Vickie Boone sipped her beverage slowly outside Peet's Coffee & Tea on Charleston Road, recalling the day two years ago when she decided to live in her car on Palo Alto's streets.
"It was either be hit or be homeless," said Boone, 53, a petite woman with silver hair and a relaxed, friendly demeanor.
She chose life in her Geo Metro in order to escape from domestic violence, she said.
A lifelong Palo Altan, she attended Terman Middle School and Gunn High School. She doesn't drink or use drugs and she isn't crazy. She's just down on her luck, she said.
Most of all, she wants people to know, "I'm not a criminal."
But Boone said she fears a proposed Palo Alto ordinance banning people from living in their cars will render her a criminal.
Under the ordinance, first-time violators would receive a warning and information on available social services. But repeat offenders could receive a $1,000 fine or up to 6 months in jail. The violation would have the flexibility of being treated as either an infraction or a misdemeanor, City Attorney Molly Stump said.
Vehicle dwellers and their supporters told the City Council on July 18 that the law is draconian and would do more harm by putting people who currently have some shelter onto the streets with no protection from the elements.
They have formed an organization, the Community Cooperation Team, to fight the ban and to develop alternatives that would satisfy the needs of both vehicle dwellers and those opposed to the practice.
The number of people living in their cars in Palo Alto may number as many as 50, according to vehicle dwellers. City officials put the figure at one to two dozen.
But despite the relatively low numbers in the city of 64,000, the issue has stirred passions on all sides, touching upon property rights, the notion of community, public safety, how to render help to those who are down and out, and the limits of compassion.
The ordinance idea came about last fall, after city staff received a number of complaints from College Terrace, Evergreen Park and Professorville neighborhood residents and businesses near College Terrace and in the industrial area southeast of San Antonio and Charleston roads, according to Curtis Williams, the city's director of planning and community environment.
The complaints generally involved people living in vehicles who were being disruptive to the residents or businesses. Parking was also sometimes an issue.
City staff has had a few meetings with housing and homeless-services representatives and plans to meet with the Community Cooperation Team. The council's Policy and Services Committee could hear staff recommendations as early as Sept. 13, followed by a council vote thereafter, he said.
The uneasy relationship between Palo Alto's housed residents and business owners and some of the vehicle dwellers has existed for several years.
On Chestnut Street in the Ventura neighborhood, residents living near Boulware Park said the large vans and RVs cause concern.
Luz Aguilar said she hasn't interacted with the vehicles' occupants.
"They don't tend to want to be part of the community, and they're an eyesore, to be honest," she said.
A young Ventura mother, who asked not to be identified, said she didn't feel comfortable with the campers either.
"There really is no record of them," she said. If someone has a criminal background or is a registered sex offender, there is no way of knowing who they are or of being notified that they live in the neighborhood, she said.
There is also a feeling of being intruded upon, she said. A man in a small car near Fry's Electronics routinely set up his barbecue on the sidewalk; another parked in front of her home every day.
"The fact that he was there, he knew my comings and goings," she said.
Ken Alsman, a Professorville resident, said the issue disproportionately affects certain neighborhoods.
"At one point, a guy in a giant mobile home came up and put his jacks out into the planter strip. He opened an extension of his living room onto the sidewalk. We have been invaded. It isn't my neighborhood anymore," he said.
College Terrace resident Wendy Smith said she's had various unpleasant encounters with people who lived in their cars.
"Van dwellers would park their vehicles next to the building and then get out their bike and put it into my azaleas and lean it up against the wall. Many plants were broken. Yelling ensued. Apologies were given but they weren't enough. This particular person also would have 'visitors,' and partying would go on, and then beer bottles would hit the side of the building," she said.
When a man slept in his car for several weeks, she let it slide, she said.
"But the morning I started out for a walk, looked down the sidewalk to see the car's door open and a hand with a plastic milk carton full of urine reach out and pour it onto the street was the morning I told the person to be gone by the time I came back from my walk or I would call the cops," she said.
But if residents are feeling overrun, many vehicle dwellers say they are just trying to peacefully co-exist.
In a commercial area of warehouses, home-fixture businesses and small tech companies between Charleston and San Antonio roads, Paul, 55, a disabled military veteran who declined to give his last name, said he and his mate, Ommie, have looked for so-called legitimate places to park their older tan Sunsport motor home.
"We tried to get into trailer parks in Redwood City and San Jose, but those places said the RV was too old. The parks want newer vehicles. We were moving from one street or another and ended up here," he said, of the location on Transport Street. The couple chose the industrial area because they don't want to be around homes, playgrounds and schools where they would irritate residents and cause calls to the police.
"I want to be safe with my environment," he said.
An American flag flutters from the RV's door.
"I've been a taxpayer all my life and served my country. I've always worked," Paul said, adding that he doesn't like the image of the homeless person as a non-contributor. "I've given to this country all of my life."
Although homeless, he is still contributing, he said, a sentiment of many vehicle dwellers.
Those living in their cars like to point out that, far from being apart from the community, they look out for the neighborhood. A homeless man, Andre Belton, saved the Friends of the Palo Alto Library offices during an early-morning fire at Cubberley Community Center in August 2010, which erupted while he was living in the parking lot, they said.
Paul said a dweller can act "like a watch dog," observing activities at street level that others in homes don't see. He routinely keeps an eye on the businesses and shoos off skateboarding kids who take advantage of parking lots during the off hours, he said.
A tall, amiable man with a shaved head, Paul said he and Ommie are on fixed incomes. Many of the vehicle dwellers with a little money or even with jobs live in their RVs because it allows them to save a bit for emergencies, he said.
"I might have to go somewhere to bury a relative," he added.
Paul said he doesn't plan to be chronically homeless. The RV is a temporary solution and a step toward finding housing. For nearly three years, he has been on the waiting list for a HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher for housing from the Veterans Administration.
"I've been wishing and praying and hoping I get one. They called me last week. I feel like I'm getting close to that door," he said.
The couple does have a plan to get into housing, even without a voucher, he said. In about three or four months, they might have enough saved to pay first and last months' rent on a small place.
"Maybe for $800 a month -- then we could still have money for food," he said.
Several paces down the street, two other large motor homes park along the curb.
Although Paul's and another couple's are clean, without clutter or trash, one RV has business owners riled up. Laundry baskets and plastic bins are tied to its top. Filled plastic garbage bags are stuffed underneath. Inside, a dog barks loudly.
"We've had to call the city several times to try to get them to move. It's pretty frustrating," said Kevin Messer, lead game designer at Punch Entertainment. "There's trash buildup, and we've called (Palo Alto) Animal Control, but the dogs have to bark for 10 minutes without stopping" before the city will intervene, he said.
Not all residents believe the ordinance is the answer.
"Actually, I was taken aback by the philosophy or attitude. It is so harsh. These people who live in their cars are not doing this for frivolity. So many of them, most of them, probably, have resorted to this 'last resort' because they are destitute. To me, this policy is mean-spirited. Why not go ahead and search for other alternatives? ... Where has the 'milk of human kindness' that used to be so pervasive in our city gone?" said Tibby Simon, a College Terrace resident.
Linda Martinet, a member of Peninsula Bible Church, delivers food and necessities to the homeless.
"I got involved because people I know who are coming to a recovery group at the church are there because of economic reasons, not because of drugs and alcohol," she said. "I don't see that these people are not wanting to be working. Even low-paying jobs are not as available."
If the ordinance passes, officers would provide a car dweller with an informational brochure and start a 30-day warning period. Police would be required to provide referrals to social services, Williams said.
The proposed ordinance seems to suggest that social services are the answer to getting people out of their cars and into housing, and for those struggling with mental illness or substance abuse, the help could be timely and life-saving.
But even those who provide housing for the homeless say the idea of transitioning people into more permanent shelter is subject to debate.
There just isn't enough housing available, said Philip Dah, program director at the Opportunity Center on Encina Avenue, which provides long-term housing for 135 residents, including children and comprehensive social services for the homeless population through its Drop-In Center.
Dah said the center offers 18 one- and two-bedroom units for families and 70 single rooms for singles only. There are 200 people on the waiting list, he said.
From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. the vehicle dwellers can park in the center's underground garage, but when the doors close, they have to leave, he said.
About three or four people who live in their cars routinely use Opportunity Center services, he said. But by and large, vehicle dwellers are not the type of homeless people the center specializes in serving.
A person who lives on the streets uses the center's services more than someone who lives in his or her car, he said.
He agreed with ordinance opponents who say the ordinance as it's currently proposed would take away the only shelter the vehicle dwellers have without offering housing alternatives. The only shelter in Palo Alto, InnVision's Hotel de Zink, has 15 beds, and stays are for three months.
Finding a middle ground in the fractious debate is the goal of the newly formed Community Cooperation Team.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, about 30 team members plotted their strategy on a white board at the University Church: Episcopal Lutheran Campus Ministry. At the top of their list: communicating with residents.
"We're not all bums; we're not all drug addicts and we don't all beg from people," a vehicle dweller said, as others nodded affirmatively.
"At City Council meetings, it's been a one-way dialogue. I want to establish a dialogue with them to break down the fallacies," Tony Ciampi, on whom police used Tasers in March 2008, an incident that a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled was an illegal action by police.
"What we don't want to see is 'us versus them,'" Ciampi said.
Rev. Greg Schaefer, University Church pastor, said he and others in the faith community want to see an alternative to the ordinance that addresses in a more targeted way the complaints the neighbors raise.
"We think there needs to be alternative options for people because it just doesn't make sense to outlaw something without thinking through what (those who live in vehicles) are supposed to do next. Many of the people we're talking about are fortunate enough to have a car to provide shelter during their time of need. If use of that shelter is completely banned, all they would be left with is to sleep in the creek or on the street," he said in an email, emphasizing that he doesn't speak for those who live in their cars and RVs.
The vehicle dwellers said they want to work with residents to eradicate the complaints.
"I agree they have a legitimate complaint. The big problem is designing an ordinance that is fueled by an inaccurate view of what homelessness is today," Chuck Jagoda, a former teacher, said.
In addition to public outreach and education, the Community Cooperation Team has volunteers working on dweller-city liaisons; research and alternatives; and advocacy and legal issues.
One alternative being bandied about is identifying a parking area where all of the vehicle dwellers could reside, such as the parking area at Cubberley Community Center in south Palo Alto.
People already park there overnight, with several vehicle dwellers saying they use the center's expansive parking lots as a safe haven.
Minka Van der Zwaag, manager of Palo Alto's office of human services, said the city allows the vehicle dwellers and other unhoused persons to use the gym showers and locker rooms at Cubberley from 6 to 8 a.m.
She stopped short of saying the city allows the vehicle dwellers to park at Cubberley, though.
"It's not specifically legal. When we periodically get reports, we look into it," she said.
Dah of the Opportunity Center suggested the city put money where its mouth is.
"If the city is really interested, the solution is at their doorstep. The city garage under City Hall has parking and security. It will be monitored," he said.
One resident, Aguilar of the Ventura neighborhood, said she doesn't support having a fixed location for the vehicles in the city after seeing such lots during a visit to Hawaii.
"On one side of the island all of the beaches were for the homeless. It looked like a mess. I would think (having the fixed location) would draw more. Making it easier for them is not the right answer," she said.
Not all vehicle dwellers think it's a good idea, either. Ciampi said he favors a permit system for people to remain on the street. Jack, a 30-year vehicle veteran, said putting all of the people living in cars together would lead to fighting.
But the troublemakers are few, other car dwellers said, and most adhere to an unwritten code: Do no harm, don't make a mess or a fuss, and stay out of residential areas.
The team is planning a database and phone line residents can call to report offensive behavior. The hope is that establishing an association and guidelines would help reduce problems and give the car dwellers leverage to police themselves, they said.
A small group of the people who park overnight at Cubberley said they are already self-policing.
"There are a few troublemakers. But we've moved them along," said a woman who asked to be anonymous.
Another dweller at the Sunday meeting summed up the group's growing self-empowerment -- and commitment to responsibility:
"We need a homeowners' association for the homeless," he said.