The city had considered in July a new ordinance that would ban vehicle dwelling and make repeated violations subject to a $1,000 fine and six months jail time. After hearing from concerned homeless advocates and church leaders, staff decided to delay discussions of the new ordinance and to work with the community on alternative ideas.
The proposed ban was prompted by complaints from several neighborhoods, most notably College Terrace. Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, said most of these complaints involve safety and sanitation issues.
Staff said most cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties already ban vehicle dwelling. Palo Alto's proposed ordinance was modeled on those.
Over the past few months, however, staff and members of the Community Cooperation Team, which includes advocates for the homeless, have developed new possible solutions, such as an ordinance similar to the one in Eugene, Ore., where certain churches, businesses and city facilities designate lots for vehicle dwelling.
The Palo Alto City Council's Policy and Services Committee Tuesday, in its first discussion of the controversial issue, was sympathetic to the group's idea. Though the committee didn't vote, members agreed that the city should consider various alternatives to its earlier proposal for a full-on ban.
"We do have a quandary here — we have a mixture of objectives," Councilman Pat Burt said. "We want to continue to be a safe community, and we want to continue to not just have compassion but to have programs that have people move out of difficult circumstances to the degree that we're able."
Burt called the Eugene model a positive one, particularly if commercial properties benefit from their arrangement with the vehicle dwellers. Councilman Larry Klein also said he would like staff to further consider the Eugene model. But he said another option on the table should be the "no action" alternative — doing nothing at all.
"Maybe we were better off before we started poking around with this problem," Klein said.
Klein also had major reservations about allowing city facilities to be used as designated sites for vehicle dwellers. He said he would not support use of city facilities, arguing that this would create a significant bureaucratic process.
Councilwoman Karen Holman agreed with Klein that the solution should not involve city facilities. She and Councilwoman Gail Price also advocated getting the city's Human Relations Commission involved in this issue.
Williams said staff plans to hold more meetings with the community group over the next month and a half and then hold a public hearing before returning to the council in February with specific proposals.
"There has been a very positive approach on everyone's part to try to work together, try to come up with, first, some direction for an approach to provide an alternative," Williams said of the community group. "Then, if we need to regulate, how do we do that in a way that does not criminalize those who aren't causing a problem?"
Williams said Palo Alto's homeless residents are homeless for many different reasons. Some suffer from mental problems, while others are victims of the nation's economic slump.
"There are certainly those that we heard from who a few years ago had jobs and homes, and this wasn't an issue. And now they lost their jobs, and they're in financial straits," Williams said. "There are others who find that while they're homeless, living in a vehicle is a more secure environment for them than living out of the vehicle."
Fred Smith spoke to the committee Tuesday, saying he was forced to live in an RV after he lost his job as a software engineer. Smith said he's now living off Social Security payments and looking for work. So far, however, he's had no luck in finding any.
"This is the only place I have to live," Smith said. "It's like I'm being punished for being out of work and trying to survive."
Complaints about vehicle dwellers making a mess are exaggerations, Smith said.
"I don't enjoy living in a vehicle. I want to get out of this as soon as I can," he added. "Please do something that doesn't hurt us."