The modest parking lot at the back of the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto looks like an unlikely setting for a neighborhood dispute.
Tucked behind a preschool building and screened by bushes from the nearest homes, the lot off Embarcadero Road includes a single row of parking spaces, a basketball hoop and a storage shed. If things go according to the church's plan, it will also soon function as a small but tangible solution to the city's homelessness problem. Four parking spaces in this area would be designated for residents who live in vehicles. They would be separated by empty spots that would create a buffer zone for occupants. A portable restroom would be installed next to the shed.
The First Congregational Church program is Palo Alto's latest "safe parking" proposal, which aims to provide secure parking, counseling and case management for unhoused individuals. Since the city created the safe parking program, two churches have signed up: Highway Community Church and the Unitarian Community Church of Palo Alto. First Congregational Church, which is located at 1985 Louis Road, is hoping to be the third. The Rev. David Howell, senior pastor at First Congregational, told the Weekly during a recent tour of the site, which he believes is well-suited for such a program.
"We really think once it starts, people will realize it's really not intrusive," Howell said. "The people in the program are quiet folks who just want to have a quiet place. We want to be sensitive to our neighbors, and we really want to work with them and do everything we can to make this as easy as possible for them."
The proposal, however, is facing a hurdle. More than two dozen neighborhood residents from 19 properties in the neighborhood have signed on to an appeal submitted by Todor Ganev, whose home is on Embarcadero Road, next to the church. In the appeal, Ganev argued that the "safe parking" spaces should be moved to the church's main lot, which fronts Louis Road. The appeal also suggested that the program doesn't do enough to screen its participants.
"Our community members are entitled to a proactive approach to safety, with criminal background screening provided before problems occur. However, this is not what this program entails," Ganev wrote.
The City Council is scheduled to consider the residents' appeal at its Aug. 22 meeting. Because the item is on the council's "consent calendar," the appeal would be rejected unless three council members support pulling it from consent and scheduling a full hearing.
The Weekly reached out to Ganev and numerous other people who support the appeal. All of them refused requests for interviews, with Ganev saying that his busy schedule precludes him from making himself available. Instead, Ganev provided a written statement that strongly objected to the idea that he and others who signed on to the appeal are "fighting" the church's proposal.
He and other concerned residents were "forced to resort to an appeal, because, unfortunately, even though we made tremendous efforts to discuss our concerns with the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto (FCCPA), they ignored our concerns and their response has been symbolic at best," Ganev wrote.
He brought up some of the issues that are highlighted in the appeal, including his objections to the church placing the four parking spots on the Embarcadero side of its property.
"In short, FCCPA are expecting us, the existing neighbors, to be altruistic and assume risks in the name of the lofty program goal, but they themselves are not willing to make even a small compromise and accept even a small inconvenience (if any at all)," Ganev wrote.
Another church neighbor has also publicly raised alarm about the program, asking the City Council in an email earlier this month to "amend it to make it safe for residents."
"We want to be able to help the homeless but not feel we are compromising our sense of security and our children's sense of freedom," wrote Tilli Kalisky, stating that the program participants should undergo background checks.
Kalisky, who declined a request for an interview, had also written a letter to a Duveneck Elementary mailing list in July to warn others of the proposed program and urge them to voice their opposition.
Concerns about background checks of prospective residents in parking lots are far from new. Background checks also came up as an issue of contention last year, when the council was considering the Unitarian Universalist Church program. The application faced an appeal from Stevenson House, a senior residential community near the church. Critics of the program urged the church to require background checks for program participants. They ultimately opted to drop the appeal just before the council's scheduled review.
The appeal from Ganev expresses some of these same concerns, at times in identical terms. A major section of his appeal that pertains to safety and that lists security measures undertaken by other cities with safe-parking programs is copied verbatim from the appeal that was submitted and withdrawn by Stevenson House residents.
Since then, those concerns have largely dissipated, according to Linda Henigin, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church. She said in an interview that neighbors have not expressed any issues about the program since it was implemented last October.
"We've had check-in meetings offered to them by the church and the city and Move Mountain View. They don't even attend the check-in meetings. They don't have any concerns," Henigin said in an interview.
To date, the county, Move Mountain View, the nonprofit that operates similar programs in Mountain View, and the city have all resisted calls for criminal background checks, arguing that requiring them would conflict with both state laws and their own policies. A new report from the city Department of Planning and Development Services notes that state regulations prohibit a "blanket ban" on individuals who have criminal records residing in housing.
"It can be argued that the need to have background checks performed for those living in their vehicles is based on a perception that these persons may be more likely to have perpetrated a crime and will be more likely to perpetrate a crime in the future," the report states.
City staff cited a report from the Council for the Homeless, which found that "a person who is homeless is no more likely to be a criminal than a person who is housed." The city report also notes that there have been "no calls that required police emergency response or that led to a police report being taken" in either of the existing programs.
Although background checks are not part of Palo Alto's program, all participants are vetted by Move Mountain View. Participants in the program, which is funded by Santa Clara County, are required to show a valid driver's license and insurance.
Henigin, who worked on setting up the Unitarian Universalist Church program, said that residents often have the false impression that anyone can just go to the parking lot and stay there. In fact, every participant goes through an interview with a case worker, who then uses the information to determine the most appropriate safe-parking site to place the participant based on their particular circumstances. Participants must also consent to the fact that Palo Alto police and security guards randomly patrol the lots at night. And they have regular appointments with caseworkers that they are required to keep or risk being removed from the program, she said.
"Why would a person go through that process and then commit a crime?" Henigin asked.
The Rev. Eileen Altman, associate pastor at First Congregational Church, disputed the notion that background checks would make the program safer.
"There's a kind of a myth about background checks that it's sort of this magic tool that's going to prevent all problems. It's not," said Altman, who has been leading the church's effort to set up the safe parking program. "Being in relationships with people and really getting to know people and trying to figure out where they're coming from, how we can meet their needs and to be in an ongoing relationship with people is actually much more likely to be a safer approach to all human relationships."
Altman said the church has been thinking about safe parking ever since the city passed an ordinance allowing such programs in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed these plans. First Congregational Church is among the congregations that participate in Hotel de Zink, a homeless shelter that rotates among churches. It was, in fact, operating as a shelter in March 2020, when the pandemic began, and it kept its doors open to the unhoused for an extra month as the pandemic continued to spread in spring 2020. Altman said the congregation sees care for the unhoused as a natural extension of its mission.
In recent months, the church has also tried to accommodate the concerns of neighboring residents, said Wesley Chow, who lives near the church and who serves on its outreach board. It moved the safe-parking spaces to the relatively secluded back lot and it held numerous community meetings with area residents to discuss the program, he said.
Some remain unconvinced. Ganev argued in his appeal that placing the spaces in the back lot would have a health impact on residents who live in the area, particularly children who have asthma. The church pointed out that cars are only legally allowed to idle when temperatures fall below 40 degrees or above 85 degrees. Ganev countered that "even rare idling is a hazard to neighbors."
"FCCPA has refused to move the parking spots further away from the impacted neighbors and has offered no valid reasons why they are not willing to accept this very reasonable compromise," Ganev wrote in the appeal.
Church leaders argued that this is simply not the case. Placing the lots in the back makes the program less disruptive for both program participants and church visitors, they said in interviews. And in response to concerns over idling, they noted that participants will be provided with blankets for cold days. Chow also noted that when temperatures fall below 40 degrees, most residents will keep their windows closed, minimizing the alleged health hazards.
Chow also disagreed with the position of those who believe the program should screen out individuals with criminal backgrounds.
"My personal belief is that people should be given a second chance," Chow said. "Just because they've done something, maybe that's what caused them to be in the situation they're in. We have to have compassion for those less fortunate. That's our belief in our church."
According to data from the Unitarian Universalist Church, it has had six participants in the program between Oct. 19, 2021 and June 3, 2022. Two have gone on to permanent housing. Two others went back to the streets, while the remaining two are still in the program.
Henigin suggested that calls for background checks display a "fundamental misunderstanding of what background checks are."
"They cost money and they take time. They keep people from getting help quickly and they don't actually give you the actual information that you think you're going to get," Henigin said.
Although a number of neighbors filed the appeal of the First Congregational program, others support the initiative. Bill Sundstrom, who lives on Louis Road, is among them.
"I acknowledge that some of my neighbors may have more heightened concerns about some of these issues than I do," Sundstrom said in an interview, recalling that he'd received an anonymous flyer with a list of talking points opposing the program, including allegations that it offers no safety, no security and no accountability.
"I come at it as someone who sees homelessness as a real serious concern that we all ought to take some responsibility for. And I think it's a very small and low-risk thing that the church had the good graces to reach out and do for some folks who are struggling in ways most of us are not."
Altman said the church has followed all the rules and guidelines that the council had established for safe parking programs and, as such, the church should be allowed to proceed. She noted that the program would only operate between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. to minimize encounters between students and program participants. (The city allows programs to operate from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.)
"If they expect faith communities to participate in the program, when the faith community is meeting the rules and expectations of the program, it should be that it's a no-brainer that it's approved," Altman said. "If every time it comes out it becomes a contentious, public, ugly thing, it discourages faith communities from participating in the program. Is that what the council wants?"