Voicing compassion and a desire for both sides to find an alternative to a proposed vehicle-habitation ban, Palo Alto's vehicle dwellers and city residents sought common ground and understanding at a meeting Thursday night.
The community meeting attracted more than 50 people to University Church on Stanford Avenue and was organized by the City of Palo Alto and the Community Cooperation Team.
The two-hour meeting offered both sides an opportunity to learn about each other and brainstorm on alternatives to an ordinance to ban vehicle habitation.
Proposed ideas included giving vehicle dwellers permits to stay in private parking lots at churches, allowing three campers in city and private lots or overnight vehicle camping in the public lot across from the downtown post office at Waverley Street and Hamilton Avenue.
Residents and the vehicle dwellers agreed that having a single lot for an estimated 25 to 50 campers would invite fighting, but smaller numbers of vehicle dwellers at different locations where they could feel safe could be a better solution.
Rick Toker, a member of the Community Cooperation Team, said the multiple, smaller-venue solution was successfully initiated in Eugene, Ore., and has been adopted in Santa Barbara and Venice, Calif. No more than three people are allowed at any site and they are carefully screened for drugs and criminal backgrounds, he said. The City of Eugene saved $200,000 per year in law-enforcement costs, he said.
Stanford University student Marie Baylon, who is working with the Community Cooperation Team, said the Oregon program is run by a social services agency, which acts as first responder to support vehicle dwellers in any crisis.
Others addressed the fear that anything less than a ban would make Palo Alto a magnet for homeless persons. Palo Alto is the only remaining local city without a vehicle habitation ban, according to the city attorney's office.
"That other cities have and ordinance and Palo Alto doesn't by virtue mean that Palo Alto would be a magnet," said Chuck Jagoda, a vehicle dweller and former teacher. Palo Alto has already been surrounded by cities with ordinances for many years, he added.
"If this magnetism were so ... why aren't all the people on the Peninsula making tracks to Palo Alto? I don't see that happening," he said. "It's not that Palo Alto is a magnet. It can be a model," he said.
Some residents said they feel compassion for the homeless but have also been the victims of frightening and sometimes illegal behaviors by persons living in front of their homes.
Stephan Tomlinson and Harris Barton, who both live near Addison Elementary School, said a man who parks his van near their homes has verbally assaulted their children, ages 6, 8 and 10, and the children were brought back to their homes in tears.
"I fear in some cases for my children's safety," Tomlinson said.
Joy Ogawa said a vehicle dweller threw a rock through her window after asking the man not to use her outside water faucet. The hit-and-run nature of misbehaving dwellers makes it difficult to catch persons who commit illegal acts, since they have no fixed residence and can just drive away, she said.
"We have to give the police department more tools in their tool box. There's going to be an issue. Somebody's child is going to disappear; somebody's wife is going to be attacked. I don't care what you say."
But Laura McClellan, a Barron Park resident, said those fears prey on stereotypes of the homeless.
"When I was in high school my friend was pulled into a house and raped for three day by a Palo Alto house person. … To condemn an entire group of people is wrong," she said.
In College Terrace, where residents have been tolerant of vehicle dwellers in the neighborhood for decades, Doria Summa said she asked the city to deal with one or two people who are storing multiple vans just outside of the residential parking-permit zone.
The city's College Terrace permit-parking program doesn't allow anyone to park for more than two hours without a permit. But at least one man has 11 vehicles he stores – and rotates every 72 hours – in front of homes and adjacent to businesses in the neighborhood-commercial zone within the first block off El Camino Real, she said.
"It's a stored-vehicle issue in my mind and not about people," she said.
Summa said the solution to the College Terrace problem lies in strengthening the 72-hour ordinance "and give it real teeth."
Vehicle dwellers said this is the real problem. Most try to stay out of neighborhoods, but the few who insist on creating problems should be dealt with through existing laws, they said.
"I am sorry you have had these problems," vehicle dweller Bruce Kenyon said, addressing Tomlinson.
"When people overstep the boundaries and cause trouble to other people, society enacts a law, whether it is effective or not.
"The ban) will only force me top bet out of my car and sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag," said Kenyon, who lost his job and now sleeps in his vehicle in a private parking lot. "Punish the people who are doing these atrocities."
Deborah Baldwin, a Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood resident, said her son has a mental illness and is living in his car. "His biggest crime is traffic tickets," she said.
Palo Alto doesn't offer adequate services that address the underlying causes of homelessness and mental illness, she said.
"There are not wrap-around services. Mentally ill people have so many issues. We were told to have him be homeless in Redwood City," where he could receive mental health housing, she said.
Baldwin said any solution "shouldn't be police-based.
"Why do we have to tax them or fine them, just because they're trying to be in the one place where they feel safe?" she said.
Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, said another community meeting would be held in about four to six weeks to consider the alternatives. A plan would then go to the Policy and Services committee for recommendation to the Palo Alto City Council.