Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Vehicle Dwellers Must Be More United in Palo Alto

Ban on car dwelling loses 
support in Palo Alto

City Council committee recommends exploring a pilot program aimed at registering, helping vehicle dwellers

Palo Alto is preparing to abandon a deeply divisive proposal to ban vehicle dwelling and to explore instead a program in which businesses, churches and possibly city lots would provide space for residents who live in their automobiles.

The City Council's Policy and Services Committee voted 3-1 on Tuesday night, with Councilman Larry Klein dissenting, to recommend that the council approve a six-month pilot program, which would include direct assistance from the city to the homeless population and outreach to churches, businesses, not-for-profit institutions and Stanford-based organizations for participation. Those who sign up would host up to three vehicles with dwellers on their lots.

The city's trial program would be modeled on the Homeless Car Camping Program in Eugene, Ore., where registered vehicle dwellers use parking spots at designated churches and businesses.

Vehicle dwelling emerged as a hot topic in Palo Alto more than two years ago, with residents -- particularly around College Terrace and Ventura neighborhoods -- complaining about homeless people camping out in their cars. Some residents cited sanitation issues while many complained about a man in College Terrace who they said owns about 10 vans and who routinely moves them from one spot to another to avoid the city's 72-hour restriction on parked cars.

The council had initially proposed an ordinance banning vehicle habitation, a prohibition that exists in every other neighboring jurisdiction. Last year, after an outcry from homeless residents and advocates, the city suspended the ordinance effort and began working with a group of stakeholders, including homeless advocates and residents in the impacted neighborhood, on a compromise.

The pilot program that Palo Alto is exploring would be administered by the Downtown Street Team, which provides jobs to the homeless. But it gives the city a heavier role in assisting vehicle dwellers than prior proposals. It involves, for the first time, exploration of city-owned parking lots as possible hosting sites for vehicle dwellers -- an option council members had rejected earlier. Former Councilman John Barton urged this move and asked the committee not to do anything that "criminalizes the poor."

"I think the city needs to get some skin in the game," Barton said. "If you want to ask the churches and the nonprofits and the businesses to step up, why isn't the city stepping up? I think the city needs to show the way on how to help those who need temporary help."

So far, the city's outreach efforts have netted underwhelming results. Despite a year and a half of discussions and outreach to 42 faith-based organizations, only one church had agreed to participate in the proposed program. Some have indicated that they need more time to reach a decision on whether to participate, Planning Director Curtis Williams said. Staff had determined that the city would need to have at least three churches sign on for the program to be viable, he said.

"Several congregations expressed interest in doing something but there were either questions about liability or insurance or a process through their organization that was necessary to develop the consensus to support something like that," Williams said. "That would take time."

About 30 people spoke at the meeting, with opinions all over the spectrum. College Terrace and Venture residents complained about the persistent problem of vehicle dwellers camping outside their homes. Homeless advocates urged the city to target unruly and disruptive behavior -- not the homeless population as a whole.

Trina Lovercheck, a former member of the city's Human Relations Commission, was in the latter camp. She lamented the fact that the commission wasn't involved in the process and urged staff to address the problems with existing laws.

"I urge you not to criminalize everyone who's been living in their cars because of a few bad apples," Lovercheck said. "I think we should be able to use the current codes that are on the books to deal with situations as they arise. I'd urge you to have the Police Department do that."

Bruce Kenyon, a crossing guard who participated in the community working group on the proposed ordinance, compared the behavior of the few unruly vehicle dwellers to the child or two who insists on running across the street despite Kenyon's admonitions.

"It's a human behavior problem and there's always going to be one or two bad apples that we can't control," Kenyon said. "An ordinance isn't going to change that."

But neighborhood residents urged the committee to act on what they said was an urgent and long-neglected problem. Brent Barker, president of the College Terrace Residents Association, asked the committee to support a pilot program as soon as possible that would address the issue. Barker, who participated in the working group, said he has seen the group's feelings go from optimism into "disillusionment and disheartenment at that we can't just get this thing off the ground fast." He urged immediate intervention by the city.

"We need a couple of pilots and they need to be carefully set up and monitored from the get-go so we can see them succeed," Barker said.

Tom Dittmar, who owns the office building at 944 Industrial Way, said there were two motor homes in front of the building when he and his wife bought it in June. Since then, they have found an adapter screwed into the building's light socket, suggesting that the motor homes were tapping into the building's power.

"I have been calling cops one to two times a week to get the motor homes to move," Dittmar said. "They do move. But then they come right back."

The Police Department estimates that there are between 25 and 50 people living in vehicles. Jonathan Brown, a Ventura resident, said between five and 10 having been living in buses and vans near his neighborhood park for months now. They cook their meals in the park and "take away our sense of community," Brown said.

"The sense out there is that there are strangers in the park and that we won't be able to use the park," Brown said.

Councilmen Greg Schmid, Sid Espinosa and Councilwoman Karen Holman all supported pursuing the six-month pilot program, which was proposed by Schmid.

"Vehicle dwelling is an issue because it's people who are down on their luck in our community," Schmid said. "It would be good if there was something that could be done to help them in their situation."

Espinosa said the committee's agreement provides a good compromise because it allows staff to fully explore the new pilot program and give staff a chance to consider further action at a later date, if necessary. But he also said he found it "disheartening to me that we haven't moved further in the past year-plus in finding a solution."

Klein had another concern -- the program's cost.

"For the city to be involved in offering its parking places -- it's going to end up costing us, and not just staff time," Klein said.

Klein said the city will have to deal with the same issues the churches have been dealing with, but these would be "multiplied because we are a government entity and we have a higher bar that we have to meet with sanitation and public safety." The problem of vehicle dwelling, he said, impacts a relatively small number of people.

"I just think there isn't great public enthusiasm and I think it goes back to the fact that this isn't much of a problem," Klein said.

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