City officials are likewise not offering public land as a place for vehicle dwellers to park overnight, Curtis Williams, director of planning and community environment, told about 40 people at a community meeting Tuesday night, June 26.
He said the city had hoped to start a pilot program with at least three churches, but out of seven that responded, only one offered. About three cars would be allowed to stay in a church or business parking lot, but restroom facilities would also be needed, he said.
First Presbyterian Church on Cowper Street was the only church that agreed to host the campers. But Rus Kosits, a pastoral resident, said the number and tenor of negative emails he received took him aback.
"I was shocked at the level of vitriol and trumped-up concerns," he said. He was concerned that other churches might not want to participate out of fear of similar reactions.
Eileen Altman, pastor at the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto on Louis Road, said her church said "no" to the pilot but would be interested in participating in a permanent program. Providing a portable toilet for the pilot program could be a problem.
Kosits chided the churches for their poor or tentative responses.
"We are waiting with our 'Yes, what's next?' rather than a 'No, I'm not sure,'" he said.
The parking-lot plan would allow persons to sleep overnight in cars, campers or trailers in a church parking lot with the following provisions:
* Written permission of the owner.
* No more than three vehicles at any one time.
* Each vehicle would be parked no closer than 20 feet from residential property.
* The vehicles must have valid licenses and registration.
* The property owner has sole control over the parking and must furnish vehicle owners with guidelines.
* Bathrooms must be made available.
* Parking must be free.
* The Downtown Streets Team would provide limited security.
Williams said the city also reached out to businesses through the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Business Improvement District but received no responses.
The City Council's Policy and Services Committee also did not want city properties involved. There could be costs associated with the plan, and the committee did not want to add new expenses with current budget constraints, he said.
City staff plan to make a recommendation to the Policy and Services Committee regarding the issue July 10, he said.
In addition to the parking-lot concept, Williams presented three other options: restrictions on overnight parking, such as a ban from 2 to 5 a.m.; a previously proposed ordinance prohibiting vehicle habitation on public streets or at public sites; or no change in regulations but adding social-services outreach.
The issue of people living in their cars came to a head after one man parked several vans in the College Terrace neighborhood long term. Irritation over that situation led others to voice complaints of public urination and other problems caused by people living in their cars. But many car campers said the problems are created by only a handful of troublemakers.
In response, the city last year proposed a ban on living in vehicles. Palo Alto is the only local city without such an ordinance, Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin has said. People who live in their cars and advocates for the homeless quickly criticized the proposed ordinance and have sought alternate measures, including the parking-lot plan and working with police to identify troublemakers.
The Downtown Streets Team, a Palo Alto nonprofit organization that employs formerly homeless people, has offered to supply the outreach for either the parking-lot program or as part of the social-services alternative.
Chris Richardson of the Downtown Streets Team said parking-lot programs in Eugene, Ore., and Ventura, Calif., have been effective. Forty-two percent of people who lived in their cars entered transitional or permanent housing in Ventura.
Former deputy public defender Aram James said an ordinance that would fine car campers would cause greater costs than just to the homeless. Enforcement is costly to the district attorney's office and the Department of Corrections.
Attorney Joy Ogawa recommended Palo Alto adopt a no-overnight-parking ordinance similar to Menlo Park's. She herself had a run-in with a homeless man, resulting in a rock crashing through her window, and voiced dismay over the lack of a resolution of the car-camping problem.
In 2008, city officials said an ordinance would be brought to the council by that December.
"I just think the city has to take responsibility and do something," she said.
Palo Alto attorney Owen Byrd said the poor showing of the 42 churches can't be blamed on city efforts. To get people engaged takes multiple attempts, and a city staff with limited resources can't be expected to do all of the work, he said. He encouraged people to become engaged.
Williams agreed it would take public effort to make the parking-lot program happen.
"If something stimulates that extra effort, we'd love to see it work. If there isn't enough interest in it, we don't have the resources to do it on our own," he said after the meeting.
Williams said he would probably give churches and businesses more time to volunteer for the parking-lot pilot program before shelving the idea.
"I can't see it being longer than six months. At some point in time you have to make the call," he said.
Absent support for the parking-lot option, city staff would probably favor the social-services option, he said.