In Palo Alto, houses of worship get ready to welcome car campers | News | Palo Alto Online |


In Palo Alto, houses of worship get ready to welcome car campers

Following city decision, local churches and temples can offer parking lots for overnight residential parking

For Peninsula Bible Church, the increasingly prominent issue of people living in their cars is more than just a citywide problem: It's personal. Several members of the church use their cars as housing, so the congregation knows firsthand the challenges that come with being a working professional while homeless, including finding safe parking at night and access to restrooms.

"Once you can put a face to this issue then it becomes more personal and real," Rob Schulze, a pastor at Peninsula Bible Church, told the Weekly. "This program is a tangible way to demonstrate love to all our neighbors."

By unanimous vote, the City Council agreed Monday to let local congregations designate up to four parking spaces on their lots for overnight (6 p.m. to 8 a.m.) parking. Congregations must also provide bathrooms with toilets and sinks and maintain "clear and orderly premises."

Much like similarly established programs in East Palo Alto and Mountain View, social service providers will be brought in to assist program participants in finding permanent housing.

Among those who have offered their parking lots is Congregation Etz Chayim, a synagogue on Alma Street.

While the safe parking program won't solve the underlying housing crisis, Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky said, it is a step in addressing the immediate needs of residents without homes.

"As we look for a long-term solution to this problem, we can't overlook the short-term needs of those in our community," Koritzinsky said.

The synagogue's parking lot is about 50 yards long and half as wide, bordered by Alma on the front and houses at the back. While there are a few trees lining the front, parked cars are visible from the street.

"So far, we haven't heard anything from our neighbors, and we plan on placing the four spaces away from the neighbors to not disturb them," Koritzinsky said.

Schulze said that big concerns for neighbors of Peninsula Bible Church are noise and the potential for these spaces to turn into encampments. Ultimately, it is the fear of the unknown that leads to neighbors' mixed feelings, he said.

Unlike at the synagogue, the church parking lot is hidden behind the main buildings, connected to Middlefield Road by a narrow driveway. The lot is roughly 100 yards by 25 yards, with trees interspersed throughout and surrounded by tall bushes that block the view of the surrounding houses.

According to Schulze, the church will provide car campers with a safe and consistent space with access to restrooms and other church facilities.

Members of both the synagogue and church advocated for the safe parking program in front of the City Council.

Initially, the council's Policy and Services Committee had recommended a 90-day limit on safe-parking permits, much to the dismay of program operators and congregations who cited the uncertainty as a reason for them not to participate.

"The uncertainty may prevent them from entering into contractual agreements with safe parking program operators," a city report states. "Likewise, the uncertainty may deter congregations, or program operators may not make necessary investments to begin the program. Finally, donors and grantors may be reluctant to provide support for the operators or congregations."

However, the council approved the pilot program for 18 months to start sometime late February or early spring, by which time it hopes the city will have secured a social services agency as a partner.

In preparation for the program, Schulze told the Weekly that the church plans on holding a neighborhood town hall meeting with other churches along Middlefield Road as a chance to meet with neighbors and talk about the program. Among those congregations, the Highway Palo Alto Community in Christ has expressed an interest in participating.

"I hope this is an opportunity for the community, the city and houses of worship to find common ground and work towards a larger solution," Schulze said.

According to Koritzinsky, members of Etz Chayim are supportive, with upwards of two dozen people who voted in favor of the proposal. Member Lisa Ratner had advocated for the program and is hopeful that it will be successful.

Ratner is part of a social action initiative called tikkun olam, meaning "repair of the world by acting constructively and beneficially." The group chose to focus on the vehicle dwelling issue as a way to help locally.

"We're confident by what we've seen with Move Mountain View that this program can provide the resources people in our community need," Ratner said, referring to the nonprofit the is addressing the issue in that city.

Move Mountain View partners with the Community Services Agency, which provides the support and resources to help people find permanent housing.

"We believe it's a basic right to have a safe and decent place to live, which these people don't," Ratner said. "I would like to see Palo Alto and neighboring cities make a greater effort to build more affordable housing and address the underlying issue."

The genesis of the program came from council members Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou, who proposed looking at large, city-owned sites and exploring the willingness of commercial property owners to let vehicle dwellers park on their lots.

The program approved Monday doesn't go nearly as far as the council members' memo recommended, however. Some members of the public on Monday urged the council to take it further.

Resident Trina Lovercheck noted that many church lots can accommodate far more than four vehicles.

"If religious institutions have to go to the expense of putting in toilets and a sink, that's a big commitment on their part," Lovercheck told the council. "For it to only accommodate four people seems to me to be a waste."

Schulze said on Monday that members of his congregation have expressed a preference for a four-car limit, as well as for passenger vehicles over RVs. Even so, his church looks forward to seeing how the program unfolds.

"As a congregation, we're open to what this would look like," Schulze said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner contributed to this report.

Related content:

'There's more work to be done': County pushes to find safe parking for people living in cars

Editorial: 'Safe parking' program is a very small first step


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is it worth to you?


12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2020 at 10:02 am

Who would oversee that the 4 vehicles are gone by 8.00 am? Is it the church's responsibility if the car has a dead battery or a flat tire? Likewise, what happens if the driver has a medical situation overnight, will the car be checked at 8.00 am if it is still there to see what is happening to prevent it from being moved? Who ultimately takes responsibility when a vehicle does not move on?

15 people like this
Posted by Looks Good on Paper
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 17, 2020 at 11:25 am

@ Resident, I agree.

I'm reposting a comment I posted on the previous article on this topic. Same questions.

For argument's sake, let's start with premise that we're all compassionate people and would like to help people in need.

Now, with that said, I would love to see how the logistics of these proposals on paper will be implemented in reality. My understanding after reading the fine print of the proposal that will be discussed at city council is that neighbors within 600 feet of the parking lot have to agree, no more than four cars at once, cars planning to use the lot for the night may arrive no earlier than 6pm and must leave the parking lot no later than 8am, parking lot overnight guests must have access to toilet/showers if available, etc.

I belong to a house of worship lobbying to participate in this program. Yet I don't dare ask the following questions for fear of being labeled "someone who is not compassionate": who will decide which four cars get to park in the house of worship's lot each and every night, weekdays/weekends, forever? who is going to ask every car that enters the lot after 6pm (when there are many evening functions used by multiple parties) if they are planning to spend the night there? who will be on "night duty" to monitor the number of cars overnight and be responsible for turning away cars when it reaches four? how will parking lot "guests" be monitored entering in the building to use bathrooms with house of worship members (who are both adults/children) also using the facilties? or will this mean the house of worship has a permanent portapotty in the lot? who will monitor any debris left behind? who will be responsible for asking a parking lot guest to leave if they exceed the allowable time limit in the morning or just plain doesn't ever move their car? is a house of worship member going to volunteer every day and night 24x7 to monitor all these factors? who will have to intervene on behalf of the house of worshp if neighbors have an issue, which now puts the house of worship in a tenuous position with their community?

I personally would not volunteer for any of these duties which could put me in an unsafe situation or a police-like role. These duties would be far from why I joined a house of worship.

Maybe I'm wrong, and this proposal can work. But it sounds like lots of conflict waiting to happen and unintended consequences.

18 people like this
Posted by list?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2020 at 11:49 am

It would be helpful if PAO would post a list of the churches/synagogues that are interested in providing their parking lots for overnight RV parking.

5 people like this
Posted by wander3r
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2020 at 3:54 pm

Unlike @list?, I don’t want a published list of the houses of worship that are interested in participating in the program, for the exact reasons that @Looks Good on Paper mentioned above: that having a church or temple‘s name missing might lead others to deem them less compassionate or worse, uncaring, when the public knows nothing about that house of worship’s situation. So many folks in Palo Alto are already too judgmental as it is; why feed that tendency?

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2020 at 4:52 pm

@Looks good. Thanks for voicing your concerns which I completely concur with.

You have put more thought into this and I feel that the churches should be able to answer these questions completely before going any further.

@to the Weekly reporter

Please can these points raised be addressed by the churches. It is much better for them to come from an independent third party than for the church members, the neighbors or even the Council or PAPD.

There is compassion and there is a time for caution. It would be good to be able to address these issues without fear of lacking compassion or appearing to be lack of showing compassion. Caution is not negative, but prudent.

18 people like this
Posted by LifeMoves
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2020 at 10:59 pm

LifeMoves has already quietly organized 12 Palo Alto churches to house homeless individuals with each church doing so for one month of the year. As far as I know, neighbors were not notified. This may explain the human feces I noticed outside my home (next-door to one of these churches) a few months ago: Web Link

12 people like this
Posted by Other providers?
a resident of Los Altos
on Jan 18, 2020 at 8:58 am

Why only places of worship? Since many vehicle dwellers have jobs and some even have homes out of the area, why not allow/encourage or even require the regional mega-employers (Facebook, Google, Apple, Stanford, etc) to provide safe parking lots for their own employees and contract workers who live in vehicles? These large employers already monitor their lots, which are usually located away from private residences, they’ve already screened their workers, and they can afford to provide bathrooms and security (more than churches). Also, it can be argued that the rapid growth of these large employers is why many people choose to or need to live in their vehicles. If the corps take responsibility for their own workers, more community resources will be available for the rest.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 18, 2020 at 9:05 am

I have noted that the streets going through Google in MV are lined with RV's so you all can assume that Google in on board with RV's on the streets - but not in the parking lots. Give a shout-out to Google though it is inconclusive as to whether they can enforce any alternative. If the RV is on the street then they have no liability as the status of the RV's ability to function and move.

11 people like this
Posted by RHHNA
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 18, 2020 at 8:27 pm

This is not going to end well. I fear if we build it more will come. If one is living in an RV why would you choose to live in Oakland as opposed to a more affluent community with better services such as Palo Alto, Mountain View, etc? If it was me I would choose Palo Alto! Especially if you have kids. The law allows RV dwellers to enroll their kids in whatever district their RV is parked in. Does the same apply for City services such as library community centers etc? I believe Mountain View has a nonprofit screen people for income level, etc. gives preference to people whose last physical address was in Mountain View for their popup RV parks. Perhaps we should consider a similar screening process.

At the regionnal/State level maybe there should be a program to spread things around. For example in addition to the RHNA (Regionnal Housing Need Allocation) there could be a RHHNA (Regionnal Homeless Housing Need Allocation) that would tell each city/county in the State what proportion of the States total homeless population they are responsible for accomidating. In that way each community could do their fair share to accomidate the homeless.

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