Palo Alto's status as the only city in the area to allow living in vehicles could end on July 25, when the City Council is scheduled to vote on an ordinance to make vehicle dwelling illegal.
The new ordinance, if passed, would make "human habitation of vehicles" a potential misdemeanor, City Attorney Molly Stump said.
Law enforcement can initially enforce the law through education, warnings and referrals to social service agencies, where appropriate.
In serious cases or where there are multiple violations, the ordinance would be enforceable as a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 or county jail time not exceeding six months, or both, she said. The law would take effect Aug. 26.
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.
The ordinance would make it illegal to use, occupy or permit the use of occupancy of any vehicle for human habitation on any street, park, alley, public parking lot or other public way. The temporary use of a vehicle in cases where a motorist must pull over due to sickness or physical inability to operate a vehicle is excluded.
Guests of city residents can also stay in motor homes or campers for up to 48 hours when parked next to a resident's home and persons living in mobile homes in designated mobile-home parks.
But the city does not plan wholesale sweeps to drive vehicle dwellers away, Planning Director Curtis Williams said.
"We won't be out looking for them. Enforcement will be based on complaints," he said.
If the law is passed, officers will provide chronic offenders with an informational brochure during a 30-day warning period. Police will be required to provide referrals to social services, he said. Police could fine offenders and people who persist in breaking the law could be jailed, he said.
"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," he said.
About 200 people are homeless and living on Palo Alto's streets, mostly without vehicles, according to Philip Dah, program director for the Opportunity Center. The center provides services to homeless and formerly homeless clients at its facility on Encina Way.
Dah said he attended one meeting while the ordinance was in its beginning stages but has not coordinated yet with the city on a plan of action.
He said he sympathizes with residents, but has questions about the lack of any alternative plan if the ordinance passes.
"Palo Alto doesn't have a lot of shelters. There is only one -- Hotel de Zink (the rotating emergency shelter at area churches and synagogues) -- that provides shelter for only 15 people.
"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.
"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.
The 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.
The ordinance is "a pretty sweeping action to take," given the small number of people involved. Only about four individuals are known to cause problems such as trash and unsanitary conditions, he said. There are already laws that address voiding in public and dumping trash, and those ordinances should be enforced, he added.
"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.
Schaefer said he fears if the ordinance passes without coming up with an alternative first, the issue will be forgotten.
"What the city is about to do is to say, 'This thing that you are doing to survive is not legal, so stop doing it.' I don't know where that leaves us or them," he said.
The relationship between vehicle dwellers or people sitting in vehicles on Palo Alto streets and residents and police has at times resulted in controversial responses.
In 2005, Gunn High School teacher Albert Hopkins Jr., 60, received a $250,000 settlement from the city after two police officers pulled him from the car in which he was sitting and allegedly beat him and pepper sprayed him on June 13, 2003. He was never charged with a crime and developed knee damage from the attack.
A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge in December 2008 vindicated Joseph Anthony (Tony) Ciampi, then 41, of criminal charges after police lured him from his van and used Tasers on him during a scuffle on March 15, 2008.
Ciampi had not committed a crime but police responded to a resident's complaint that he was living in a van.
Judge Thang Nguyen Barrett called the officers' actions "tainted" and said 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 on 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."
In College Terrace, the neighborhood bounded by El Camino Real, Stanford Avenue and Page Mill Road, long-term car storage and attendant sanitary problems from some vehicle dwellers have been a nagging concern, residents said. Neighbors' concern regarding people living in vehicles within College Terrace spans several years and sparked a neighborhood petition drive in 2010.
The College Terrace Residents Association Board of Directors voted 6-0 on July 6, 2011, to send the City Council a letter of support, providing the final ordinance is consistent with the current draft.
The ordinance differs from the current 72-hour parking limit that has helped reduce chronic parking problems caused by Stanford University visitors and Stanford Research Park employees, board member Fred Balin said.
Vehicle dwellers and those who store vehicles previously skirted the parking ordinance by rotating their cars and vans to different streets. But the new ordinance would close that gap and is more effective because it includes parks and pocket parks, he 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.
The issue extends beyond College Terrace, Community Services Officer Stacy Henderson told the Weekly in a July 30, 2010, story.
"It's near Greer Park, downtown, behind the California Avenue Caltrain station -- you name it, it's all over," she said, adding she marks and checks between 25 to 50 vehicles per week.
The number reflects not only vehicle dwellers but also on-street stored vehicles, she said. At least two vehicle collectors, who do not live in the neighborhoods, have as many as 10 or more vans and autos that are shifted from one parking spot location to another, she said.
The ordinance does not cover such activity, Williams said. But that could change if the new law does not change behavior, he said.
"If it doesn't seem to be enough, we might have to look at additional parking regulations. It doesn't seem to be a big problem in other places," he said.