Surprised by the intensity of the negative reaction from some segments of the faith community and others grappling with the problems of the homeless, City Manager Jim Keene spared the City Council and the community a long and emotional meeting next Monday night by putting off the issue of car dwelling until September.
City officials had quietly drafted an ordinance responding to long-standing complaints from residents of College Terrace and others who are fed up with people who have taken up residence in their vehicles. Since most cities have similar laws banning sleeping in cars and the proposed Palo Alto ordinance would emphasize helping not punishing car dwellers, staff assumed there would be little controversy.
Planning Director Curtis Williams noted that police would not conduct neighborhood sweeps looking for homeless car dwellers, but would respond only to complaints and would distribute information on homeless services to those contacted by officers.
But some church leaders and homeless advocates were not satisfied, and after nearly a dozen opponents of the ordinance appeared at last Monday's council meeting urging the city to rethink the plan, officials decided to put off consideration until September.
The city's challenge is to equip its police force with the power to remove problem car dwellers from residential neighborhoods, but also to be sensitive to the fact that these people are struggling in a difficult economy and may have few options.
We strongly believe that an ordinance is needed. It is not appropriate, fair or safe to openly permit people to live in their vehicles in a manner that affects other residents of the community. While the streets are public and residents have no unique rights to the parking spaces in front of their homes, it really serves no one's interest to allow people to live in their cars in our neighborhoods.
Some have even urged that the city, either on its own or through joint efforts with neighboring communities, designate a safe venue for people to live in a vehicle as long as they obey the law.
The extent of this problem is unknown, and that alone is a good reason to delay consideration of the issue until the fall. The city should have a better inventory and assessment of the problem so that the debate over what to do can be based on real data.
Those residing in vehicles range from those who are homeless and have no other place to stay to those who are using campers as a way to avoid the region's high housing costs and/or long commutes. It's not yet clear to us whether one policy can address both circumstances.
Regardless, the city must deal with concerns like those raised in College Terrace, where residents say long-term parkers and vehicle dwellers, including some using lawns and gardens as bathrooms, have plagued them for years. It was a College Terrace petition drive last year that brought the car-dwelling problems into focus, appropriately so.
A person living in a car with no running water or sanitary facilities presents a frightening experience to children and impacts the quality of life in the neighborhood, and the city has a duty to address the problem.
For those writing a new city ordinance, the difficulty will come in addressing persons who are otherwise well-behaved but have fallen on hard times. It does not improve matters for the city to take away a person's ability to live independently and throw them onto the street.
Philip Dah, program director at the nonprofit Opportunity Center, believes the city can find a way to make that happen.
"A lot of clients who own vehicles and live in them are long-term Palo Alto residents or have lived here long-term and for one reason or another are homeless. Their vehicles are the only place they have to stay," Dah told the Weekly. "If a park can be available, with police patrols and some supervision, they could call that place home," he said.
Another homeless advocate, Rev. Greg Schaefer, minister of the Episcopal Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford in College Terrace, a strong opponent of the proposed ordinance, suggests that the city has only about four problem individuals, whose issues could be addressed by existing law.
As city officials pause to allow for wider discussion of the car-dwelling ordinance, they will need to:
■ Determine the extent of the problem;
■ Consult with persons living in vehicles to get their opinion about how the city can accomplish its objectives without criminalizing persons who are simply doing their best to survive on limited resources;
■ Determine the feasibility of establishing a system to provide safe, temporary alternatives;
■ Reach out to nearby cities and determine if a regional approach might benefit all the cities.
Palo Alto is a compassionate city with a long history of services to the poor. But residents have every right to neighborhoods free of car dwellers. An ordinance similar to what other cities have is needed, but in designing it let's make sure its goals are achieved in a way that respects and supports those it affects.