Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 13, 2013

Palo Alto may put off ban on living in cars

Ordinance should be postponed for a year or more, city manager says

by Sue Dremann

Palo Alto's vehicle-habitation ban should be put on hold for at least a year, according to Palo Alto City Manager James Keene, who stated a related case in the U.S. Court of Appeals may affect the ordinance.

The council in August passed the ordinance prohibiting people from living in their cars, and it became effective Sept. 19. Enforcement was delayed until Feb. 10, 2014, to provide vehicle dwellers with a period of outreach and education.

The ban should be postponed for two reasons, Keene wrote in a memo to the council.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard the case of Cheyenne Desertrain versus the City of Los Angeles, and the justices' decision might further clarify legal requirements governing vehicle-habitation bans.

Some members of the public also have questions regarding the scope of Palo Alto's ordinance, and an additional outreach period would be beneficial, he said. The delay won't cost the city any extra money.

Several residents wrote to the city in support of postponing the ban.

"I've never heard of a vehicle dweller dying of exposure/hypothermia. Given that four homeless people died of exposure last week in Santa Clara County, the City of Palo Alto now has been provided the real world consequences and warning of taking away vehicle dwellers' vehicles," homeless advocate Tony Ciampi wrote.

The council will hear the recommendation at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers, 250 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto.

Carrie Leroy, an attorney for a coalition working to overturn Palo Alto's ban, said the moratorium would be a good step.

"We're very gratified to see the city taking this direction, and we're pleased about what this could actually mean for our clients, some of whom are disabled and are homeless. It's tremendously important to our clients," she said.

It is also the right decision so the city "can avoid a very serious legal and moral mistake," she added.

The Los Angeles case involves 11 plaintiffs, all homeless individuals who have disabilities, who filed a civil-rights complaint against the City of Los Angeles in 2010 regarding the Venice neighborhood's homeless ordinance. The city had enacted a "Streets to Homes" project, which was to offer services to homeless persons. If they did not accept, regardless of whether the services were inappropriate or inadequate, the homeless persons had to leave Venice or face punitive damages, according to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court Central District.

A promised location where people could park off public streets and the services did not materialize, but enforcement of the ban was carried out, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit claimed the city's actions violate several federal and state protections for people with disabilities, and that the enforcement is unconstitutional. It violates the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth amendments against unreasonable search and seizure, right to due process and equal protection under the law.

Several Venice vehicle-code ordinances allow disabled persons to park in any area for any length of time regardless of restrictions. Disabled persons may be prohibited from parking in a location only if the zone absolutely prohibits stopping, parking or standing for all vehicles. Disabled persons are also allowed to park at any metered parking space free of charge.

The Central District Court granted a summary judgment in favor of the City of Los Angeles in November 2011, without hearing the case. The plaintiffs filed an appeal that year. Attorneys argued the appeals case before three judges on Dec. 5.

The oral argument can be heard at www.ca9.uscourts.gov/media/.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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