Faced with citizen anxieties, threatened lawsuits and a pending court case in southern California, Palo Alto officials agreed on Monday to delay for a year the city's deeply controversial ban on vehicle habitation.
The City Council voted unanimously to approve a staff recommendation to delay enforcement of the ban, which the council officially adopted on Sept. 19 and which was scheduled to kick off in February.
The ban, which was prompted by a swell of car campers at Cubberley Community Center and in a section of College Terrace, was adopted despite heated opposition from homeless advocates and members from the faith community. Last month, a coalition of attorneys led by Carrie LeRoy announced its intention to sue the city over the ban and requested a meeting with City Attorney Molly Stump to discuss their concerns. LeRoy argued in a Nov. 15 letter to the city that the ban is too broad and too punitive, that it violates the U.S. Constitution and that it would effectively criminalize homelessness.
"Enforcement of the VHO (vehicle habitation ordinance) will exacerbate serious health issues and disabilities prevalent among Plaintiffs, who will be forced out of their vehicles or Palo Alto altogether to avoid criminal liability," LeRoy wrote.
The council's decision on Monday to delay the ban squashes the controversy for at least a year. In a memo released last week, City Manager James Keene pointed to a case currently going through the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. That case, Cheyenne Destertrain v. City of Los Angeles, revolves around the issue of vehicle habitation. The appeals court has recently heard the arguments in this case and staff believes its decision "may provide further clarification regarding legal requirements governing ordinances prohibiting vehicle habitation."
The letter also noted that the council has already taken another step to address the transformation of Cubberley into what officials often refer to as an "ad hoc homeless shelter." In August, the council adopted a new law ordering that all community centers, including Cubberley, be closed between 10:30 p.m. and sunrise. Thus, the lawyers contended, the new law serves no legitimate purpose.
In the memo, Keene pointed to the Los Angeles case and noted "some members of the public have questions regarding the scope of the ordinance, which suggests that an additional period of outreach and review would be beneficial."
The council approved the delay unanimously as part of its "consent calendar," with no discussion or argument. The only people who spoke out on the issue were a handful of public speakers who opposed the ban. One speaker, Lois Salo, urged officials to go a step further and rescind the ban. Others said they were pleased to see the prohibition delayed, even if it's just for a year. Edie Keating from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto was among them.
"Many members of the community appreciate your willingness to keep this open for up to a year," Keating told the council. "There will be a need to find a solution so that we aren't in the same place at some future point in time. Many people are already talking about what the possible solutions could be."