"Human habitation of vehicles" would be a potential misdemeanor, carrying with it fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to six months, City Attorney Molly Stump said.
The proposal is being hailed by residents of the College Terrace neighborhood, where last year problems with people living in their cars sparked a neighborhood petition.
But an advocate for the homeless and one local religious leader expressed concerns this week that the ordinance is heavy-handed.
The law would cover inhabiting or permitting the habitation of a vehicle on any city street, park, alley, public parking lot or other public way.
Certain situations would be excluded, such as when a motorist is ill or unable to drive and needs to pull over. Also, residents' guests could live in motor homes or campers for up to 48 hours when the guests are parked next to the resident's home. People living in mobile homes in designated mobile-home parks would also be exempt.
Mountain View, Redwood City, Sunnyvale and Menlo Park have ordinances that forbid living in vehicles on city streets, but until now, Palo Alto has not, according to Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin.
But the city does not plan wholesale sweeps to drive vehicle-dwellers away, said Curtis Williams, the city's planning director. The ordinance would be enforced based on complaints received by the police department.
"We won't be out looking for them," he said.
Philip Dah, program director for the nonprofit Opportunity Center, which provides services to homeless and formerly homeless clients, wants the city to devise an alternative for people who live in their cars.
"A lot of clients who own vehicles and live in them are long-term Palo Alto residents or have lived here all of their lives and for one reason or another are homeless. Their vehicles are the only place they have to stay," Dah said, noting that about 200 people are homeless in Palo Alto.
"There has to be an alternative plan in place for these community members to be able to stay. If a park can be available, with police patrols in the area and some supervision, they could call that place home. As much as I agree that there is a problem, we have to see it both ways and also make accommodations," he said.
Rev. Greg Schaefer, minister of the Episcopal Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford in College Terrace, said he is scouting for vacant parking lots where car-dwelling residents could live. But he considers the ordinance a heavy-handed approach to a problem that perhaps could be solved by working directly with the people living in their vehicles.
The ordinance is "a pretty sweeping action to take," he said. Only about four individuals are known to cause problems such as garbage and unsanitary conditions, and those situations could be addressed by enforcing existing laws about voiding in public and dumping trash, he said.
"This hasn't been approached from the perspective of human relationships. It seems to be taking a lot of action based on assumptions and not really engaging people living in their vehicles and why they are living in their vehicles," he said.
"It's not clear to me why we are not addressing a scandalous reality that there are people in this city who have to live in their cars," he said.
If the ordinance were to pass, 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.
Fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to six months would be next. The ordinance would take effect Aug. 26.
"There is a recognition that most of the people are in dire economic circumstances or have mental health problems. If there is another solution, we prefer to do that from a humanistic standpoint," Williams said.
The relationship between Palo Alto's vehicle dwellers, residents and police has triggered controversy in the past.
Joseph (Tony) Ciampi, who lives in his van, was the subject of a resident's complaint in March 2008. Police responded, luring Ciampi from his van and using Tasers on him during a scuffle. He was charged with assaulting the officers.
But Santa Clara County Superior Court Thang Nguyen Barrett ruled in favor of Ciampi in December 2008, saying the officers' actions were "tainted" and that they had trampled on Ciampi's Constitutional rights.
Ciampi still has a lawsuit pending against the city for civil-rights violations related to the case.
"It used to be a capital offense to steal a man's horse in this country, because more often than not a man's survival was dependent upon having a horse. The City of Palo Alto will be stealing my horse through the use of an unconstitutional law," Ciampi said by email Monday when asked about the pending ordinance.
"The lunacy of it is should I be renting a room out of (a) house, as I've done, my vehicle with most of its stuff would be on the street as it is right now. No difference, with the exception of handing over $800 to some property owner."
The College Terrace Residents Association board of directors sees the ordinance as a much-needed form of relief. It voted last week to send the City Council a letter of support, providing the final ordinance is consistent with the current draft.
The neighborhood, bounded by El Camino Real, Stanford Avenue and Page Mill Road, has been plagued for years by people parking their cars long-term and by sanitary problems caused by some vehicle dwellers, residents said.
Neighbors' concerns led to a petition drive in 2010.
Although the city already has a 72-hour parking limit, people who live in or store their cars and vans on the streets simply move them every three days.
The new ordinance would be more effective because it includes parks and pocket parks, board member Fred Balin said.
Board President Brent Barker agreed.
"It's resolving a longstanding problem — one that's been concentrated in College Terrace. It provides a tool for the city that has not been there before," Barker said.
TALK ABOUT IT
Do you think Palo Alto should pass an ordinance prohibiting people from living in their vehicles? Share your opinions on Town Square on Palo Alto Online.