The countdown to Cubberley Community Center's closure as Palo Alto's "de facto homeless shelter" officially began Monday night, when the City Council approved a package of reforms that include closing the sprawling facility at night and devoting resources to aiding the homelessness.
Acknowledging that this is just the beginning of a long and complex effort, the council voted 7-1 on Monday, with Councilwoman Karen Holman dissenting and Councilman Marc Berman absent, to keep Cubberley and other community centers closed between 10:30 p.m. and sunrise. The decision was prompted by years of complaints from residents of the adjacent Greenmeadow neighborhood about the sharp uptick in the homeless population.
Police have also reported a significant rise in crime, including recent incidents in which one homeless man challenged an officer to a fight and another in which a homeless woman was arrested for possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell.
The vote came after weeks of heated City Hall hearings, each of which attracted dozens of homeless advocates and Greenmeadow residents to the Council Chambers. While the meeting wasn't as heated or crowded as prior discussions, the council once again heard from both sides of the issue. Some, including homeless advocate Chuck Jagoda, characterized the council's actions as mean-spirited and unwarranted. There is nothing at Cubberley to be scared of, he said.
"I can't believe any of you were taught at home or in your religion education that meanness was the way to solve anything," Jagoda said. "That's what you're doing."
But residents argued that they have spent more than two years waiting patiently for the city to act, to little avail. Meanwhile, the homeless population at Cubberley has gone up, more than 20 people regularly camping out there. Rob De Geus, assistant director of the Community Services Department, provided a catalogue of Cubberley problems: fights between campers; people bathing and cooking in bathrooms; aggression toward Cubberley custodians; and syringes and personal items found throughout the campus.
Carolyn Dobrovich was one of several Greenmeadow residents to speak out in favor of new restrictions at Cubberley.
"In this case, I do not think more or better options will come about until you begin the process of returning Cubberley to its original use, as a community center and potential school," Dobrovich said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who chairs the Policy and Services Committee, characterized the council's approach as an attempt to tackle both issues: the increased Cubberley activity and the broader and infinitely more complex issue of homelessness. The council's action devotes $150,000 for programs to assist the homeless. Staff and the city's partnering organizations from the nonprofit community will present a specific proposal for homeless assistance in October.
Another $100,000 would be provided for subsidized housing -- a sum that would be matched by Santa Clara County.
"We have not taken this lightly. We have taken this on I think with a determination and almost a ferocity that says, 'We will solve this problem,' " Kniss said. "We will be able to provide services to those people in the community who are so needy."
But at the same time, she said, safety and public health in the Greenmeadow and Charleston Meadows areas need to be preserved.
Council Larry Klein, who also sits on the Policy and Services Committee, agreed and said neighborhood residents have been patient long enough.
"I think our first obligation is to protect our neighborhood, protect our community center and also do what we can to help those who are disadvantage in a variety of different ways," Klein said.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilman Greg Schmid both talked about the broad scope of the complex dilemma and argued that county involvement will be crucial to tackling homelessness. Upon Shepherd's suggestion, the council agreed to designate Kniss and Councilwoman Gail Price as liaisons to the county to advocate for homelessness assistance. Like others, Shepherd emphasized the need to find compassionate solutions for the homeless who would be displaced from Cubberley.
"I think the interest I have of course is to make sure that everyone in Palo Alto has that type of security and housing that every human being deserves," Shepherd said.
The Monday decision came two weeks after the council took an even more contentious vote, to ban vehicle dwelling. That ban, which passed 7-2 with Holman and Councilman Marc Berman dissenting, became official earlier in the meeting when the council approved it on a formal "second reading." The vehicle habitation ban is set to take effect in 31 days.
Councilman Pat Burt and Councilwoman Karen Holman suggested giving a larger role in this discussion to the Human Relations Commission. But their proposal to include the commission met resistence from their colleagues, with Mayor Greg Scharff and Klein both arguing that this would only cause further delays.
Councilwoman Gail Price, emphasized that the Monday action is "just the beginning of many conversations" that the council will be having on this topic. But she also stressed that it's time to act.
"We could continue to converse for another three years or more," Price said. "We do it very well.
But I know several of us feel -- including the public -- we need action that makes a difference for people -- something that's meaningful."
The next big conversation is set to take place in October, when staff and a newly formed coalition of nonprofit groups comes forward with a specific plan for assisting the homeless. The Rev. Paul Bains, who runs the WeHOPE shelter in East Palo Alto, said he and other members of the nascent Homeless Services Task Force will be working over the next 30 to 60 days on coming up with a plan for addressing the problem of homelessness in Palo Alto. The plan, he said, will have short-term and long-term recommendations.
Bains called the council's allocation of resources an "excellent start" for tackling the"complex and confounding issue" of homelessness. He also said that the the group, with its range of resources and concentrations, would be able to "achieve a great deal."
"We'd like to say that none of us is as strong as all of us," Bains said.