager to get permanent subsidized housing if it were offered to them, Richardson said.
The committee's vote would allocate $150,000 for homeless programs. Holman proposed a separate motion, which her colleagues declined to second, that would have charged the Human Relations Commission with coming up with a funding strategy for homeless assistance and which would have adopted the measures recommended by Ellson.
As in prior discussions on the topic of vehicle habitation, the committee faced a large and diverse crowd Tuesday, with many urging the committee to restore safety at Cubberley and many others asking council members to come up with a compassionate solution for the problem of homelessness. Litsie Indergand, a board member at the nonprofit Opportunity Center in Palo Alto, said banning the homeless from Cubberley isn't enough. The city needs to give them a place to go, she said.
Nick Selby agreed and criticized the council for adopting what he called a "Ready. Shoot. Aim" approach.
"We adopted the firing mechanism for enforcing the ordinance, but we really don't know what's going to happen," Selby said.