With Palo Alto's ban on vehicle dwelling set to kick in early next month, city officials are scrambling to construct a safety net for the dozens of car campers who will soon be displaced from Cubberley Community Center.
The ban, which the City Council passed after a long and emotional meeting on Aug. 5, primarily targets Cubberley, which over the past two years evolved into what city officials routinely describe as a "de facto homeless shelter." On Tuesday night, in its first discussion since the ban was adopted, the council's Policy and Services Committee discussed and approved a mix of carrots and sticks geared toward pushing car campers out of Cubberley and toward stable housing and other support services.
After a long discussion featuring comments from dozens of residents, the committee voted 3-1, with Karen Holman dissenting, to recommend restricting public access to Cubberley and other community centers at night and to allocate $150,000 for homeless services. The committee also recommended spending $100,000 to support subsidized housing -- funding that will be matched by Santa Clara County.
The stick in the committee's recommendation is the new time restriction. The ordinance the committee approved would make it illegal to park at Cubberley and other community centers between 10:30 p.m. and sunrise.
Members agreed that status quo isn't working. Councilman Larry Klein noted that the transformation of Cubberley into a homeless shelter was never approved by Palo Alto citizens or the council. He made the motion to adopt the new ordinance, restricting the hours.
"The homeless in my view have the same rights as other citizens. We do also need to express compassion for citizens -- permanent residents of our country who do not have the same abilities to have housing that most of us have," Klein said. "But the homeless do not have more rights than the rest of us. None of us has the right to declare or make Cubberley or any other community center into a homeless shelter and that's precisely what happened here."
Recent crime cases have added some urgency to the committee's decision. Capt. Ron Watson, who heads the Police Department's patrol division, said officers have recently been asked by City Manager James Keene's office to spend more time at Cubberley. Watson said crime has gone up at Cubberley over the past year or so as the number of homeless residents have swelled to more than 20 on some nights. On Monday night, officers arrested a homeless woman on a probation violation and found methamphetamine on her along with a large number of small plastic bags, suggesting that she was selling, Watson said.
Two weeks ago, officers encountered a Cubberley dweller who was "so intoxicated that he almost fell into an opened classroom door during an evening session," Watson said. He challenged officers to a fight and was ultimately arrested, Watson said.
Watson said "a small number of people are creating the problems" at Cubberley, with staff from the Community Services Department generally left to deal with the consequences.
"It's clear a number of people who are going there are creating problems at the Cubberley campus and for the staff there and the folks who visit Cubberley Community Center," Watson said.
Residents in the Greenmeadow neighborhood have long called for the city to do something about the changes at Cubberley. Penny Ellson said her area has been waiting for action for the past two years, only to see the situation get worse. She recommended a series of immediate changes at Cubberley, including turning off electricity to external outlets at the end of the day; increasing police patrols; locking bathrooms every night after closing time; and towing unregistered vehicles.
"Please restore Cubberley to its designated and approved use and the safe healthy environment we all can count on as recently as three years ago," Ellson said.
While imposing the restriction was a relatively simple matter for the committee, finding a new location for the displaced residents is a far trickier challenge. Assistant City Manager Pam Antil acknowledged Tuesday that staff is not qualified in running any kind of homeless shelter.
"Even if we have the resources to do so, we don't have the staff capability to do so," Antil said.
This means that much of the task of forming the new safety net will fall to the nonprofit community, which has already been working over the past two months to propose solutions. While the program is still being designed, one of its most prominent components is expected to be the creation of a HOT (homeless outreach team) program in Palo Alto. This will involve a team of case managers who "engage, case manage, transport, and ultimately secure housing for the most difficult-to-serve homeless residents" at Cubberley, according to a white paper that the group wrote.
The group is spearheaded by InnVision Shelter Network and includes Downtown Streets Team, Momentum for Mental Health, and Pastor Paul Bains' Project WeHope, which provides shelter in East Palo Alto. Ray Bacchetti, a member of the city's Human Relations Commission, introduced the group to the council members at Tuesday's meeting and thanked the city for allocating resources for homeless assistance. Group members, he said, are committed to bringing their wide range of expertise to assisting Palo Alto's homeless community.
"We simply ask that you move forward with us over the next 30 to 60 days to more fully develop the plan," Bacchetti told the committee.
The HOT program is already in place in Redwood City, East Palo Alto and San Mateo and will soon be adopted in Pacifica, Half Moon Bay and South San Francisco, according to Mila Zeltka of InnVision Shelter Network. Brian Greenberg, vice president for programs and services at InnVision, said the program targets the toughest cases and tries get them into housing, as well as substance-abuse programs and other support services.
"Homelessness is the result of poverty but for many people it's a result of very poor decision-making," Greenberg said. "We try to work on both sides."
Members of the Downtown Streets Team, which has been surveying Cubberley in recent weeks, provided the committee with some signs that the HOT program could work in Palo Alto. Chris Richardson, director of program operations at the organization, said the Street Team said 11 of the 16 recently surveyed Cubberley dwellers said they would be interested in a transitional emergency shelter. Most promisingly, 14 out of 16 said they would work with a case manager to get permanent subsidized housing if it was offered to them, Richardson said.
The committee's vote would allocate $150,000 for homeless programs. Holman proposed a separate motion, which would have charged the Human Relations Commission with coming up with a funding strategy for homeless assistance and which would have adopted the measures recommended by Ellson.
As in the council's prior discussion of vehicle habitation, the committee faced a large and diverse crowd, with many urging the committee to restore safety at Cubberley and many others asking council members to come up with a compassionate solution for the problem of homelessness. Litsie Indergand, a board member at the nonprofit Opportunity Center in Palo Alto, which provides a range of services for the homeless, was in the latter camp. Banning the homeless from Cubberley isn't enough, she said. The city needs to give them a place to go.
"You need to come up with a positive answer for where the homeless can go," said Indergand.
Nick Selby agreed and criticized the council for proceeding with the ban before finding an alternative for Cubberley's homeless dwellers.
"We seem to have adopted a 'Ready. Shoot. Aim' approach,'" Selby said. "We adopted the firing mechanism for enforcing the ordinance but we really don't know what's going to happen."
Committee members all acknowledged that the Tuesday discussion is just the beginning of what promises to be a long and complicated process that will ultimately involve the county and various other agencies. Councilwoman Gail Price talked about the magnitude and complexity of the homelessness problem and said the committee is "only making a very, very small dent in what is a very, very serious problem." Yet she also stressed the importance of keeping the community conversation going and learning more about homelessness.
"I really feel these kinds of discussions are really critical," Price said. "I think this is an opportunity for us to move forward."