Editorial: Breathing room for car dwellers | News | Palo Alto Online |


Editorial: Breathing room for car dwellers

Palo Alto wisely delays consideration of ordinance banning sleeping in cars to allow time for more outreach, discussion

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Surprised by the intensity of the negative reaction from some segments of the faith community and others grappling with the problems of the homeless, City Manager Jim Keene spared the City Council and the community a long and emotional meeting next Monday night by putting off the issue of car dwelling until September.

City officials had quietly drafted an ordinance responding to long-standing complaints from residents of College Terrace and others who are fed up with people who have taken up residence in their vehicles. Since most cities have similar laws banning sleeping in cars and the proposed Palo Alto ordinance would emphasize helping not punishing car dwellers, staff assumed there would be little controversy.

Planning Director Curtis Williams noted that police would not conduct neighborhood sweeps looking for homeless car dwellers, but would respond only to complaints and would distribute information on homeless services to those contacted by officers.

But some church leaders and homeless advocates were not satisfied, and after nearly a dozen opponents of the ordinance appeared at last Monday's council meeting urging the city to rethink the plan, officials decided to put off consideration until September.

The city's challenge is to equip its police force with the power to remove problem car dwellers from residential neighborhoods, but also to be sensitive to the fact that these people are struggling in a difficult economy and may have few options.

We strongly believe that an ordinance is needed. It is not appropriate, fair or safe to openly permit people to live in their vehicles in a manner that affects other residents of the community. While the streets are public and residents have no unique rights to the parking spaces in front of their homes, it really serves no one's interest to allow people to live in their cars in our neighborhoods.

Some have even urged that the city, either on its own or through joint efforts with neighboring communities, designate a safe venue for people to live in a vehicle as long as they obey the law.

The extent of this problem is unknown, and that alone is a good reason to delay consideration of the issue until the fall. The city should have a better inventory and assessment of the problem so that the debate over what to do can be based on real data.

Those residing in vehicles range from those who are homeless and have no other place to stay to those who are using campers as a way to avoid the region's high housing costs and/or long commutes. It's not yet clear to us whether one policy can address both circumstances.

Regardless, the city must deal with concerns like those raised in College Terrace, where residents say long-term parkers and vehicle dwellers, including some using lawns and gardens as bathrooms, have plagued them for years. It was a College Terrace petition drive last year that brought the car-dwelling problems into focus, appropriately so.

A person living in a car with no running water or sanitary facilities presents a frightening experience to children and impacts the quality of life in the neighborhood, and the city has a duty to address the problem.

For those writing a new city ordinance, the difficulty will come in addressing persons who are otherwise well-behaved but have fallen on hard times. It does not improve matters for the city to take away a person's ability to live independently and throw them onto the street.

Philip Dah, program director at the nonprofit Opportunity Center, believes the city can find a way to make that happen.

"A lot of clients who own vehicles and live in them are long-term Palo Alto residents or have lived here long-term and for one reason or another are homeless. Their vehicles are the only place they have to stay," Dah told the Weekly. "If a park can be available, with police patrols and some supervision, they could call that place home," he said.

Another homeless advocate, Rev. Greg Schaefer, minister of the Episcopal Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford in College Terrace, a strong opponent of the proposed ordinance, suggests that the city has only about four problem individuals, whose issues could be addressed by existing law.

As city officials pause to allow for wider discussion of the car-dwelling ordinance, they will need to:

■ Determine the extent of the problem;

■ Consult with persons living in vehicles to get their opinion about how the city can accomplish its objectives without criminalizing persons who are simply doing their best to survive on limited resources;

■ Determine the feasibility of establishing a system to provide safe, temporary alternatives;

■ Reach out to nearby cities and determine if a regional approach might benefit all the cities.

Palo Alto is a compassionate city with a long history of services to the poor. But residents have every right to neighborhoods free of car dwellers. An ordinance similar to what other cities have is needed, but in designing it let's make sure its goals are achieved in a way that respects and supports those it affects.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


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Posted by lol
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm

"Planning Director Curtis Williams noted that police would not conduct neighborhood sweeps looking for homeless car dwellers, but would respond only to complaints and would distribute information on homeless services to those contacted by officers."

So...the council wants to introduce an ordinance that makes sleeping in a car punishable by $1,000 and 6 months in jail but is instructing officers only to contact anyone reported and distribute information on homeless services.

CT is already petitioning for this. Given their history, does anyone not believe they are just going to police their own neighborhood and report anyone sitting in a car after the curfew?

The whole ordinance is a joke. CT isn't going to be happy with officers simply passing out information. And, if there is ever a conviction, it will be tested on appeal and will fail. It's a waste of time.

CT should just drop this demand and extend their parking permit program to be 24 hours and suck up the corresponding cost. But they don't want to pay for it. Heck, they can't even afford their current program and need to get the city to subsidize it.
This whole demand is simply CT's way of getting the city to pay to stop non-CT residents from parking in CT.

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Posted by SOSA Business Owner
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 22, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Someone living in a car is SIGNIFICANTLY different than someone parking a full size RV mobile home in front of your business.

As a business and properly owner in the South of San Antonio Road pocket, I urge the PAPD to drive up and down Transit, Commercial and Industrial streets and count the number of RV Motor homes that have taken up semi-permanent residence.

At last count there were at least 6 of these behemoths parked here. Some even have the nerve to place orange traffic cones around their mobile residence to make sure that none of the local businesses use their curbside parking spots.


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Posted by Mrs. P.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 3:12 pm

John Boulware Park is a wonderful, small park where many of the neighborhood children play. Some play without parental supervision. Today there are four run down vehicles parked just a few feet from the park. Some days there are more. Various residents and business owners have contacted the City and the Police Department about this situation. Some of the people living in these vehicles are scary and aggressive. At one point, we witnessed the police handcuffing one of occupants. We thought the vehicles would finally be gone but that wasn't the case. This is a dangerous situation to have people living in vehicles next to a park where children play. It's just a matter of time before something happens. The City needs to deal with this situation ASAP!

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Posted by Malcolm
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 22, 2011 at 3:56 pm

There are at least 10 vehicles permanently parked within three blocks of my home. The owner of six of them keeps an index card with the time they were last moved, and he moves them just far enough when needed to not violate the parking law. They are rusted and run down. This morning one was powered with a gas generator. Would you want these vans parked in front of your home?

Of course our community should do all it can to help those who are down on their luck. But parking in front of somebody's home is not a good solution.

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Posted by TourThem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Malcolm, would you be willing to post the streets that these cars mostly park on? My spouse was curious about this situation so we had a mini tour of CT last night to check some of them out. I regularly see some on ECR & in front of Jack in the Box and Panda Express.

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Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2011 at 6:47 am

Perhaps those who are opposed to people sleeping in their cars better get organized. I was at City Hall last Monday night there were at least 7 or 8 car dwellers who got up and spoke at oral communications in favor of allowing people to sleep in their cars. If you're opposed to people sleeping in their cars you better get organized and get a group together to speak out.

I read that College Terrace is getting a petition together. I've seen petitions presented to council and they've been ignored. You need to get more people at City Hall speaking out opposing car dwelling than those speaking in favor. In the past I've seen council members keeping a tally of those in support and those opposed to an item, and vote accordingly.

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 24, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Take a drive-by at night through the parking lots of the Main Library and covered areas. Do it in the daytime too. Also note how many are sleeping under the bushes. A few years ago one transient disconnected the outside lights because it disturbed his sleep!!

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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 24, 2011 at 10:11 pm

Does anyone remember when many of them lived in the SF Creek? For all I know, they still do. Of course, back in the day, we called them bums. We'd leave the nice ones nonperishable food items.

Some years ago, one to used my hose for water. He had 2 jobs, & I think slept in his car. Because he worked for a friend of mine, I was tolerant of him & knew he was harmless & he'd even water my plants. But then he began forgetting to turn it off, which nearly gave the landlady apoplexy when she got that water bill. I was traveling a lot on business, so not around to monitor.

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Posted by lib
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm

To those objecting to RVs, I believe all Walmarts allow them to park in their parking lots overnight. Just let the people know. I'm sure they'd prefer not to be hassled.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 26, 2011 at 9:45 am

"Oh please" made a very valid point on another thread - residents of Palo Alto should be able to feel welcome in their own city and their own homes and businesses. If I have someone hassling me as I walk downtown, living in their vehicle in front of my house, using my yard as a latrine, sleeping in the park my children play in, "showering" in the library, how can I feel welcome and comfortable in the place I live?

If church leaders feel strongly that people should be allowed to live in their vehicles, please open your church parking lots to them and have the police direct them there. Start a fund for the support of the security and sanitary facilities that would be needed. I would be happy to contribute to a safe, sanitary solution to people living in cars.

Please don't call me selfish because I want to be able to walk down the streets of my own town without being yelled at or asked for money. Or that I want my kids to play in their own front yard without someone staring out the car/home windows at them. Or that my kids can go to the park without being harrassed by the guys sleeping on the bench that they are making too much noise. And no - I don't consider a homeless person a resident.

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Posted by anon
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 26, 2011 at 11:27 am

To 'Palo Alto Mom' -

I know a guy who lives in his van. He has done some study of Freudian psychoanalysis. You could ask him to park on your street so you will have someone to talk to.

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Posted by Lee Thé
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 27, 2011 at 11:16 am

People living in their cars here are not Palo Alto residents by any sane definition of the term "resident." Moreover, at least a third of such folk are mentally ill, hence a potential danger to themselves and others.

Those who want to welcome these people to Palo Alto are welcome to offer up their own homes and driveways and bathrooms to such people. But they have no right to impose these people on the rest of us.

Note that in cities offering shelters to street people, many refuse to use them because it interferes with their drinking/recreational drug use.

I don't have the right to degrade the quality of life for my neighbors, for example by converting my residence into a 24 hour massage parlor. This is no different.

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Posted by Live in my vehicle
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 27, 2011 at 1:21 pm

To Mrs P.
I'm one of those currently near John Boulware Park (50 yards away).
I've been a resident of Palo Alto for 35 years. I'm a laid off software engineer. College educated. No criminal record. Safe and sane. I know the people currently parked there. None of them are scary, aggressive or dangerous. We actually are educated nice safe people who are just down on our luck but trying to survive and better ourselves as best we can. You imply we will hurt the children who play in the park. Not true. I'm a father too. The economy is very bad. I am looking for work. I just get by living on social security. Without a job I can't afford to live anywhere in a fixed residence. Yes, my vehicle is old. It was the only thing I could afford when I lost my apartment. Once the economy turns around and I get work again I will be back renting. In my 35 years in Palo Alto I've paid well over a half million in rent. I am and have been a resident of Palo Alto most of my life. ... liveinpaloaltoinvehicle@yahoo.com

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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 27, 2011 at 11:59 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Not Buying It
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 28, 2011 at 2:39 am

Re posting by "Live in my vehicle": there is no reason that a mentally healthy and educated person should be living in a car. People should not live in Palo Alto if they cannot save any money for emergency living. There are plenty of lower end jobs out there. In-N-Out Burgers even pays $10.50/hour. Spare us the sob story and get a job. The longer one is out of work, the worse their resume quality. I have more respect for someone who takes a low-end job and explains that it was a necessity than someone who stays unemployed for a long period of time. If it's embarassing to be seen in a lower level job, get a job in a city elsewhere. In addition, the longer one stays unemployed, the easier it is to fall into a rut and stay unemployed.

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Posted by Live in my vehicle
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2011 at 9:18 am

To Not Buying It ...
Four years of medical bills for my wife wiped out savings. I just want to be left alone to get my life back together. Read the proposed ordinance, people like you want to put me in jail or have me disappear from view. The help you propose, like jail or getting a minimum wage job are no help. I'm going to get a software engineering job again.

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Posted by anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2011 at 12:12 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Joanna
a resident of Southgate
on Jul 28, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Lee The,

You are spot on! Your competency is light years above those who are criticizing you. Thank you for your truthful and wise post.

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Posted by Not Buying It
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 28, 2011 at 8:09 pm

At one point, for several years while unmarried, I had three jobs: office day job, waitressing in the evenings, and on weekends, waitressing and retail.

In this economy there are many unemployed yet they do not live in their cars. They are securing other jobs to pay the bills while they continue to look for more ideal employment. They are moving out of Palo Alto to cities with lower rent. This is common sense, not rocket science. Minimum wage is $7.25/hour. Surely, anyone can work while continuing to look for another job. Bottom line: this is America, full of opportunities. Some people are too lazy to get a job; get over yourselves. Immigrants are grateful while many Americans are complacent. Don't wait for that silver platter; no one's going to hand it to you.

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Posted by Go Live Elsewhere
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 29, 2011 at 12:55 am

Ditto to Lee The's and Not Buying It's postings. Palo Alto is one of the most expensive cities. These people can go elsewhere where they can afford rent or a motel room. How is it that so many uneducated immigrants can afford to live in CA yet "educated" people are living in their autos? Pride. These auto dwellers have too much pride to accept blue collar jobs. We can't help the helpless.

"Live in my vehicle" has too much pride to live elsewhere or to settle for a less desireable job, as noted in his postings. His pride is glaringly obvious by his email address. He's waiting for a handout.

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Posted by Ya Otta Try Living in Mexico
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2011 at 1:07 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

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Posted by Health Costs Are High
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2011 at 1:21 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

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Posted by Not Buying It
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 29, 2011 at 8:33 am

" Another homeless advocate, Rev. Greg Schaefer, minister of the Episcopal Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford in College Terrace. . ."

Live in my vehicle: Here's the address of Rev. Schaefer's church. They should welcome you to park in their church parking lot and use the restroom. Helping others is the basis of Christianity. Tell your colleague car dwellers the address too. This will alleviate the frustration of College Terrace residents while helping car dwellers.

1611 Stanford Ave., Palo Alto, 94306

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Posted by Edgarpoet
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm

re: go live elsewhere
You are a staunch hypocrite, The last I remember, Palo Alto is in the United States of America, and the constitution gives me the right
to life, liberty and the pursuit of Happieness, who the hell are you to tell me where I can reside? I am a resident, I spend my Social Security check in Palo Alto, so I help YOUR ECONOMY here, I am a well educated man whom was put out of work at age 59. Just because this has not happened to a good portion of you Bigots who comment on this site, you can hide behind your computers and write ignorant opinions about people you do not even know.
I am homeless, sleeping in my car and tried to get employment for
over a year. Nobody will hire me because my hair turned white.
You bigots need to see the other side of the coin. As for the comment by lee The: that one third of the car dwellers are mentally ill, Did you do a survey of the homeless? if not what entiles you to make such ASSUMPTION? and aren't you one of the 100,000 Asians who brought parents here to live on social security they NEVER worked for?
When your faucet leaks, Hire me to repair it! I charge a living wage
of $32.00 per hour (so I won't have to live in my car any more)
Enough said?

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Posted by James
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2011 at 4:52 pm

I have just read the story and some of the comments afterward, at 51 years of age I have been completely disabled physically 7 years, partially disabled for 16 years, and still worked. I get a big check from SSI for $674 a month. My auto insurance is $120 a month, I have to keep full coverage not because it is financed, its paid for. It is because I can't afford to replace it if it gets totaled, and is 8 years old now. I am one of the LUCKY ones, I have a RV to sleep in and a truck to drive when I physically can, and yes my injuries are that bad, some days I can't physically get out of bed for very long, it cost $450 to park my RV in a RV park and that includes all utilities except propane I use for cooking. I also get $105 in food stamps and it helps a lot, actually I couldn't eat without them. I have a $104 a month left to buy fuel, do maintenance on RV and Truck, buy personal hygene products, can't buy new clothes, pay for entertainment, have a social life or anything else. My computer is on free wifi and is basically my major entertainment, and my cell phone is $30 a mth also prepaid, remember I am one of the lucky ones, not a drunk, no drug use and lucky that I had the funds at the time and the insight to purchase a place to stay (my RV). its nothing fancy is just a old bus set up to live in, but I see others in my shape of disability living everywhere park benches, overpasses, under bridges, and in the woods, some have tents even, and yes I am a Veteran also. I am not looking for sympathy or handouts at least I have a place out of the weather and secure to sleep in, and to think I spent the $5500 I had to buy this old bus and call it home. If I had the $450 I spend on a place to park my RV I could do a whole lot more living and eat better as well, but then I would be bothered by people here, the do gooders, SOCIETY that wants to call me a vagrant, a undesireable and the cause of my injuries was while working not out doing something stupid or playing. Just REMEMBER I could be YOU, can you make it 7 years with no paycheck, and not able to work. PROBABLY NOT would be my guess.

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