by George Mills
Our city is grappling with how best to treat residents who have only their cars to sleep in. One proposal from the City Council called for willing faith communities to host a few "vehicle dwellers" in their respective parking lots for a three-month pilot project. Recently that proposal was dropped. In its place a new proposal is up for consideration at the Aug. 5 City Council meeting that would ban all vehicle dwelling in the city.
Palo Alto Friends Meeting, a Quaker congregation, was interested in the pilot proposal and explored whether to participate. We met with city staff and residents in our neighborhood, and attended council hearings. We offer reflections here on things we have learned and on why we strongly oppose a city-wide ban on vehicle dwelling.
Learning No. 1: Many people have deep-seated, visceral fears of even the idea of "unknown homeless people" in their neighborhoods. It is natural to feel protective fear when the safety of home or children is thought to be at risk. But our congregation has had a very positive experience hosting the Hotel de Zink homeless shelter every December for over 15 years without serious incidents or complaints, so the risks of having vehicle dwellers in our parking lot, while real, seemed quite manageable to us.
In the end, however, we reluctantly decided not to host vehicle dwellers at Friends Meeting, at least not for now. We felt we could not disrespect the deep fears of a number of our neighbors, even though we thought and still think it could work.
Learning No. 2: Options for people who currently resort to living in their cars are woefully inadequate. Waiting times for temporary shelter are weeks or months, and for long term housing, years. If vehicle dwelling is banned, even with increased "outreach," many of these residents will end up on our streets without shelter, probably creating more problems than if they lived in their cars.
Learning No. 3: Palo Alto is full of compassionate people. Even opponents of hosting at our site praised our "good intentions." We have met many engaged, compassionate neighbors, city staff and social service workers while exploring this issue. Twenty-three of 25 public speakers at the June 25 hearing passionately urged the council to help vehicle residents, not to ban them.
Learning No. 4: The Palo Alto municipal code explicitly protects people from discrimination based on housing status:
Section 9.73.010(b): Freedom from Arbitrary Discrimination. It is the policy of the city of Palo Alto to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of every person to be free from arbitrary discrimination on the basis of their race, skin color, gender, ... housing status,..., weight or height.
Learning No 5: Virtually all rationales we have heard for banning vehicle dwelling stem from concerns about perceived characteristics of homeless people in general, not about harm caused by vehicle dwelling itself. As evidence, consider that the draft ban is specifically crafted to exempt guests of residents, who are (we imagine) not homeless but "just visiting." Also, recent hearings on vehicle dwelling have been dominated by discussion of the "homeless encampment" at Cubberley Community Center, where only a fraction of those encamped live in cars. Clearly this discussion has been all about homelessness, not vehicles.
We at Friends Meeting conclude that the proposed ban on vehicle dwelling amounts to arbitrary discrimination based on housing status and, as such, appears inconsistent with municipal code section 9.73.010(b). It is discrimination because it is homelessness that defines the category of vehicle dwellers who are considered "problematic" (remember, "guests" are exempted). It is arbitrary because the banned behavior is not in itself harmful and does not necessarily result in the behaviors most often cited as reasons for the ban.
Specific behaviors such as urination, drugs, assault, and so on are already prohibited by Title 9 of the municipal code or by state law. It is discriminatory to take away a right from all people in a class (the homeless) simply because a few of them may commit unrelated, already-prohibited behaviors.
Palo Alto can do better. We support the positive steps recommended in the city staff report of June 25 for increased outreach and referral (though referral isn't of much use if there are inadequate services to refer people to, so gaps in these services need to be addressed as well).
We are also encouraged by the number of Palo Alto residents who are conscientiously searching for ways to contribute personally to solutions rather than passing the problem off to others.
We recognize that reasonable, thoughtful people might not reach all the same conclusions we have. We leave you with some questions for self-reflection (we call them "queries") that we are using to guide our own participation in this public dialogue:
Query No. 1: Am I honest and straightforward when presenting my views on vehicle dwelling? Do I listen to others with interest and respect? Do I seek understanding and solutions, rather than victory?
Query No. 2: Are my views based on objective knowledge and experience? Do I recognize and try to limit any prejudice or excessive fear I may have?
Query No. 3: Do I understand what it is like to be without a home? Can I imagine myself in that situation? ("I never thought it could happen to me.")
Query No. 4: Do I understand what social service options are and are not realistically available to residents in financial distress who have lost, or may lose, their housing?
With heart, reflection and dialogue, Palo Altans working together can find solutions for our city that are better than the ban. Please share your ideas with the City Council by Monday, Aug. 5.