When the Palo Alto City Council in January took the tepid action to allow local churches and temples to host up to four vehicles overnight in their parking lots, it was little more than a token, feel-good step. At most, it may create a place for a dozen or so vehicles, all of which will be required to leave every morning and return in the evening.
It was a half-hearted attempt to help a handful of the car and RV dwellers who have taken up residency on city streets and was accompanied by so many requirements and limitations that it may discourage churches from moving forward.
But in an initiative that has much more potential to move the needle, Santa Clara County is proposing to work with Palo Alto and Mountain View to locate unused or underutilized privately owned parking lots in the two cities (which could include churches) and to assume responsibility for renting them and contracting with nonprofits to manage 24/7 safe parking programs.
The county has already invested $750,000 in safe parking programs as part of addressing what is rightly considered a regional homeless problem, but Supervisor Joe Simitian proposed it go a step further. In January, the Board of Supervisors approved Simitian's proposal, which could, with the cooperation of commercial property owners with vacant buildings and/or excess parking capacity, offer a more humane and safe alternative for the many people who are currently living in vehicles on El Camino Real and on city streets.
The concept is to relieve both Palo Alto and Mountain View city governments from developing and overseeing separate safe parking programs of their own and let the county take the lead. The county already is working with several nonprofits at existing lots in San Jose, Morgan Hill and in the west valley area, as well as on two public lots in Mountain View. The county's administration of the program will also provide some political insulation for city officials from potential anxiety in neighborhoods and opposition.
The program is focusing on opening up lots that will operate day and night, so cars and RVs don't have to leave every morning. Most car and RV dwellers are employed, but their vehicles, especially RVs, can't be accommodated at their job locations.
The county and the nonprofit that will operate the sites will provide liability coverage for the owners and ensure there are portable bathrooms, maintenance and security plans, social services and on-site supervision. Each month residents must renew their request to remain in the lot. The model has been working in the lots already established without neighbor complaints, according to Simitian.
Whether sufficient private parking lots are available in the north county to handle a meaningful number of vehicles is a threshold question, and finding them is the county's initial priority. Simitian, who represents both Palo Alto and Mountain View, is personally reaching out to commercial property owners in both cities this month and will hold public informational meetings next Wednesday in Palo Alto and Thursday in Mountain View for those owners who may be interested.
Parking lots will likely be associated with buildings that are vacant and awaiting redevelopment approvals, so use of them as safe parking lots for vehicle dwellers would be temporary. The larger the number of vehicles that can be accommodated the more efficient and effective the program, compared to the four-vehicle restriction Palo Alto has imposed on churches desiring to help. (The Palo Alto trial program is limited to churches and temples; other privately owned lots are not eligible.)
Safe parking programs are being launched throughout the state and region as a way of helping mostly the working homeless and to assist in transitioning them to permanent housing. Mountain View's program includes two city-owned parking lots, which can each accommodate up to 30 oversized vehicles, in addition to church lots.
The number of homeless people who are living in vehicles in Santa Clara County is estimated to have more than doubled, from 8 to 18 percent, between 2018 and 2019.
The county's efforts, on a regional basis, make much more sense than having individual cities establish their own programs without experienced and dedicated staff.
We hope commercial property owners will be open to the county's initiative and that nearby residents will view it as a safe way to provide a temporary solution for many living on the edge. Safe parking lots aren't a solution to the homeless crisis, but they are a good first step at helping those who are employed and desperately trying to survive in one of the nation's worst housing markets.